Six things I wish I knew before applying for a PhD
Written by Dalmira Merzhakupova
During my bachelor’s studies, I romanticised the perception of being a PhD student: what could be better than doing science and saving the world? What I did not have clearly in my mind, is what is actually involved in a Master of Science and a PhD: It is not just about science, but also the people around you. Nobody told me about any pitfalls in advance, I had to discover them myself. Thus, I would like to share my knowledge, hoping it will help others to make their choice in the future. This article reveals the top questions I have been asked since I started my PhD.
I love fools’ experiments, I am always making them.
Is a master’s degree necessary to get a PhD?
The Master of Science (MSc) is the next step in the education system for bachelor’s students, during which you specialise more in the subjects of your curriculum. The length of the programme varies between 1–3 years, depending on the country, the programme requirements, your supervisor and the project itself. The core of a master’s degree is still constituted by a series of classes and courses. Yes, you still have to do assignments, submit your tasks, and pass exams to get credits. In the last semester or year, depending on the university, you finally get to work on your thesis project.
European PhD programmes require a master’s degree, while English speaking countries and some Eastern Asian countries allow you to apply directly from the bachelor’s degree for the so-called “fast-track” PhD. However, keep in mind that a fast-track degree might take you longer to work on the project, to make up for the lack of experience in the field.
A PhD (or any doctoral degree that is awarded by your country/university) is a must-have for those who are dreaming of becoming a professor! If you want to dive deeper into biological questions, the master’s degree is not enough. These days, not only does academia require it but pharmaceutical companies are on the lookout for people holding a PhD degree too! In the current job market, it is clear that companies hire specialists that are more qualified.
In addition to that, the uncertainty that the Coronavirus pandemic brought to the job market only made it harder to get a job in industry with just a master’s degree.
What is a PhD? Work or study?
Let’s start from the beginning: a PhD is the highest degree of education you can get. A doctoral student will study advanced questions and test innovative ideas that turn into incredible (or not, that happens too) projects. To earn this degree, you have to not only take courses (or attend plenty of seminars), but also work on a research project, which would be the main focus of your PhD.
What would then be the regular PhD student life? You will spend most of your time between regular lab meetings and personal meetings with your supervisor, weekly and monthly reports of your project’s progress and many experiments. Due to this, people call it WORK. Personally, I would agree with that!
Nonetheless, we are still called PhD “students” and doing a PhD is considered study, perhaps because you are still closely tied to a university to eventually obtain your degree.
How long does it take to complete your PhD?
This topic brings lots of pain, confusion and uncertainty to many PhD students. There are many factors that affect the answer. It depends on what your master’s project was about, the skills, the aims of the new project, your PhD supervisor, your PhD programme requirements, the availability of funding, and the university itself. On average, PhD students in the life sciences in Germany complete it in 4–5.5 years.
Can I get fully funded for my PhD?
Yes, you can! There are 3 main types of funding: Teaching Assistantship (TA) contracts, Research Assistantship (RA) contracts and scholarships.
TA is a contract type that requires you to fulfil teaching hours, whereas RA allows you to only focus on a project(-s). In both cases, there are pros and cons. Scholarship waives you from taxes, but if you get into a conflict with your boss, it gets more difficult to stay and look for an alternative, as you might need to leave the country.
Would I benefit in today’s job market after my PhD?
I had previously thought that the industry is not interested in PhD graduates and consider them too qualified or too expensive. Fortunately, I was wrong! After talking with colleagues and friends about this and doing constant research on the job market, it became clear to me that many companies do look for experts and skilled people with a PhD. Nobody wants to teach someone in addition to paying their salary. If you are highly-skilled, aware of the job duties, possess emotional intelligence and the ability to work as a team, and quickly adapt to a different environment, you are certainly wanted.
Is it worth doing a PhD abroad?
Again, it depends on the field of study. All global hot research topics are conducted and discussed in English and all top leading scientific journals publish wonderful works in English! By working in this language environment, you will have access to resources much faster, which might be very critical for your future project.
For patriots, you can enrich your home country with the acquired knowledge and experience from a PhD. If you are just interested in getting a PhD as soon as possible and you would prefer to work in your country, I would suggest looking for something local. If you are seeking a bigger challenge or want to give your life a 180° turn, just try it! Take it as an experiment! Charles Darwin once said “I love fools’ experiments, I am always making them”.
If you are still doubtful whether you should follow this path or not, I will leave some inspiring and useful links about academic life:
👉The Thesis Whisperer ( https://thesiswhisperer.com/) — life hacks for a grad student
👉Gradhacker ( https://www.gradhacker.org/) — about PhD life
👉Beyond the Doctorate (https://www.unine.ch/releve/en/home/au-dela-doctorat.html) — careers in Academia
Written by Dalmira Merzhakupova; Edited by Ji Shi. Featured image: NGC/Design.