“Is a PhD for me?”And other questions you may be asking

I figure most people who did a PhD ask themselves these questions before applying (and possibly every single week until they graduate), and rightly so. Still, I feel like most people out there, even (potentially) prospective PhD students, have an idea of PhD students that doesn’t quite match reality. Personally, as an undergrad, and even as a Master’s student, I thought PhD students were all just surrealistically smart people, born to be researchers, innately inquisitive and rigorous, who always knew they wanted to be researchers. Yeah… no, not quite.

Obviously, I figure all of us are quite intelligent, and rather self-driven, somewhat hard-working. Still, we can say that many (if not most) PhD students did not actually see themselves as researchers when starting higher education. I believe that academia (and everybody) will benefit from more diversity in the people who embark on the PhD journey, and I believe that to get there, people already in academia should share their own journey too, highlighting that researchers come in all shape and size.

Here are some questions you might be asking yourself, and some real-life academics’ testimonials to answer them:

I’ve never actually wanted to be a researcher, but now I’m thinking “maybe”. Do I have what it takes?

“I feel you! I’ve talked about this in previous blog posts: until the 2nd semester of my 2nd year of Master’s degree, I entirely refused the idea of doing a PhD, decided that it wasn’t for me, and I wasn’t PhD material. I ended up having a fabulous experience during my research placement, and recognised that if I could find a topic I was genuinely interested in, I would give it a go. In my case, it’s the topic that made me do it. So what I would tell you is: if you find something you are passionate about, yes, you have what it takes.”

-Bérengère, 4th year PhD

At school I was quite far away from the “Straight As”.” Will I be able to keep up?

“As someone who didn’t hit their stride academically until I left secondary school and who is the first in their family to go to university (never mind do a PhD!) I have had unwavering doubts many, many times. It’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling that you don’t belong, or that you don’t have a right to be where you are — either intellectually or within the academic culture.

My advice is, if you’re curious, driven and excited, do it! Hang in there and be kind to yourself. Your achievements (and there will many many) will outweigh those niggling fears in the end. Stick with those brilliant, supportive and understanding people that you meet along the way, who can keep you buoyant on the not-so-good days and always push you to do more.

If you can, support others too. We should all be proud of what we achieve — sometimes talking to someone who has faced the same difficulties as you can make all the difference.”

-Rachael, Post-doc

Do I care enough?

“I ended up enrolled as a PhD student in a relatively passive manner. I had been working as a research assistant on a wonderful project with some very supportive supervisors who made the possibility of a PhD actually quite attainable. Of course I had to come up with a question and write a research proposal and so was somewhat active in the pursuit, but I kind of just went along with it thinking “it will probably never happen”… Until the funding came through and shit got real!

My point is that even if you are not one of those students who has had their heart set on a PhD since day one, with the right project and the right team, it can still be for you. And the fact that you care a liiiittle bit less can actually be a big strength. I don’t find myself feeling competitive with other students or with myself, or worrying too much over minor set-backs. It’s possibly pretty taboo to say on a blog about PhDs… but my PhD is not the most important thing in my life, and I think this fact really helps me to maintain some perspective in the more challenging moments. So, as long as you are motivated, interested and well supported, then if the opportunity comes your way, go for it!”

-Lorna, 2nd year PhD

No one in my family has much experience in academia, so is it for me?

“I grew up on a dairy farm and now I’m doing a PhD studying cows, so I think it’s quite obvious that my upbringing has had a massive impact on my chosen career path and research interests. However, farming and academia are two very different worlds. I come from a long line of farmers; my dad was a farmer, as were both my grandads and my great-grandads, and probably further back still, you could say farming is in our blood. Apart from my uncle, who went to University as a mature student, none of my family had ever been to university, some of them never finished college. However, my parents were keen for myself and my siblings to go to university, as it’s something my father had wanted to do himself and so we all did. I then announced that I wanted to do a PhD, which took some explaining to my family- yes, I would be going back to university for another four years. I’m now three years down the line and my dad loves to tell people that I’m trying to save cows from diseases in Africa. He’s not wrong, I am trying… So, don’t be worried to buck a trend! Someone should do it, so why not you?”

-Jess, 4th year PhD

These are just 4 doubts you might have about embarking on the PhD journey, and 4 people who have experienced, and overcome them. There’s not just one standard path to become PhD material, and the more diversity the better! If you’re passionate, and you like what you do, then by all means; surpass your schoolteachers’ expectations, or be the first Dr. of your family.

Once I was discussing with a friend what academics look like (serious middle-aged men), and I laughed saying I didn’t look one bit like one. He replied simply, “You are an academic, so you are also what academics look like”. I like to think he’s right, and I think academics can also look like you.


- Bérengère

The Chronicles of Morningside: The Tower, The Farm and The PhD