A sucker for punishment: should I do a PhD?

I think the most important thing to start with is that any decision to undertake a PhD should not be made lightly. It involves another 3 years’ full-time study (6 years’ part-time study) and, if you’re not lucky enough to have been awarded funding, a fair amount of money for both fees and living expenses. Not only do you need to consider the practicalities of doctoral study, but you need to also decide whether you can maintain a level of motivation and self-discipline that will see you research a subject in enough depth and with enough enthusiasm to make the thesis worthwhile. If you feel you can do all this, then a PhD may be the route you want to take – but here’s a few things I’ve learnt up along the way.

I know it’s now perhaps a little cliché to say, but doctoral study is quite isolating. Only you are embarking on your particular area of research and so only you can begin, make and finish the work. Don’t get me wrong, the University does everything it can to incorporate you into a wider community network of other doctoral students, which in itself is incredibly supportive, but the day-to-day research of a thesis sees you putting in some serious work solo. There are one or two compulsory modules to complete (part of the Doctoral Development Programme) and seminars to attend, but these are often intermittent, though you can soon fill up your time with extra-curricular events and conferences if you so wish. So depending on your preference, you can either work predominantly at home or visit the University and build a routine around that. Doctoral students usually have their own work stations within their department so it’s a good base to work from.

If you’re looking to get into academia, I’m afraid it may be a tad tricky in the current employment climate. There’s no getting around the fact that, as in most sectors nowadays, academic opportunities are few and far between, and those that do appear are highly contested. In the Art and Humanities for example, only around 20% of doctorate students go into teaching at University level and, though those figures may differ sector to sector, it’s perhaps a good idea to weigh up other options that wait for you in post-doctoral life. That said, there’s a fair few things you can do to bolster your professional CV while your studying. Submitting abstracts to deliver papers at conferences, book and journal reviews, teaching experience, attending conferences, seminars and sitting in on workshops are all a great way to fill up your academic CV. Plus, networking is an absolute must – you never know who you’re going to bump into and they may be good people to know further down the line.

I know this post has perhaps come across as a tad pessimistic, but the thing to remember is that I’m still here doing it! Ultimately, it boils down to how much you want to do a PhD and whether you’d regret anything if you didn’t. In my case, I took a couple of years out after my MA and moved between a few jobs, but I always had in the back in my mind that I’d regret it if I didn’t even try. So here I am – second year of my PhD and plodding along nicely. Unlike undergraduate study, writing a thesis is total research freedom, it chops and changes so it’s always new and satisfying to watch evolve over the months and years. It’s hard, but like I say – I’d have regretted it if I hadn’t even tried!

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