Continue for a PhD? Is It for Me?

phd motivation

I don’t want to do it over 4-5 years though. Source

There were times when I plan to really finish this post. I see this post as a way to make sense (or to convince myself) of doing Ph.D. But, apparently I hadn’t know much at that time to write a concise and convincing story. And, because I finished my master thesis (finally!), I might be able to write it now. Here goes!

Two years ago, I went to a workshop about how it feels like to be a Ph.D. A Ph.D. is basically a graduate student who is paid to do research for (a minimum of) four years. Some countries, such as UK, see Ph.D. candidates as students (with obligatory courses, tuition fees, and such). But, in the Netherlands, Ph.D. candidates are viewed as an employee. There are regulation differences per-countries and per-universities, so I will only write how things are in Wageningen UR, my current campus.

There are several ways one can become a Ph.D. candidates in Wageningen UR. Two of the most common ones (at least the one that I observed) are either employed by the university, or as a guest researcher with their own funding sources. This differ by the origin of their funding, and resulted in both the freedom to choose thesis topics, and their obligations during the research. My supervisor told me that a Ph.D. employed by WUR is obliged to take part in the education activity (75-25%), either by taking a student (or two) for thesis, or by participating in practical course. All Ph.D. students must publish at least four papers during their education regardless of their funding, however.

From that workshop, I also got a glimpse of how the four years of a Ph.D. are divided. The first year is the writing and getting-lost-in-the-lab phase. “It’s okay if you haven’t got the result yet in this period,” the facilitator of the workshop remarked. This will then followed with the go-no go moment at approximately 18th month. “The student and his promoter will sit down and discuss things. If, up to this point, the student hasn’t come up with results yet, other possibilities of doing research will be discussed, including dropping of the project altogether.” After the first year passed (assuming the project is continued), the Ph.D. student enter the second and third year. These years are usually the most productive years in terms of collecting data and writing papers. Finally the fourth year in usually reserved for polishing up some results and preparing for final defense.

These four years seemed to be quite a challenge, so there must be something out of it, right? Not really, according to Ph.D. Comic web comic. Becoming a Ph.D. student is a surefire way to get trapped in academia, or even jobless. It seems that Ph.D. graduates have little chance to be admitted in “real-life jobs” because of over-qualification. Tenure track, or the possibility to be permanently employed by university, is also viewed as an out-of-reach dream, since there are too few position to be filled; such position is open only if “someone is dead”, one character remarked.

I had a good, long talk with my former thesis supervisor about this. In his opinion, a Ph.D. graduate can also work in a company, not only in academia. In fact, Ph.D. degree makes a very strong consideration for working in R&D-based position. Granted, it is dependent on the available position. However, he remarked, having a Ph.D. degree is an evidence that the person has commitments and experienced setbacks during his (minimum of) four years doing research.

Curiously enough, I heard a lot of dark stories about setbacks in Ph.D. Back in the Ph.D. workshop, the facilitator told a story about his former student who dropped out. “There is no other way,” he quoted the student, “I really need to get out and do something else.” Some Ph.D. friends I know complain about result not matching initial hypothesis, or some Murphy’s law case which resulted in delayed time schedule. “Graduating in four year is a myth” is a recurring theme I heard a lot (and my thesis supervisor strongly argue against it).

That is why, strong motivation is necessary for doing a Ph.D. It should not come from the money, because, “The pay is not worth it,” one Ph.D. student remarked. Basically, the passion for doing science in the chosen field is the kind of motivation needed to do (and to actually complete) a Ph.D. “If you cannot bring yourself to like the subject, I advise you against doing it in the first place,” said my thesis supervisor.Persistence and critical thinking are also a must in Ph.D. student.  These traits translate as the willingness to redo the experiments to see whether the initial findings are consistent. “I personally find a student with these traits to be my Ph.D.,” he admitted. In addition, the student needs to be able to withstand long reading hours as well as high-stressful environment. being able to operate certain software for aiding the research will help tremendously as well, tipped a friend of mine.

However, even the most determined Ph.D. student will enter a “valley of despair” eventually. This is a metaphor of a period where everything seems to not working. In this time, it would be nice for the student to have a hobby unrelated to his thesis. “I have the license to fly a small plane,” the facilitator given an example. This hobby serves as distraction from the failure and the desire to quit, at least until the motivation regrow itself. “Ph.D. is a lonely job,” the facilitator concluded. “The only person that can pick you up is yourself.”

This recurrence of “strong motivation” necessity implies that the student must have everything planned for the very beginning. It frightens me, especially because I haven’t got clue yet on what to focus on. “Clear goal is important,” said my thesis supervisor, “but most of the findings in science is based on serendipity.” He showed an example of his former Ph.D. student, in which out of four published papers during her Ph.D., only one was “planned”. “After all, a Ph.D. is considered to be a researcher-in-training. That’s why you still have supervisor,” my thesis supervisor concluded. “After you get your Ph.D. degree, then you are expected to be independent.”

This idealistic goal is also what demotivates students in the later stage of their Ph.D. At the beginning, they expect to solve one of the world’s problem with their thesis. But later on, the result is all that matter, and it might have no direct application or can immediately solves a problem. For this, the role of conference come into play. Illustrated nicely in PhD Movie 2, the conference is (or should be) a venue where lots of researchers exchange ideas and formulizing collaborations. I am a true believer in collaboration myself; I asked a lot during my master thesis, and managed to get a good enough explanation for the results I obtained.

So, back to the title. Is it for me? I think so. I have proven myself during master thesis that I got a dogged persistence and critical thinking. I was also motivated to finish the thesis in the best way possible. What my thesis supervisor thinks I can improve is the control of my research. I agreed that, especially during the latter half of my master thesis, I tend to do what people say I should do, and that was compromising towards my final report. Of course, to have a clear idea on what to do, I need to know what question I need to answer first. Hopefully I can figure it out during my soon-to-begin internship period. Good luck, me!

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