Extract from: The PhD Application Handbook. (Open University Press) by Peter Bentley
You have to be a little strange to want to do a doctorate. You’ll be giving up the chance to earn some real money in a steady job, for several years of little or no money. You’ll be losing the simplicity of regular hours and a boss who tells you want to do, for the complications of setting your own agenda and planning your own work. Why do you want to do a doctorate? No, really. Why? You need to be very clear in your mind what the reasons are. Thankfully, there are some very good reasons why a normal, sane person would choose to do a doctorate. If any of these make sense to you, then you are on the right track:
Good reasons to do a PhD
…To achieve something significant
Those who have ambitions to make money should become entrepreneurs. But if you are ambitious in that you wish to challenge yourself, push yourself to new heights or achieve a difficult goal, then a doctorate may be for you.
…To discover or learn something new
Those who never lose their childlike curiosity of the world make great researchers. If you feel a driving force pushing you to explore and learn new things, then you may love research, and find a doctorate is perfect for you.
…To improve yourself and your life
Doing a PhD for the sake of a pay rise is not a good reason. But if you want to improve your abilities to understand and solve problems, increase your confidence, make yourself a better communicator and gain skills that may lead to a better job, then a doctorate may be right for you.
…It fits you
Some people are made for a doctorate. You might have grown up doing countless little ‘research projects’ as hobbies. You might have a natural thirst for knowledge or an insatiable appetite for reading books about a particular topic. You might have had a life-long fascination – even obsession – about something significant. If this sounds like you, and you can tailor a doctorate to suit your particular needs, then you’ll love it.
Bad reasons to do a PhD
Most of us have several reasons for wanting to do a doctorate, and of course they’re not all good. Here are some common bad reasons why some people consider a PhD (and I know there was a certain amount of ‘bad reason 5’ that led to my own choice.):
…Keeping your visa
If you are thinking of a doctorate because you want to keep your student visa and stay in the UK or at your current university a little longer – don’t. You must not use a PhD as a method to stay close to your friends or family, any more than you should commit a crime and have yourself locked up in jail. It is not worth it. And jail is the cheapest and easiest option by far.
If you’re thinking of a doctorate because all your friends are going to try, well done on having some clever friends. But you will have to do the doctorate, not them. How will you feel if they all achieve their PhDs while you struggle on, year after year, getting further and further into debt?
If you are doing a job that you hate and just want to quit – then find another job. A PhD is not an escape hatch through which you fall into a better world, it is a long steep staircase that takes extreme perseverance to climb.
…Fulfilling the ambitions of others
If your partner or parents think that you should do a doctorate because they wished that they had – tell them to do one themselves. It must be your own ambition that drives you, not the ambition of anyone else. Otherwise you will resent them during the tough times of your work and blame them if it goes wrong.
If everyone is telling you to go and get a job and you don’t like being told what to do, then make sure you are rebelling towards something you want, and not simply away from irritating parents or a boring town.
…Misplaced genius complex
If you think you are brilliant and will solve all of the world’s problems, but every one of your undergrad lecturers is telling you that your ideas are unworkable and that you are not cut out for a doctorate – it is quite likely that they are right and you are wrong.
You might feel that your talents are never appreciated and you crave more respect from people around you. Perhaps you like the idea of impressing by showing a credit card with ‘Dr’ on it. This is not as daft as it sounds, for doctors do genuinely receive preferential treatment, and in some countries are treated with enormous respect. You are more likely to get a better job as well. However, if insecurity is your main driving force then you may struggle, for you will be surrounded by professors and post-docs who are more experienced than you throughout the course of your PhD. You will receive respect from them when you earn it, not because of the `Dr’ which they have themselves.
…You’ve done this kind of thing before
If you have worked in a similar area, you may have already done research or activities very similar to those that you will do during a doctorate. Or perhaps you have done a research-based project for your MSc. This is excellent experience and will help you, but a word of warning: most people think they know what they are letting themselves in for, and they are wrong. An undergraduate or MSc project does not give a proper taste of a PhD any more than a beansprout makes a Chinese meal. Working in industry is very different from academia. Even for someone with experience, the doctorate is not as easy as you might think.
Hopefully, you will find that more of the good reasons apply to you than the bad ones. Be honest with yourself. You are thinking of embarking on something that can change your life, either for better or worse, depending on you.