Editor’s Note: This post is by Alon Loeffler, co-founder of Find My Pathway, who is completing a PhD in Physics at The University of Sydney after an undergraduate degree and honours in Psychology.
So you’ve finally finished 3-5 years of an undergraduate degree. Maybe an honours year too. Perhaps you’ve even taken a year off to travel and find yourself.
What now? Should you take on another 3-5 years of study, and take on the daunting task of doing a PhD?
Here are 4 things I wish I knew before ultimately making the decision to pursue my PhD.
“A night out with PhD colleagues at a bar, you might meet the next Nobel prize winner”
1. A PhD will give you so much more than just a career pathway
During my first year as a PhD student, I learned a lot about my new field. Neuroscience, Artificial Intelligence and Nanotechnology were not areas I had much experience in from a Psychology background. Pursuing a PhD in the school of Physics opened me up to a huge range of new topics, technologies and people, which I never would have been exposed to previously. Choosing to move cities from Melbourne to Sydney to undertake my studies also impacted my life drastically: a new house, new friends, and new experiences.
I learned more about myself in the past year than I did in the entirety of my undergraduate degree. Before my PhD, I never thought I could gain complex skills and adapt to a new discipline so quickly. I had to throw myself into uncomfortable, sometimes awkward social and professional situations. From all of this, I came out a better person – and much closer to the real me than I was before.
So many people I know opt to travel to find themselves, which is great. But for me, one year of a PhD did more than a lifetime of travel ever could (although travel is also a huge part of a PhD).
Pursuing a PhD will help you understand your limitations, both good and bad. You will learn how much better at learning new things you are than you believe, and you will face and overcome challenges that you didn’t even think possible. You will hone cutting-edge skills while meeting incredible people who have powerful, and deep-reaching connections.
At a night out with friends at a bar before your PhD, you might meet some fun, interesting people. But at a night out with PhD colleagues at a bar, you might meet the next Nobel prize winner.
How will a PhD help you in your career?
2. There are many different paths into a PhD
I’ve been asked many times about the requirements for pursuing a Doctorate degree. Are there qualifying exams for a PhD? Do you need to complete a masters degree to start a PhD? Can I do a PhD while working full time?
The answers to all of these questions will depend on which institution you apply to, and your personal circumstances.
In Australia, there are no qualifying exams for PhD degrees. Having a masters degree might help you receive a scholarship for your PhD, but is not necessarily a requirement. Many Doctoral programs in Australia only require a year of honours as part of your undergraduate studies.
However, there are many exceptions to this as well. Most universities should allow you to start a Masters degree, and then switch to a PhD after one year. If you’re working full-time or part-time you can also pursue a PhD on a part-time basis, where the workload is much more manageable, but the duration of the program is increased. You might also be able to undertake an industry PhD program, where your company partners with a university to sponsor your doctoral candidature.
Interested in finding your pathway into a PhD? Take a look at the Pathways page and select your field.
3. What you plan to do is not always as great as what you accidentally do
Before you even start your PhD, you will be required to write plans about what your research will cover. Planning is a crucial component of completing a PhD within the time you are allocated. Without to-do lists, or general ideas about what you will be working, or search for during your doctorate, you will certainly be lost.
I use a really great note-taking and to-do list app called Typora which offers a markdown editor with support for LaTeX styling.
Plans and to-do lists will help you keep track of your goals and research. But things don’t always go according to plan. There will be times where you get sidetracked and go off on a reading tangent about topics that seem unrelated; or situations where an unexpected result might push your research in a completely unexpected way.
When these serendipitous events occur, don’t be afraid to chuck out your plans and follow the unexpected. Some of the most important inventions to date happened completely by accident, many times during research on a completely separate topic (Penicillin, microwave ovens and Cornflakes are a few examples of this).
However, abandoning all your plans and pursuing an entirely accidental discovery could also be very costly. Plans can and should be broken when it is important to do so, but new plans should take their place, and help shape the altered course of your research as soon as possible. Make sure you meet regularly with your supervisor to track and update your plans, so that when something accidental and lucky does happen, you will feel comfortable enough to test it without losing all your hard work.
4. Everyone feels like they are inadequate sometimes
Imposter syndrome – my old friend. Imposter syndrome is the niggling feeling in your mind that you just can’t seem to get rid of, like an itch at the back of your throat. It’s a sensation of dissatisfaction and inadequacy in everything you do.
Imposter syndrome can be the hardest part of a PhD.
Sometimes you try and read a research paper, or a book, and the words all seem to blur together, none of it sinking in. Other times you might accidentally delete important data, or have a conversation with another student or professor who seems to know so much more. You might feel like you will never be as good as that person, or that you are so far out of your depth and you’ve forgotten how to swim.
On the brighter side, imposter syndrome is incredibly common, and not just in PhD students, but even CEOs of major companies.
It took me over a year to realise this and come to terms with this feeling. I wish I had known to expect it before starting my PhD, and how to deal with it.
How do you deal with this feeling?
A lot of practice. Determination. Hard-word and self-kindness.
It doesn’t matter if your experiment didn’t work the first time, or if a guest speaker seems so much more knowledgeable than you. I guarantee two things: 1) They too have felt this way once, or still feel this way, and 2) You will one day be looked at by other people in the same light – an expert in your field.
Be kind to yourself. Believe in your process. Open up to your friends and supervisors regularly, and work to fix what you don’t like. If you do these things, imposter syndrome will become the easiest part of your PhD, and that means you’re in a really good place!
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