Pre-PhD Advice

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A morning conversation with my mentee helped me remember some of the considerations one should take note of before jumping into a PhD (science-research based types). There is always the personal reasons; aspirations and dreams. On the other hand practical, economical and situation factors will one into play. So here are some thoughts and facts about doing a PhD;

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1) Personal
What are your personal aspirations and goals to achieving the PhD? Will you gain transferrable skills? What network opportunities will it give you? Will specializing in a micro-topic help you in anyway? How do you envision your own future with or without a PhD? How passionate are you about the subject area you will be doing your PhD in? Will you start making jokes that only your kind will understand? I know of PhD students who only enter after they retire and it is purely out of interest, passion and learning that they enter a PhD program.

A lot of students enter the program because its just a natural step and that it was the next path in the education system. I found out that the more I went into the system, the more I realized about its flaws and I had to deal with the issues of the system. Educational systems are built to train you for a certain industry or mindset. If you are not careful, you may adopt one which doesn’t really fit with you. Its easy for a supervisor to transfer his/her science view onto yours.

I used to think getting a PhD meant being a scientist and a scientist in my mind had fast cars, girls and lots of parties.  Not really. 

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2) Economical
Scholarships in most countries are motivators or carrots to encourage people to take up PhDs. However in Singapore and the asian context, we seem to have turned it into a goal to achieve. I know that the money is good, but make sure you aren’t doing it for the sake of doing it. A time commitment or bond is something to take note of. It can be quite stiff or it could even not exist.

3) Situational
World events like economic down turn is a great force that pushes people back in to the educational community. Doing a PhD during an economic crisis is a good idea to ride out the wave. However, it may not help if the down turn lasts for more than 3 years.

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Even for the supervisors, many of them have to entice and encourage young people to join their ranks to keep them alive. Without fresh grad students, they will have no one to pass their craft to. You will be an apprentice and learn 5 out of 10 secrets from a master.

4) Support
Lab Family – In doing a PhD, the lab environment is one of the most important. Finding the right culture, fit and clicks are important parts of the PhD life. The right supervisor makes the difference. I have heard of PhD supervisors who greet their students on the first, only to see them next after three years. Some ignore you, others may avoid you, while some will start to sabotage you. Of course we’ve also heard about the ones you may fall in love with….

Family
Some families may not see doing a PhD as a very productive or good idea. These families have an understanding that entering the working world and having earning power as early as one can is the best. No fault in that. It is just hard to argue against that if you are in one such family. 

Friends
You will realize your friends will have babies by the time you earn your PhD. You may talk about different things than when you were back in high school. Some PhDs feel that their friends who didn’t do a PhD are more successful in life. But what matters is what measures of success do you use? If a PhD is not a measure of success for you, then don’t bother going through it.

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In the end…. WILL YOU BE COMFORTABLE WITH YOUR CHOICE?

Don’t worry, even PhD students have a sense of humor. You will start to enjoy Gary Larson’s “The Far Side” (of which I personally own the definitive special edition collection) and PHD comics (check out their movie trailer!).

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