The ones who know, know. I did my PhD straight after my MSc in Behavioural and Economic Science (which I loved). I was 21 when I started the PhD. I was so excited. I was also still wet behind the ears. As I’m getting older it’s becoming increasingly easier to admit that my 21 year old self was not the brightest bulb to ever shine. I had a plethora of completely misguided expectations of the PhD, which were largely due to the fact that I hadn’t done my research on what a PhD was actually like. I don’t think I’m the only one who struggled with this. And I don’t think it’s gotten better either.
An article by Nature showed how bad the stats are for early career researchers (ECRs) in Australia. Initially conducted in 2019, the researchers replicated their survey in 2022, partially to incorporate the possible effects of the pandemic. They found that “job satisfaction declined (62% versus 57%), workload concerns increased (48.6% versus 60.6%), and roughly half reported experiencing bullying (by supervisors)”. This is incredibly bad. In addition to this, the paper also finds that “there are signs of poor supervision and high rates of QRPs [Questionable Research Pracitces]. ECRs detailed problems likely worthy of investigation, but few (22.4%) felt that their institute would act on a complaint.” Great.
Because I have been so vocal about doing a PhD and leaving academia, I have quite a few people reach out to me and ask about what it is like to do a PhD, and whether I recommend the experience. And this brings me back to the title of this post. One of my key recommendations is to get some life/work experience, before starting a PhD. And that as a result, I do not recommend doing a PhD straight out of university, if the university is the only thing you’ve ever known. Let me explain why. First, if you’ve only ever been in education, you have no real experience with an environment that is without structure. Where all the goals and milestones are in the distant future and you are the only responsible for all of your work. No hand holding, no guidance, just a lot of empty space for you to fill in. That can really trip people up from the get-go. And that is only the structure (or lack thereof) of the thing. Second, to enter a PhD program is essentially declaring your love to a topic/method. There is a lot of cognitive and emotional investment that happens upfront. For some, especially if this is a first, this can become obsessive. You can feel like your entire identity is tied to this thing. And if this thing fails, or suffers setbacks, so will you. It’s not healthy. People with more life/work experience have learned to disentangle themselves much better; they have realised that they are much more than just their work. My 21 year old dumb ass had not. I didn’t know anything besides being really good at studying. So when you get your first paper draft back and it’s just pages and pages upon corrections (one page had 60+ comments/corrections) it wipes you out. Now I am aware that some people, even when younger with no work experience, are more resilient now than I ever was or will be. And that’s fine, than this advice is not for you. But I found that the older members of my PhD cohort, especially those who had several years of work experience under their belts, fared much better. They did the work, bounced back from negative feedback and kept at it. Without the existential crises that people my age group seemed to have every other week. Actually, I’m pretty sure the people who managed best had had decades of work experience and had families. But that could also just be my perception of them. You never really know what goes on inside someone.
Third, with work/life experience comes the ability to know yourself better, and to read other people much better and determine if you’re a decent enough fit. Quite important for selecting your PhD supervisors. You know, the people who literally make or break your PhD. I knew how to make friends at age 21, and I knew how to avoid people who didn’t like me. Supervisory relationships? To say I got those right is a blatant lie. So I hope you do better.
Fourth, and this comes back to resilience again. Most older people I know had much more going on in life than just the PhD. They had work experience, and some of them still worked next to the PhDs. They had stable partners, families, commitments that weren’t exclusively work related. That’s healthy. That’s what it should look like. And although I’m sure these people were incredibly busy, and probably busier than I was, I think they led fuller lives. Which, if you don’t completely overdo it, is really good for your mental health. You know, that thing that seems to suffer a lot during the PhD.
So I think those four reasons make up the core for why I don’t recommend anyone to go straight into a PhD out of university, knowing nothing besides the education system. I’m always happy to be proven wrong, and I’m also not blind to the fact that for some people the PhD has to come before the work experience does, because that’s how their field works. Regardless, I hope this article can help you make the most of your experience. And if you’d like even more advice and honest experiences about the journey that is the PhD, read my new book “The Ultimate Guide to Doing a PhD”, available through Amazon and via World Scientific [and just sent me a message for a discount code!]. Good luck!