I have written thirteen articles about my experiences as a PhD student. I have even written one specifically asking myself and my reader: "To PhD or not to PhD." If you thought that ought to be enough articles regarding opting into a PhD, you are wrong. This topic came to the forefront of my mind again after I had read a tweet by someone who had recently decided to transfer their PhD into an MPhil degree and quit it.
This wasn't one tweet, this was an 11-tweet-thread, explaining the thought processes behind it. Apparently, quitting a PhD is so controversial a statement, it needs 11 times 240 characters. And this tweet has been liked, commented on and retweeted a whole bunch of times. So it obviously resonates. I have recently written my review of the second year of doing a PhD (will be published on the 2nd of September), just as I have done a review for the first year. It was the writing of this, and the recent tweet that got me into thinking about certain characteristics, contexts and circumstances in which I would very much urge you NOT to do a PhD. And because this is so undervalued and underrepresented in academia, I'll just write about it myself.
Lacking Purpose Thinking of doing a PhD? Why? The first question is always why. If you cannot come up with a proper reason, maybe think of a plan B? Now there are plenty of reasons to do a PhD: 1) you want to be an academic, 2) you want to continue working in research, 3) a PhD will give you a large advantage in the job market, 4) you have a keen interest in studying a specific topic/project
These four seem to be the ones most often mentioned when it comes to doing a PhD. And they aren't bad reasons at first, it's just that maybe we should be slightly more critical of them. 1) There are other ways into academia than doing a PhD. You could for example be succesful in business first and then decide to go back into academia, teaching and researching what you found to be important and relevant (or just interesting) in the business experience that you have. You don't even have to be super succesful in business for this work out. Many companies collaborate with academic institutions, several of those long-term collaborators find themselves working more and more in academia. So you can ease into it, from a business perspective. Now I know this isn't exactly for everyone one, especially not if you want to be an academic NOW. But keep in mind, the academic process isn't that quick either. A PhD won't guarantee a post-doc position, a post-doc won't guarantee an assistant or associate professor position and to become a professor just seems to take ages these days. There is a lot of competition, and not that many spaces available. Much like business... 2) Again, I don't think a PhD is the only way to continue working in research. As I mentioned before, being a business collaborator means you'd work in business (often earns more, just saying) but work with academics on projects. It often means, more projects, different working pace and different earning potential. To be honest, the potential of working yourself up also seems to be higer. Business has a higher progression rate than academia. Whereas in four years you go from first year PhD student to dr. A lot of my friends will have held 2 or 3 different job titles (ascending, of course) in that time. And there are plenty research agencies and consultancies that have nothing to do with academia, yet produce great and even publishable research. Be open-minded and realistic as to what your goal is. 3) If you want to be an academic for sure, yes the PhD will have advantages in the job market, because it represents the research you have done, gives you time to publish that research and as such gives you value as a job applicant, not to mention that the network of academics is likely to know you. But are you sure it will give you the same advantage in any other sector? I think you need to be really sure that the advantage is as big as you think it is, before investing four years into research, rather than work experience. Because four years of work experience is of immense value as well. 4) Let's say you want to do a PhD because of a genuine interest. First of all, congrats on finding something you truly find interesting, that can take people years, if not decades to figure out. Second, are you sure you find this topic really THAT interesting to commit four years to it? Third, are you willing to deviate from that topic, or the method of which you would study it in? Because that is what often tends to happen in a PhD. It is your PhD, but you're working within a team of supervisors. If they aren't feeling it, it's likely not going to happen. And then what? If that would wipe out your entire motivation for the project, I don't think applying to a PhD is in your best interest, because I think you'd drop out just as quickly. This doesn't apply to PhDs that are set before (neuroscience, biology, etc.), this applies more to the formative ones, where both parties talk through the topic, design and implementation in the first year and shape the PhD together (business, economics, psychology, etc). As I mentioned in point 2, research can happen in many places that aren't academia. So, first figure out whether academia is even the best fit, with regards to both the structure and the approach to the studying of the topic. Otherwise, revisit point 2 and find yourself another research institute that does a lot of work in the area you are interested in. There are of course reasons that aren't that great for doing a PhD to begin with. Those reasons would be something like: "I didn't know what else to do", "I just want to be a dr." and the best ones are because of social pressure: "my family require me to", or " everyone else seems to be doing it." Continuing a PhD requires a lot of effort, motivation and discipline. These reasons do not help out with any of those requirements. So I wouldn't advise banking on them.
Crying at the Best of Times "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." This sentence can put people to sleep in an instance (sorry Dickie). But it alludes to my purpose. It is easy to continue something, even if it's hard, if it is going well. Let me take myself as an example. I don't enjoy doing statistical analysis in R and I try my best to avoid it (to absolutely no avail). But once I'm at it, and it is actually going well, the tests run, the models work, the graphs seem to actually represent what they need to etc. I don't notice that I have just done 6 hours of coding. I end my day feeling pretty good about myself. I'm kicking this PhD's ass. Booyah! Now imagine the opposite. Nothing freaking works. I run into issue after issue. Variables can't be found, data has been read in wrong. Models run slowly or not at all, and I have forgotten the basic grammar of structuring a graph. I've been at it only 3 hours, and I am willing to commit genocide on everyone who ever thought R was a good idea. I feel worthless as a PhD student, and I'm doubting whether I'm even made of "the right stuff." Now these examples are incredibly common (the latter occuring way more often than the former). What you have to watch out for, is when you are having doubts even at the best of times. If things are going well, and you're still crippled with doubt, or continuously experience negative feelings towards the PhD (anxiety, depression, exhaustion), these are pretty good indicators that it isn't working. And maybe you should think of a way out. This is of course an issue you can only run into once in the PhD. But that doesn't mean there isn't an escape. The first year of a (UK) PhD degree can be transferred to an MPhil (Master in Philosophy). Now the issue is, that as the first year is still rather structured (courses, frequent meetings, administrative obligations) and represents a lot of novelty and change, you might notice your incompatibility with the PhD only later, say in the second year. But the initial offer still stands (MPhil). Don't fall into the sunken cost fallacy. Just because you have already put in two years (that were miserable), doesn't mean the next two years have to be miserable too. It is absolutely alright to admit that a PhD just isn't for you. Take the MPhil, figure out what you want and move forward. Quit to move on.
Know Yourself I have mentioned mental health already, and it is an important factor in doing a PhD, because it tends to deteriorate. Rapidly. If you are in a very fragile mental state that, when getting worse, warrants serious and immediate treatment, sort that out before doing a PhD. Because the chances of you being able to juggle depression and getting out of bed to work, are slim. Another mental aspect I keep mentioning is the lack of structure. If you have a need for structure, yet feel unable to create that for yourself (think of people on the Autism spectrum, or OCD sufferers), the PhD is going to hit you where it hurts. If you don't have coping mechanisms for this in place, I wouldn't recommend starting a PhD, because it will be very adversive to your mental health. Now this argument for not doing a PhD can seem as if I'm profiling, and I'm not. I have plenty of colleagues and friends in PhDs that suffer from either mood-disorders or are definitely "on the spectrum" as we tend to put it these days. They are doing just as well (or just as shit) as everyone else is doing, but they had their baggage under control when starting. This means they were either being treated, had been treated, or were aware of what works and what doesn't work for them. If you are nowhere near these stages in your mental health journey, I wouldn't recommend starting a PhD. I'm not saying anyone who has every experienced an episode of worsened mental health should never do a PhD. It's just that PhDs seem to trigger something that worsens overall mental health, for the majority of people. I can hardly stop you from doing a PhD, but please do take this into account.
Overall, I think that should be it. Check your mental health, your purpose and your willingness to persevere before even applying. And when it seems that you did not have the right expectations, and the PhD turns out to be awful even at the best of times, keep in mind that you can just opt-out. If it's not for you, it's not for you. And there are many different roads that can lead to the same outcome. If you decide that outcome is still what you want to achieve.