To PhD or not to PhD

From PhD comic: http://phdcomics.com/.

You have your undergraduate degree, you’re about to finish your masters and you aren’t sure what to do next. Get a proper job or maybe become an eternal student and apply for a PhD? I opted for the latter and so far I don’t regret (ok, I do regret sometimes, but more about it later).

Doing a PhD is something between studying and working, which surprised me. I expected a similar experience to my previous degrees. I thought I would still study, just the subjects might get harder and more detailed. I was so wrong!

If you want to pursue a PhD in order to explore your area, then I’d discourage you from this decision. Nobody will tell you what to study, nobody will hold your hand and point you to appropriate sources. You’ll have to choose one VERY SPECIFIC area and spend a few years focusing on this topic. Matt Might illustrated it very well – while previous education allows you to explore human knowledge, in grad school you’ll create this knowledge.

Does it mean that during PhD you won’t learn anything new? Of course you will! But you’ll have to be very selective about what you learn, when, as well as how it is related to your thesis. No more time for reading whole textbooks and working through hundreds of problems. Unfortunately learning a new theorem won’t give you a PhD; using it in an innovative way might.

Grad school also means very few deadlines. Sounds good? For me it was a nightmare, especially in the beginning. Deadlines used to motivate my perfectionistic self to stop procrastinating and, on the other hand, to turn in a “good enough” assignment. Now I could spend weeks or months on one tiny detail, because my first milestone is sooo faaaar away. I had to learn to set deadlines for myself, otherwise I wouldn’t get anything done. Not only because there are so many more exciting things out there than proving this nasty equation (such as writing a blog post, cat videos or even cleaning my room), but also because it is so hard to accept that my solution won’t be perfect and at some point I just have to move on to another task.

Research isn’t linear and many students seem to fall behind for years, just to produce excellent results only a few months before their viva. It’s really easy to forget about it when you’re stuck. Some say that PhD stands for “Pray hard Daily” and I fully agree (sometimes I reach such stage of “stuckness” that I become almost religious and pray to a rubber duck or a holy teddy bear).

Should you do a PhD then? I don’t know. And you don’t have to know either. My reasoning was that it’s better to regret something you’ve done that something you haven’t. PhD isn’t for everyone but you won’t know if it’s for you if you don’t try.

I can just say that even when I absolutely HATE it for long days when nothing seems to be going well, this moment of solving a problem that nobody has solved before is worth it.

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