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When should you reconsider a PhD?

PostgradAustralia

A PhD takes a certain type of person to complete. Here are a few guidelines to understanding if you’re ready for the challenge.

For many students, a PhD is the chance to really distinguish themselves in their field of choice. It’s the ultimate test of expertise, resolve and patience, making it alluring for aspiring academics everywhere. We’ve done our best to show when a PhD may be ideal, but it’s also important to recognise when it may be worth considering in favour of something else, be it another degree, job, hobby or other pursuit. In this article, we’ll go over some common ways to determine when a PhD is worth reconsidering. 

You dislike research

Obvious, but not to be overlooked! Research will be the bulk of your PhD. It doesn’t matter if you’re an excellent writer or exceptionally knowledgeable if research is something you only do out of necessity. It helps a great deal to love this process of discovery, or you may find yourself unable to take those first steps. That three-year full-time completion you see on most PhD courses is highly optimistic; completion is predicated on your progress. The slower you go, the longer you take and the more you pay, provided you finish at all. Between 2010 and 2016, 437,030 students enrolled in master’s by research, honours and PhD programs, but only a little over 65,000 ever completed them… and that’s a six year period. So, it literally and figuratively pays to be sure of your research skills beforehand.

So how are you supposed to check your skills without diving headfirst? Well, you’ve got two main options: honours, and a master’s by research. If you had the grades during undergrad, an honours year allows you to do a PhD “lite”, conducting research into a topic while under supervision. You can ask your supervisor afterwards if you’re cut out for a PhD. If you missed the boat on honours, it’s still possible to do a master’s by research and get a similar experience, although it’ll likely still require some legwork to meet all the entry requirements.

Certainly worthwhile if it means scoping out the terrain before diving into a PhD. Besides, completion of either of these programs are some of the best ways of entering a PhD to begin with, as research skills are a prerequisite. Like we say however, it’s one thing to be good at something, and another to enjoy it. Six years of research is a dream to some. If it sounds gruelling to you, try another degree type. 

You’re doing it for the wrong reasons

Google hires PhDs, so why not dive in? This isn’t a good enough sole motivation. The process of doing a PhD requires genuine passion, or it’ll be an absolute slog. If you can think of a topic that inspires you, or a question that demands an answer, that’ll push you toward completing your research. Granted, wanting to work for Google and loving your research is perfectly fine. Great, even! What matters is your actual research is sufficient on its own merits. As the stats reflect, most thesis topics go unfinished. If you’re thinking of doing a PhD solely for other reasons than for its own sake, reconsider. There are likely better postgraduate study options available, like coursework master’s degrees in your field of interest. Many are designed to meet a whole variety of career aspirations. Feel free to give some other postgraduate options a look.

Other study options are better suited

This all depends on your goals. As we’ve touched on, there’s nothing wrong with aspiring for a career in the private or public sector, but a PhD isn’t always the best choice of postgraduate study. Granted, it certainly can be, but it’s worth considering your numerous other options. Many master’s by coursework programs serve to educate students from entirely different fields in something new, or further their specialisation in an existing skill set (Juris Doctor versus Master of Laws for instance). If your goal is to dive a little deeper into the field, there are also master’s by research degrees, which give you that research experience without taking too much of your time. Where a PhD thesis typically requires a thesis of 70,000 - 100,000 words of researched content, a master’s thesis can only require 10,000. There are also graduate certificates and diplomas to consider, which are a great way to gain further insight into a field if that’s your goal. Ultimately, it’s up to you to reflect and determine whether or not other study options may be better for you.

Your financing options are limited

PhD students with a scholarship and multiple top-ups have a hard enough time. Not having the money for living expenses and fees can result in dire situations where you’re working part or full-time in addition to the full-time job that is a PhD. This can lead to significant burnout, a medical condition gradually getting more recognition in recent times. If you’ve gotten scholarships before and are confident in your ability to acquire one, fantastic. However, if you’ve got little in the way of savings or other funding, it’s certainly worth reconsidering a PhD. 

Competing priorities are too pressing

Having a family, significant other, hobbies, friends and miscellaneous obligations is something we all experience. Reconciling the fact you’re doing a PhD with them is crucial to maintaining healthy relationships, particularly if a significant other or family member will be supporting you throughout. If they’d be strained by your decision to an intolerable extent, it may be worth considering other options, or at least deferring your PhD. If it’s simply not feasible given your other priorities, other postgraduate options can be taken online and part-time while also being able to expect reasonable completion times. 

You should now have a better idea of when it’s worth reconsidering a PhD. Identifying with one or more of these considerations isn’t necessarily an absolute indication you should reconsider, as it’s possible to persist in spite of them. These are merely questions to ask yourself knowing your own motivations, strengths and weaknesses. Just remember: your academic journey doesn’t have to end if this option isn’t available, as there are plenty of others both inside and outside of postgraduate study. Whatever your choice, we’re here to help and wish you all the best.