To be or not to be a PhD?


The application season for graduate schools has arrived. I was quite excited that it’s time to finally get out of the class mode of learning to the research mode. Or so I thought. As soon as I decided to pursue a PhD, there was an abrupt rise in the number of facebook posts, email messages and news around me documenting the horrible life of a PhD student and beyond.

Personally, I was quite convinced research is the way to go because I love spending hours in a lab, often continuously pouring over a microscope as one of my previous posts will testify. But as the number of demotivating links started piling up, I thought of exploring this topic a little more.

The biggest concern seems to be that once you get a PhD you have no job prospect (“The job you want has been taken by your supervisors”). Doesn’t EVERYONE want the job of their boss? Then there are issues about how research seems fruitless after a while with long hours and low pay.

Since we are in the topic of supervisors, recently I have spoken to a few of them regarding graduate school. These are the people who voluntarily got a PhD. So it was worth investigating their enthusiasm years into the job that I wish to take up one day. The results, fortunately, are quite the  opposite of the general media image of PhDs.

The other day I was talking to an elderly professor in a leading research institute in US. He has been a neuroscientist for triple the number of years that I have been on this planet, and he signed off the conversation saying that this is an exciting time for neuroscience research. He is actively keeping track of three different questions in his lab to solve the mystery of epileptogenesis (One of the graduate students walked into his office while we were talking). This observation is also against the general notion that senior professors never interact with their students. In fact, I have been trained, as an undergraduate in electrophysiology from a well respected, senior professor in the field who also happen to hold many administrative positions.

If you are familiar with PhD Comics, you might not be shocked to hear that supervisors do not have the reputation of being concerned about you. Now, I  might have been extremely lucky or these images are gross generalizations. In my short experience with research, I have come across professors who not only provide you with resources you need but also go above and beyond. For example, I have just been offered help with my application by a professor in a leading university and I have known him for about a week. Additionally having family members in the academia, I have witnessed that they do care about you and want what is best for you.

As for job prospects, fair amount of research shows that quite a few number of jobs in academia do open up in new and old research institutes. Then there are the prospects outside academia. Although, the film “Piled higher and Deeper” talks about PhDs driving buses, I haven’t heard or seen anyone fitting that description (not that driving bus is bad).

Now, my observations are not fool proof. For one thing, my sample size is extremely small and my samples are heavily biased. Still, you can conclude from this that there is a strong positive correlation between researchers who are excited about their job and success in the field. This means although excitement in your research is not the reason for success, you certainly can increase your chances by being passionate about your work.

Having said all these, my intention is not to “take on” popular media. If, however, there is any fellow PhD aspirant being deluged with depressing posts I wish to  tell him/her things are not as bad as it seems. Also once (and if) you become an academician, you can actually hire other PhDs and make life easier for them.

Now to the people thinking  this post is fitting for a starry eyed kid, I agree. It is possible that 20 years from now, I will be a disillusioned researcher laughing at this post. But there is also a possibility that I will be an old, wrinkly researcher celebrating the discovery of neural circuitry of disillusionment.

Some of the demotivating links:–2510


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