Career advice 2: Should I pursue a PhD?

Almost all (educated) parents in Nepal want their children to do a Ph.D. It is next to becoming an almighty in Nepal and other developing countries although 6-year post-PhD is still considered early career researcher in high-income countries.

Although many want it, not many know a way to get there. In this post, I will provide some guidance to it.

Before I start, it is important for the readers to know that Ph.D. supervisors are also looking for Ph.D. students just like students looking for a Ph.D. (supervisor). So, there is a lot of hope there.

Before you hear about why to do a Ph.D., you should first think if a Ph.D. is really for you. This video explains some of the pros and cons: Why you shouldn't apply for a PhD?

If you still think that Ph.D. is for you, carry on reading.

Ph.D. requires a lot of hard work and perseverance. Many quit Ph.D. before they complete. Therefore, a determination to commit to it, is required.

To be accepted as a Ph.D. student and to get a scholarship, you will require prior knowledge and (some) skills in research, good communication skills (writing, reading, speaking, active listening), ability to work in a team, ability to self-learn, among others.

These can be demonstrated by:

  1. Good grades in Bachelor Honor's degree, and/or Master degree (some Universities do not require a Master degree if the candidate has a Bachelor Honor's degree) with research as a significant component in the degree
  2. Journal publications
  3. Conference attendance and presentations
  4. Evidence of previous scholarships, grants
  5. Evidence of good communication skills in English (as reflected by TOEFL, IELTS scores)
  6.  About two strong recommendation letters.

Do you have all or most of these skills? If yes, that's awesome. You should APPLY right away! If "NO" is the answer, I would suggest you to start working on these first. That will help you complete the Ph.D. timely even if you get enrolled without some of these.

So, why are these so important?

Universities spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a student's scholarship for a Ph.D. Therefore, universities want to make sure that they don't give it to someone who is not capable of completing it. Their way of checking these are: good grades, previous scholarships, a good letter of interest (a marker of 'good' written communication skills), recommendation letters to assure that someone else are aware of the potential Ph.D. candidate's character and ability. The end-outcome of a Ph.D. is Thesis, which is a "writing" skill test. Therefore, prior publications help you get a Ph.D. or scholarship.

What do supervisors look for?

Very recently, a world leader in pain research told me that his criteria for supervising a Ph.D. student is having good communication skills and the ability to work in a team. Group dynamics get disrupted in a team if someone who is "off" joins the team. Another supervisor's criterion was that a student should be a self-learner.  Only these may not give you a Ph.D. position, because the University will make sure that the student has enough grades to get enrolled in the Ph.D. programme and also complete their checklist (see points above).

In general, supervisors look for a student who has the ability to collaboratively work in a team, is a keen learner, and a self-learner. If the student is a critical thinker, problem-solver, these are additional bonus points. Some supervisors look for students who have previous experiences in conducting good-high quality research, while others think that they can teach these during the Ph.D. journey. I think involvement in poor quality or unethical research is a "big no" for all supervisors.

Many supervisors are happy to compromise the prior knowledge/skill in research if the student is highly recommended by their previous supervisors or peers. But, having basic knowledge of research will allow you to learn more advanced research skills during the Ph.D.

Time to self-appraise yourself!

Check if you have most of the qualities listed above. If you lack one or more, best to start working on these prerequisites (sometimes simultaneously when applying for a Ph.D.).

Saurab's checklist before joining a PhD

  1. Do you have at least satisfactory command over the English language (both written and spoken)? Most countries require high scores in English language tests (e.g., a score of over 7/9 in each band of IELTS). If you do not know of your English language proficiency, appear for an English language test. Work hard to get scores in each band. These are critical skills required not just as a pre-requisite for your PhD application but will help you communicate effectively during your PhD.
  2. Do you have good grades in your Master or Bachelor (Honour's) degree? Most universities require good grades (e.g., 75% score in your Bachelor and/or Master degree).
  3. Do you know how to write formal and effective emails? Most Nepalese are "emailophobic" (a term that I might just have coined) and avoid using emails. If you are not comfortable writing emails, I think the first thing to do is to get comfortable at reading, composing, and responding to them. I had one person who wanted to send me all the details he/she needed over Facebook because not willing to write an email. If you are one, in that case, Ph.D. is not for you, I am sorry. This is because almost all communications during (and also after) Ph.D. are done over emails. You will not survive a Ph.D. without using emails. If you need help, seek now. I think Ph.D. is of better value to learn research skills during your Ph.D. than to learn how to write emails.
  4. Do you like to read? If you hate to read, please do not start a Ph.D. Most learning in Ph.D. is by reading.
  5. Do you like to find out answers to questions by yourself? If yes, you will do great in Ph.D. I have had many people asking me how to get a Ph.D. and asked me to find them supervisors, universities, research topics, many more. When I send them links, they would like me to read it out to them and write summaries from the website to them. If you like others to tell you all the answers, a Ph.D. is NOT for you! Remember, Ph.D. is to find an answer to a question that is not known.
  6. Do you have basic knowledge of research methods, what different research design is used for? Do you understand at least about 25% of the research articles that you read? Do you know what each research article section (Abstract, Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion) include? If the answer is no, you may not be there yet!
  7. Do you have some research experience? This really helps. If not, find a good researcher and shadow them and work with them. Volunteering work helps too if prior research experience is limited. If you make an impression on the researcher, he/she may write you the recommendation letter that you require for your Ph.D. But please note that exposure to no research is better than exposure to "bad" research (in my high opinion).
  8. Do you have a thesis written? If you are writing them, spend more time and energy in writing your thesis well. Some universities judge your writing abilities by evaluating your thesis. If you have written it badly, this might be a reason for rejection. Or if the research methods were satisfactory, but the quality of writing in the thesis was not so much, work hard to writing a good manuscript for publication from your thesis work. Seek help if you require it.
  9. Have you published research papers? Publishing papers in international peer-reviewed (and indexed) journals improve your likelihood of getting PhD scholarships.
  10. Do you like research in the first place? If you do not like it or do not have a passion for it, Ph.D. can be hell for you. Shadow a passionate researcher to get that passion before starting your Ph.D. That makes a lot of difference.
  11. Have you presented at a conference? If you have not attended or presented at a conference, please do so. If you like it, that's great. If you do not like going to conferences, Ph.D. life, or post-PhD life can be a bitter experience. Remember, attending a conference means listening to the talks, writing notes, writing reflections, following up on what you have listened to.

If answers to most of the questions above is yes, you should be ready!

Wait until I write about "How to find a supervisor?"

If you have any questions, suggestions, different opinion/advice, please comment on the comment box so that the readers can benefit.