I hesitated alot when it came to writing this article. Mostly because, will I be shooting myself in the foot, professionally, when I publish this article? But if even one person sees a pattern and it helps them succeed then, I have done my job. So here goes.
Everyone starts a PhD/ research career hoping to change the world even the slightest bit. Soon the walls start closing in and reality sets in. Soon you’ll start to see the politics play out and you end up shoved into a corner where you never wanted your research to be in the first place. When doing a PhD you may find that you are far more involved with the game of publishing and not necessarily about producing research that is interesting. Don’t be surprised if you end up specialising in an area that no-one knows nor cares about.
Leaving the doom and gloom aside doing a PhD can actually be a real rewarding experience. Here’s a few tips as how to ensure that.
- Read up on the area before you sign up for a PhD. Take a few months to do so. I understand that it’s difficult to maintain a job and research at the same time but this may save you some trouble.
- Research your supervisor. A lot of professors look good on paper due to their number of publications who will have little ability and/or willingness to provide the sort of mentoring that is essential to your future career. Contact 2–3 previous students and see what their opinions are.
- Will they let you publish in c-grade journals. Writing is really important, and publishing in some of the lower rank journals/ conferences is important to meet other researchers as well to understand the style of writing. Some professors simply do not let you do this considering it might tarnish their publication record (their name is usually second author even if they contributed nothing to the actual work).
- Will they fund you for training/ conferences without publishing. Some professors do have grant money but can be stingy when it comes to spending it. God forbid they spend it on a training course that furthers your career. Especially considering it might be cheaper/ profitable to spend it on equipment or more PhD students. I’ve met some students whose professors sent them on overseas conferences without publishing and these are the best kind of supervisors.
- Do not go for the reputation of the university. I made the mistake of passing over the opportunity to work at a slightly lower ranked university, with a professor who was amazing. What matters is the supervisor, not the surrounding structure.
- Lastly, if you are one of those poor souls who’s already started to have that bad gut feeling about your current supervisor, switch! You don’t owe them anything when you consider your research career is on the line. I tried to switch and had to face a hissy fit from my supervisor. Yes breaks ups are messy but you know you have to run when they are draining the life out of you.
- Scholarship money: Now this is important. Try your best to get a scholarship that would cover your living expenses, and perhaps even a top up scholarship. However, if this ties you down to a certain supervisor or what you can publish I’d look elsewhere. “But the money is so good!”. Trust me when I say your scholarship money is nothing compared to what you will earn after your PhD. Don’t be swayed by how much they can offer you, or the top of scholarships for that matter. Focus on the research and what interests you the most.
I know I might have painted a grim picture about academia, but I truly believe that there are some amazing research happening across the world. And there are definitely supervisors who are actually invested in their students succeeding, not just to boost their own reputations.
The bad experience that I had both as a PhD student and my short-lived postdoc career is certainly not unique, and definitely will not be the last. One thing I realised is that supervisors are not there to guide you to be successful. In the current environment where funding is getting cut left, right and centre self preservation is a perpetual theme. However, there are still some absolutely wonderful people who truly want to further the science, and I hope this article encourages you to seek them out.