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To PhD or not to PhD?

As I have started this blog I have been getting quite a few questions about what motivated me to do a PhD. Now I know deciding to do a PhD is an incredibly personal choice. Sometimes people choose to do a PhD for the same reasons other people chose not to. Regardless of your reasons, there are certain questions you need to ask yourself before doing a PhD. Let’s start.

What What are you going to do in your PhD? Which topics are you studying? To what extent would you like to study one specific topic? These are questions to ask. For example, if you have a masters degree in economics, going into an economics, finance or business PhD makes a lot of sense. But within each of these fields there is a vast range of topics. Even if you “just” want to do behavioural economics, what part of it? Do you like biases or would you rather build a prescriptive model of decision-making in stock-investments. I don’t mean to scare. It would just be a good start to pinpoint a topic. You don’t need an exact research question yet, but it would help. It will help as you will need to apply to a PhD with a research proposal, outlining what you want to study and how. The better you can explain this, the higher your chances of being accepted.

Why Ask yourself why. Why do you want to do a PhD? If it’s purely a vanity thing, don’t bother. PhDs are years of commitment. Don’t take that lightly. Even my most passionate peers are banging their heads against the wall from time to time.

Great reasons to do a PhD is that you have genuine passion for the topic you have chosen to do your PhD in. You have always been interested in it, you wish to know more in-depth information about it.

Another good reason is that you want to stay in academia or just research. To have a competitive advantage a PhD can be great. And it is the easiest way to get the research experience.

You could use the PhD for a commercial competitive advantage as well. This motive is becoming increasingly frequent as job markets are becoming more competitive. Anything that sets you apart in a positive way is good. Keep in mind though, that this is a multiple year commitment. What you gain in expertise and degree status, you might lose in work-experience. It is still difficult for people to estimate the “work” qualities of a PhD.

How How are you going to do your PhD? This question can be interpreted many ways. If we take it quite narrowly it can mean what methodology would you like to use. As I outlined before, this is important for your application. The more detail you can use, the better. It might make your application stand out even more if the methodology you use is quite innovative in itself, or you wish to propose a whole new methodology altogether. The latter of course also comes with a certain risk and it is nowhere near necessary to go to this crazy for a PhD application. Just make sure you know what you want to do and how you’d like to do it. What are you already able to do, and what are you willing to learn?

On a broader scale it can mean: how are you going to do a PhD financially? Especially when leaving a job to go into a PhD, you will lose income. There is a flipside to coming from a job: some employers fund PhDs for their employees, if they study something that benefits the company. I personally think this is a great opportunity. It adds to the why as well: a great opportunity to benefit all.

Luckily, PhDs can be funded without having had a job before. But this tends to be another application process in itself. Often, there are grants given by the institution/university themselves, some governmental ones for excellency or social applicability and lastly scholarships for foreign students specifically, such as Chancellor’s in the UK.

Ultimately, not everyone gets funded. Ask yourself then: can I make it without funding? Can I accept those kind of living conditions and am I willing to?

Who The institution isn’t the only one who has to accept you. So does a supervisor. PhDs have at least one supervisor, who has of course specialised in their own topic. This is why I indicated that you need to know what you’d like to study, because this will determine in what field you’ll look for a supervisor. Your supervisor needs to match your topic to a certain extent, but they need to match your methodology and your personality even more.

If both you and your preliminary supervisor both study contactless payment methods that is great. But it is going to be an issue if you want to study them using qualitative interviews and individual case studies, whereas your supervisor is a quantitative data scientist. This won’t work.

Something to watch out for as well: what kind of person are you? If you’re laidback and can easily work on your own, you don’t need hands-on supervision, so it doesn’t matter too much if your supervisor already has quite a few PhDs and Post-docs. But if you are like me, and want to have at least one weekly face-to-face meeting with both supervisors, having a laidback thin-spread supervisor will only backfire. Keep in mind, you are going to spend hours upon hours with these people. This is long commitment. Choose wisely.

Also, if you are working in reverse, and there is a person you really want to work with, do not be surprised if you have to adjust your topic (fully) to their expertise. You wouldn’t go to Dan Ariely to study the division of Higgs-Boson particles. I don’t know many people who approach PhDs this way, but it can be done. This tends to only happen when students and supervisors already know each other quite well before the PhD is started.

Where Where is a double-barrelled question as well. First ask yourself which institution. If you have determined your topic and your supervisor, it makes sense you go to the institution they are currently working at.

However, most people are not just chasing down one person. They are chasing down a certain level of status within a degree. Having a PhD from a top-ranked university is definitely advantageous. As a result, having determined your topic, select which university ranks highest in it and look for a supervisor there. This is tricky as you might not know these people at all. Staying at the university where you studied your masters tends to be easier, as you know the location and the people. Supervisors tend to prefer hiring people they already know and have taught, compared to those who they have never met. But just because it is easier, doesn’t mean it is better.

Another interpretation of where is: where in the world? Instead of taking an institutional perspective let’s look at the globe. Some countries specialise in topics, others are known for having a great (meaning high-ranked) educational system. If you come from a home country that does not have high-ranked institutions, being able to go to any institution in a high-ranking country that simply has your topic is a great opportunity. Everything in perspective. A PhD from a globally high-ranked education system is a great advantage.

When Last but not least: when are you going to do this? The main question is whether you want to this now, or later in life. Work experience first and then back into academia? Many of my peers have followed this trajectory. They say it has definitely been a process getting back into a “student mentality.” On the other hand, they do have valuable work experience, which many of my friends and I do not have. We are still in the student mentality, because we have never been anything else.

A second question to ask with regards to timing is: full-time or part-time? Having mentioned finances before, not everyone can take out 3 or more years from their (financial) lives to do a PhD. In agreement with your employer, you might be able to do a PhD part-time. As a result the process of the PhD will be longer, but less intense. It can then be combined with a job, so the decrease in income is not as severe.

It might not even be in regards to just finance. Some of my colleagues have jobs and families. Quitting the job is not an option as it supports the family. The solution is doing a part-time PhD. But trust me, juggling those three things is real hard work.

If you can answer these questions, I think you should be ready to apply for a PhD, but I have a feeling you might have already done so. As this article is already very long, I will outline my own experience in the next one, as I have promised I would.


Behavioural Science

Personal Finance



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