In the full knowledge that you might ignore any and all of this information, I present you with some things to think about as you consider going on to a PhD.
Do you want to study for a PhD?
I know this seems like an odd question to ask, but the first step is to actively make a decision about whether you even want to do a PhD. Not a “well, it seems like a good way to go and I have no idea what else I’d do” decision. But a real decision. One that you can look back on in 3 years time and say “Oh yeah, that’s why I started this thing.”
In many cases, the idea has been suggested to you by a professor. Or you are in an environment where that seems to be the expectation. Looking back on my own situation, the process of going on to a PhD was very similar to the process of going to university in the first place. It was the expected next step in the environment that I was in at the time.
I’ve been where you are. I know that the “real world” feels really scary.
You are really good at school. You study a subject you are passionate about, even if other people think it is obscure. There are more things you want to learn about that subject. You might even have an important contribution to make to debates.
Before you rush headlong into that next academic step, let’s step back and examine the terrain from a different perspective for a bit.
Interpret your professor’s encouragement as a compliment.
They are not making that recommendation based on an analysis of all the options open to you. (Why universities are recruiting PhD students.)
They are just saying, from the position of someone in the field, that you would make a good candidate. That’s all.
They think you are a good student with good ideas, someone who would make a good academic.
Why would you do a PhD?
I know it is flattering to have someone you respect suggest it, but have you really thought about the reasons you would do this?
Get out a piece of paper or a notebook and list some now. You might find these questions helpful
- What do you think a PhD will involve?
- What do you want to learn?
- Do you have a research project in mind?
- What do you think you might do afterward?
Have you even considered other options?
It is worth at least doing some research on other options. Just for information.
You are good at research. Consider it a little research project of your own. You aren’t looking for a job. You are mapping out some possibilities.
Moving from this view
to this one.
You are making a map
At the end of the day, you can only focus on the bit of the road in front of you. You have a sense of where it might lead you. You may never get there, but that is okay. Nevertheless, it is useful sometimes to try to zoom out and look at where this road is on the map.
I believe that even if you don’t get an academic job afterwards, doing a PhD might be a good idea. I’m not trying to dissuade you from going forward. This might be a good road for you.
I also think it is worth actually stopping the car and looking at the map before you decide to continue on this road. And to have a sense that this road could fork off in several directions. Knowing you have options makes it more likely that you will find the experience of studying for a PhD more satisfying, even enjoyable.
You are at a crossroads. You’ve finished (or almost finished) your MA. You could go down the PhD road but you might want to actually look at the other possible roads, too.
The bits of those roads that are immediately in front of you might be a bit potholed and unattractive, but those potholes might be worth driving over if they are going to interesting places. Who knows, there might be smooth new pavement not that far along.
Some lesser known lessons from academia by Daniel McCormack
This post was edited June 30, 2015. Additional related posts added April 24, 2017.