Should I start a PhD? Tips and challenges
Reflecting on previous decisions and being happy about the outcome is such a beautiful feeling. In the words of Steve Jobs in that marvelous speech at Standford. "You can't connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backwards". It is almost impossible to answer the proposed question even before starting a PhD, but there might be some tips that I can give you based on my experience and some challenges that you might want to know.
Make the decision for yourself.
Pick a good group and supervisor
Enjoy the journey. Embrace the process
Learn, collaborate, and pass your knowledge.
A PhD is a marathon not a 100m run
The learning process is tough
Solitude can be a bad friend
Tip 1: Make the decision for yourself
I encourage you to listen to as many people as possible to help you with your decision. However, at the end of the day, you are the one taking it. Try to avoid enrolling in a PhD program because of what others will think about you, ultimately you will be the one on the spot and it is way better to have your own motivation to start such a complex journey.
Furthermore, I would like to share a little story. Some time ago I listened to somebody saying that doing a PhD was something one needs to go through to get to a better job position. My mentality does not allow me to think that statement is correct. Your PhD might be 4 years of your life, if not more, and that is a lot of time of your life to give up. Enjoy the journey (Tip 3).
Essentially, try to make a clear idea of your motivation to start a PhD and the reasons for it, share them with your close ones, receive advice, and do not solely see the PhD as an intermediate step to a future better stage.
Tip 2. Select a good group and supervisor
"But Pepe this is impossible, how am I supposed to do that online during my interview? Or through an additional 10-minute talk with the current PhDs of the lab?"
You are totally right. This point relies more on luck than what I would like to, but it is so important for your PhD that I have to consider it. Being in a group where their members are close is one of the most beautiful things that can happen. Enjoying the time in the lab and having fun is something incredible that will make you feel better and more motivated. On the other hand, having a supportive supervisor that allows you to grow while pushing your project is key for the success of your PhD and your future career plans.
As difficult as it is to be sure about whether you are getting into the right place, I would encourage you to ask about the environment in the group and to talk with the current members of the lab. If possible, try to carry out the interview, as well as the chat with current lab members in-person, this might help you in spotting anything significant.
Tip 3. Enjoy the journey. Embrace the process
Imagine looking back after finishing your PhD and that the only thing you can do is to smile. That is what I am chasing. I want to look back and be happy about all the people that I collaborated with, all the countries that I have visited and worked in, all the new friends I have made. I want to realize that I was able to go from somebody that had little to no knowledge of machine learning, to lead projects and publications on it. And that is only to put a sample of many other things.
Believe me, none of this will happen overnight. It is a process and it will work better if you enjoy the journey, and do not completely focus on life after your PhD. Like in many other things, all of this is a bit subjective. I am building my own experience so that I enjoy it as much as I can, but you will have the chance to build your own so that you maximize your personal fulfillment and that you enjoy your process.
Tip 4. Learn, collaborate and pass the knowledge
In my view, a PhD is all about learning. It gives you the outstanding opportunity of becoming an expert in a field you did not know much about before starting the journey. Although it can act as a double-edged sword (Challenge 2), the learning process is fascinating.
Try to learn from everybody, starting from your labmates to carrying out a stay in another research group. Join conferences, talks, seminars, or courses. In the new world that has been established after covid, many more things are free and open to the public, take advantage of it. Collaborate with your labmates in a project or with other people outside of your lab if you have the chance. If done properly, the work that 2 people can put together largely surpasses the one you can put alone. That without including the benefits of mixing people combining different expertise and backgrounds. Finally, if you have the time, chance and you feel like it, pass your knowledge. It can be anything, teaching, tutoring master, or bachelor students, starting a blog, or just by sharing your thoughts with friends. If you do it, you will see how beautiful it is to see people's and friends' reactions to what you are doing.
Challenge 1. A PhD is a marathon not a 100m run
Some people need to receive a reward from the actions they take at their jobs either instantly or within a short span of time. They do not tolerate well vague and untenable steps or improvements that might even vanish the next week. Other people feel a certain sense of urgency to finish things up and jump into their next thing (it can be a new project or a new job) and they do not cope properly with delays in their plans.
Although both groups mentioned are not exclusive, I might fall a bit into the second one. Throughout my PhD, I have learned that I had to stop feeling like this was just a time I had to give my 120% and then move on. I learned that a PhD is much more like a marathon, and if seen like I just mentioned before, the chances of burning out at some point in such a long process increase exponentially. Therefore, for the benefit of your mental health and looking at the long-run outcome, one needs to be clear that the PhD will take time, and that things can go wrong or not work out all the time throughout it. Try to be mentally strong, apply Tip 3., keep putting in the work, and believe in yourself.
Challenge 2. The learning process is tough
The fact of learning sounds really good, in fact, too good to be true if you allow me to say it. The truth is that you might spend months studying and analyzing data that cannot give you the information you want. That you might be preparing experiments for over a year to then find out that you cannot isolate the desired protein. That you might be working on a mathematical proof for months that just got published by another research group. The reality is that more likely than not, you will have to face some challenges during the course of your PhD.
The process is not easy and simple, but there is beauty in it. It gives you a chance to keep growing and a range of soft skills that you had never imagine that you could have acquired. The fact of being tough does not mean is bad. Is your perception of it that matters. Keep pushing and improving, do not let these things put you down and you will rise stronger, no doubts about that.
Challenge 3. Solitude can be a bad friend
I occasionally talk about this metaphor of a PhD resembling you managing your own company. You sometimes are the one dealing with your projects from top to bottom, and it can be the case that you are alone doing so. This does not necessarily have a negative meaning. However, if prolonged in time, there is a lack of support, and the project gets stuck, one might start feeling frustrated and will start to have mixed feelings about the whole PhD.
How we deal with every situation might differ depending on the person, but feeling that your PhD is not going anywhere is something nobody enjoys. Act early, be open about your feelings and communicate them to your supervisor and labmates. Create plans to improve, collaborate with people, and keep growing, I am confident you can deal with this and more.
Remember, it all starts by selecting a good group and supervisor. If you do so, the chance of some challenges to appear is automatically diminished. Right before finishing, I would like to comment a bit more on that. I feel incredibly lucky for being part of the BBGLab. Going to work alongside your friends is priceless. I would like to thank every one of them and my supervisor for understanding the way I see my PhD.
you = 'Finished the text' if you == 'Finished the text': print('Thank you indeed, it means a lot!)
I hope you liked it.
As I continue to document my journey, you can follow me on Twitter as I will also keep you updated with my latest thoughts and steps.
From a friend,