Things I Would Have Done Differently in My PhD



A while back I wrote an article about how I would have done things differently moving into the field of behavioural science. Overall, I was quite happy with my journey - mainly because I’m happy where I ended up - but there was still plenty of advice I would give. Given that a lot of articles on this blog have also been dedicated to pursuing higher education and doing a PhD, I thought I’d write a similar article on my journey into the PhD: what would I have done differently? And what advice would I give to you?


 

As stated in the “things I would have done differently going into behavioural science” article, I went into the PhD with a rather odd motivation: I had several awful job interviews for industry positions, and as a result wrote the entirety of “behavioural science industry” off as a valid option. Obviously, as far as motivations for doing a PhD go, this one is really not that great. Doing a PhD is several years of dedication, opportunity cost and working in a rather untransparent system. You’re better off having a more grounded and less delusional motivation than mine. What would I have done differently? I should not have discarded all of industry. I should have researched alternatives to those specific companies better. I should have considered many more alternatives to doing a PhD. I have written articles on good motivations to do a PhD, as well as bad motivations to do a PhD. Make sure you read them both if you’re trying to figure out whether a PhD is something for you!


 

In addition to doing more research on the alternatives in industry itself, I feel like I should have done more research on what a PhD program would be like. I was convinced I would spend 4 years (UK system) doing nothing but research, publishing throughout my journey and coming out of the PhD as a researcher extraordinaire. That did not happen. I have written an article dedicated to the misconceptions about doing a PhD in behavioural science, in which friends and colleagues outlined what they thought about doing a PhD before, and after, they were actually enrolled in the program. These two perceptions are worlds apart. Again, my advice here is to do more research. Talk to alumni of the programs and universities you are interested in. Talk to the current supervisees (PhD students) of professors you are interested in as having as a supervisor. This all helps in aligning your expectations with reality. I have also written an article about a strategic approach to choosing your supervisor. You can try looking for really well-published, famous and very busy professors, but quite often these are not the best supervisors. I chose two of my MSc teachers to supervise me as they had a skillset I was lacking and I already knew them as people. At least I thought I did. Having someone as a teacher is not the same as having them as a supervisor and working towards publications together. Again, do your research. Best way of going about that in this case? Talk to their current and past supervisees (the PhD students they have already supervised). Ask targeted questions about the supervisors workstyles, personalities, agreeability, professionalism, understanding and empathy etc. etc. You might found at this way that the perceptions you held of someone were very far from the truth. It happens. Often, highly ranked academics have an inner and outer persona. Figure out which one you can and cannot work with.


 

In addition to doing more research, it might also help if you figure out early on what you want from the PhD. A PhD is a program designed to turn you into an independent researcher, an expert in a specific topic and place you on the lowest rung of the ladder leading into the pyramid scheme that is academia. These things are in that order, and that order only. You can come out of a PhD being fully disillusioned about academia. The academic scene might simply be too slow for you, or too convoluted, or just not be a match for who you are and what your goals are as a person. In that case, you’re now going to have to sell yourself into industry. It’s less hard than you think, it just requires a completely different approach to what you have already been doing. People keep saying that industry “looks for different things”, but a good independent researcher is a good independent researcher at the end of the day. Just make sure that you hit the right marketing key points for industry rather than academia. Often they “just” require rephrasing and restructuring. The CV is a bit different too! If you knew about not wanting to stay in academia from the get-go, you had a lot more time figuring out how to sell yourself to industry. In fact, friends and colleagues of mine have designed their PhD programs and research cores to fit industry profiles, meaning they didn’t really struggle that much in their “transition” into industry. If you have this as a head start, use it! However, I do ask you to consider whether doing a PhD is the best way of going about this: if your goal isn’t academia, what is your motivation for doing a PhD? And are you sure there aren’t any better alternatives? I went wrong here as well. I was somehow convinced I would stay in academia, even though the PhD process and I weren’t particularly compatible. If you read through my annual PhD reviews (year 1, year 2, year 3, year 4) you can just read the mismatch between the lines, especially in years 2 and 4. I should have been more honest with myself from the start and not have given into the sunk cost fallacy: just because I had started out working on the lowest rung launching me into the academic world, did not mean that’s the only route I had available to me. In the final year of the PhD you will have to do a boat load of job applications. Can’t be resting on your laurels now! So what did I do? I applied to doing postdocs, whereas I had already (sort of) come to terms with the idea of academia not being my cup of tea. The PhD environment prepares you for nothing else. Your supervisor(s), for obvious reasons, have little to no experience with going into industry. But just because the experience isn’t directly surrounding you, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t seek it out. There’s plenty of people who have done a PhD and then said “sayonara!” to academia. There are entire twitter pages dedicated to them, I do recommend you follow them! #AltAc (alternatives to academia) opened up a wealth of information for me. And I’m sure it’ll do the same for you.


 

What would I have done differently in my PhD? Overall, I should have done a lot more research. I don’t think it would have changed to much about me ending up in Warwick, working with the two supervisors that I did work with. However, it would have changed how I approached the PhD and my perceptions of what it meant to be a successful PhD student, as well as a good researcher. It would have saved me from a lot of mental health strains, as well as my stubborn delusions about “needing” to become an academic. I’m not going to become an academic, because quite frankly, I don’t want to. And that’s all there is to it. If you are thinking about doing a PhD, please do your research! Also, feel free to reach out if you have any questions. If you are doing/have done a PhD, what advice would you give? What would you have done differently? I’d love to hear it!

Behavioural Science