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Ten things I wish I’d known before starting a PhD

Hi! So a few years ago when I was finishing up my PhD and deciding what to do next, I had various comments and questions from readers about how to decide whether a PhD and/or a career in academia is a good fit. I’ve also talked to a lot of people in real life who are considering doing a PhD but aren’t sure if they really want to or not. It’s a big question, and there are a lot of misconceptions out there about what a PhD really is.

So I thought I’d revisit that topic today and talk about a few things that would have been REALLY helpful for me to understand before I started my PhD. For context, I’m currently a postdoc, having returned to academia after taking two years away from it. I should also note that my PhD is in a science-related field, so most of what I have to say comes from my experiences in that realm.

1. A PhD should NOT be considered “the next step” after a master’s program. This is a HUGE misconception. Most master’s programs are similar to undergraduate programs in that they involve taking classes and studying, and maybe doing a thesis. But a PhD program is really more like a combination of a job and a training program, and you should only embark on one if you have a very specific reason for wanting that training. You may take a few classes at some point, but you will spend most of your time working on very large, very specific projects investigating very specific research questions. The point of a PhD program is NOT to learn more about a general topic like “biology” or “neuroscience”. Rather, the point is to practice conducting research, to start establishing yourself as an up-and-coming researcher, and to start publishing papers about your own experiments on a teeny-tiny sub-sub-sub-topic. Side note: if you want to make someone who’s currently in a PhD program feel understood, avoid asking them “How’s school?” Instead, ask “How’s your research going?”

2. Being in a PhD program requires a different skill set than being a student in other contexts. Related to the above point, earning a PhD is totally dependent on your ability to think up new projects and then proactively and methodically carry them out (with mentorship, of course). Being able to get an A in a class doesn’t actually translate into being good at research. It took me a looooong time to figure this out and to start actively working on developing my skills as a scientist.

3. A professor/faculty position is not a “teaching job”. One of the most frequent comments I’ve gotten when I tell people I’m aiming for a career as a professor is, “Oh, so you want to teach”. I get it: most people have encountered professors primarily in college classrooms where they were, well, teaching. It’s true that a lot of faculty members do teach, and some people even go into academia because they want to teach. But the majority of people in the sciences pursue an academia career because they want to be researchers. Here’s the basic breakdown: a professor’s job is to draw money in to their university, and the two main ways to do this are a) teach a class that students have to pay to take, and b) write a successful research grant that brings in a big lump of cash. Most professors I know do some combination of the two. The more grant money you can bring in, the less you’ll end up teaching. Some professors bring in so much grant money that they are released from teaching obligations for years at a time.

4. “Publish or perish” is a pretty low (and pretty negative) bar. I don’t know who came up with this saying, but I feel it’s pretty off-base to apply to anyone doing scientific research. If you’re spending a large chunk of your time running experiments and analyzing data, then of course you will have findings, and of course you will want to publish them so other people in your scientific community can see what you did and learn from your results. That’s kind of a no-brainer. I would rephrase “Publish or perish” to “The more projects you take on, the more awesome stuff you can publish!”

5. On a related note, academia is a game. With points. Or at least it feels like one. The game is “Do as much science as you can!” and the points are lines on your CV and citations (instances when another researcher cites your work). I used to wonder why my PhD advisor took on so many projects – after all, you don’t get paid more for completing an extra project or publishing an additional paper. But I definitely get it now: the more you can publish, the longer and more impressive your CV gets (and the more citations you accumulate). And the more impressive your CV gets, the more likely you are to be able to negotiate for a higher-paying position. Plus, publishing more (high-quality) papers means that you’ll make a name for yourself in your field, which is pretty cool.

6. A career in academia means you are always learning. I’m sure this is true for lots of types of careers, but it’s one of the major reasons I chose to go back into academia. Being a researcher gives me a feeling of always moving forward, always gaining new skills, always reaching towards multiple future goals. A lot of the non-academia jobs I’ve had in the past didn’t feel like that for me.

7. A career in academia means you are contributing to society. Again, this is true for lots probably almost any career, but it’s worth pointing out here. For a period of time near the end of my PhD, I felt like doing science wasn’t actually that useful to society and that I could be more useful by leaving academia to go do clinical work (which I did for two years). But now I see that it’s just a different type of contribution. Clinical work is an immediate, one-on-one contribution. Science is more of a behind-the-scenes contribution.

8. You need pretty good writing skills to succeed in academia. The activity you will spend the single most amount of time on as a researcher is writing, so you had better be (or get) pretty good at it. You will write grant proposals, papers, conference abstracts, book chapters, letters of recommendation, and any number of other things. You will spend a lot of time in front of a computer. There is no way around this.

9. You need pretty good social skills to succeed in academia. I think there’s kind of a stereotype that academic types – particularly scientists – are awkward or hard to communicate with. This could be true in some cases, but in general I would disagree. A successful professor needs to run a lab and mentor students and post-docs. They need to be able to interview well. They need to give effective presentations. They need to be able to communicate successfully and sensitively with colleagues, collaborators, and administrators. Someone with truly poor social skills would have a hard time with all of the above.

10. Academia is, um, kind of a pyramid scheme. This is highly field-dependent, but sadly it is often true, and anyone contemplating starting a PhD program should look into this. It is often implied to new PhD students that they will all go on to be postdocs and then professors, but this…just isn’t true. It mathematically doesn’t make sense. In order to make their research run smoothly and efficiently, most professors employ a whole lab full of PhD students and post-docs, most of whom are there because they want to be professors themselves one day…but the reality is that there just aren’t enough faculty jobs out there for all those people:

I’m lucky to be in sort of an unusual field with not a lot of PhD students, which means that the actual situation (at least right now) looks a little more like this:

That doesn’t mean it’s not competitive – it definitely is – but it’s nothing compared to psychology or astronomy or marine biology. If you’re considering getting a PhD, especially in the sciences, I highly recommend finding a postdoc in that field and asking to do a 20-minute informational interview with them. Postdocs will be able to comment on things like how many of their fellow PhD students have gone on to get postdocs and faculty jobs, what you should know going into the field, what you should focus on if you want to have a good shot at a faculty job someday, and what other options might be available to PhDs who don’t continue in the academic track (e.g. working in industry, working as a consultant, etc.).

So that’s my run-down of what I wish I’d known when I was applying to PhD programs. I guess I feel a little bit of an urge to do PR for academia since it gets so much flack, haha. Like anything, academia has its good points and bad points. I think the most important thing is to get as much information beforehand as possible about what you’re jumping into.

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