A PhD, or “Philosophiae Doctorem”, can be taken in just about any field. They require students to conduct research into a topic of their choosing, which culminates in either a thesis of 70,000 - 100,000 words or several papers published throughout, taking three years or more. These are known as PhD by thesis and by publication respectively. If you’ve already decided to do a PhD but aren’t sure what sort, we’ve got an article weighing up these options here. For those who’ve yet to take that step, there a few signs to look out for in deciding if a PhD would be your thing. Although these are by no means the full extent of possible considerations, they will help put you on the path to a decision.
This is the most clear-cut sign, as this is what a PhD is all about! If throughout undergrad you’ve loved those research papers or loved gathering the necessary components and sources for an honours or master’s thesis, a PhD will let you explore that topic, or something entirely different. Whatever you’re into, a PhD will allow you to develop expertise in that area and make a meaningful research contribution, which if you’re lucky, others in your field will read and utilise in their own pursuits! It’s an entirely different experience to entering most industries, as many private sector or government jobs won’t allow you to dive as deeply into anything, let alone a subject of your choosing. If you want to learn much more and learn in the right areas, a PhD might be a great option.
A PhD is for the most part self-directed. You’ll have a supervisor, but they aren’t anything like a tutor or teacher. They’re there to offer advice and suggestions when called upon, but it’s still up to you to direct your own time. With that said, excellent time-management skills are a must. This could be said of the private sector too, true, but in a PhD it’s dissimilar from having a “boss” checking in, or having externally imposed goals. However you spend your time is basically up to you alone. You’ll have literally years to manage, so losing time is easy. If you’re able to keep detailed plans for large spans of time and stick to them, a PhD is a far more manageable and productive pursuit, provided you have the will to complete one in the first place. Being good at time management is a fantastic first step.
This is tied into the previous two points quite closely. If you love your research topic and know how to manage your time, it makes sense to ensure your goals for the future align with your priorities. If you want to work for Google for instance, and want to do research into effective natural language processing, you’ve now got a symbiotic relationship between your future ambitions and current ones. Even if you don’t have industry ambitions, it’s possible for this relationship to take place. Something as common as wishing to complete your PhD thesis so you may undergo further research at another university post-PhD is an equally valuable and worthwhile goal and reason to pursue a PhD.
It’s no secret. In order to make a meaningful contribution to your field, you need an extraordinary grasp of what’s already there. If you’ve gone through honours or a master’s with flying colours and have had great success with previous thesis work, this is one of the strongest indicators a PhD is something you should consider. Being predisposed to the sort of work you’ll be doing throughout your PhD will make the entire process easier, as you’ll have already gathered many of the essential research and writing skills required.
At the end of the day, a PhD is about writing. Lots of it. If you’re one of those people that has already completed an honours or master’s thesis, great. If not, this is a skill that will put you in good stead independent of those. Being able to communicate your findings is nearly as important as the findings themselves, otherwise nobody will be able to cite your work or utilise it. You’ll no doubt develop your writing skills substantially throughout a PhD, but having a strong baseline going in will be immensely helpful and potentially even shave down your completion time. If you consider yourself a good writer already and can communicate complex ideas in a simple manner, you’ve got a better shot at completing a PhD and determining if it’s for you. If you’re not a good writer, this isn’t necessarily make-or-break for the whole idea. If you satisfy all the criteria above for instance, then learning how to write better during a PhD is fine.
All the skills and goals in the world won’t take you anywhere if you’ve got no investment in the field. If you’re the kind of person who can talk about their field of interest for hours on end (perhaps to the dismay of a patient friend), you could be well-suited to a PhD. You may think that having goals and skills in a subject is sufficient proof of interest, but this isn’t necessarily the case. What we’re referring to are questions of why, as these are what constitute investment. If you can answer why your field is valuable, why it’s necessary in the present and will be in the future, you’ll have a much better understanding of your investment. If you’re that person aspiring to develop natural language processing for Google for instance, you may see research into it as a means of improving the lives of millions around the world through enhanced digital assistance. Perhaps give illiterate people in developing countries a means of interacting with education resources and online content. There are plenty of potential reasons. It’s just a matter of identifying what your research means to you. If it’s clear as day what that ‘something’ is, a PhD and consequent research may be just your cup of tea.
You should now be more aware of some of the signs a PhD may be for you. If you lack any number of these, it’s still possible to be successful, albeit with a little more difficulty. Don’t be dissuaded either way. At the end of the day, if you have a passion for your field, it’s possible to reach out, ask questions and get help from your supervisor, peers and online material. Academia is more connected than ever before, with professors and researchers speaking all over the world on a daily basis. As a PhD student, you could be taking your first steps into a world of opportunity. Regardless of whether you decide to pursue one or not though, there are many more postgraduate opportunities to explore. You can check out our article on signs a master’s degree might be a good idea here, for instance. Even if that’s not your thing, you’ve made the right choice by coming here and at least investigating, so hats off to you and good luck!