Millie's Guide to Pursuing a PhD
Article written by Mariethe Joan Cobrito based on Millie's Guide to Pursuing a PhD.
Four panelists joined our Millie’s Guide to Pursuing a PhD panel to give us a peek at what being a PhD candidate is like.
Our panelists were:
- Kavin Sivakumar: Engineering at Princeton University (BSE), PhD at Duke University about transfer learning and multi-agent systems
- Helena Rong: Architecture at Cornell University (BSc), Urban Design at MIT (MSc), PhD at Columbia University about the role of technology in the intersection of urban technology and civic participation
- Amanda Zhang: Politics & Law and Law at the University of Hong Kong (BSocSc and LLB), Chinese Studies at University of Oxford (MSc), PhD at the University of Oxford about women’s history in modern China
- Mahmoud Mahfouz: Mechatronics Engineering at University of Manchester (BEng), PhD at Imperial College London about applying machine learning techniques to financial markets
If you are thinking about pursuing a PhD in the future, or just want to know more about what it’s like to be in graduate school, continue reading to learn more about what it takes to be one.
Let’s bust some myths first! Does everyone go into academia after a PhD?
NO! Many go into working in their respective industries, consulting, starting their own company and so many other professions. It is best to have an idea of what you will use your PhD for so you can think about how your experience can apply to your future plans either in academia or in industry.
Why would you want to pursue a PhD in the first place?
There’s no one answer to this. It all comes down to your experience in your education, your interest in your subject and whether you want a problem you want to solve and take it to a higher level.
For some of our panelists, it was their experience in research labs during their undergrad and graduate years that made it seem like a natural progression to pursue a PhD. For our other panelists, it took some working experience in their industry to discover the area they wish to pursue. Perhaps it may take a change of major to discover what you want to pursue – not everyone’s journey is going to seem like a straight path and that’s completely okay!
One of our panelists highlighted that for those in the humanities, why you want to pursue a PhD is very important. Unlike other fields like the sciences, there is always the chance of working in the industry but humanities have no industry alternative unless you want to go into academia or become a professor. It is very competitive so you must take that into consideration.
You must ensure that your PhD education is worthwhile and pleasant, not boring and tiresome.
Our panelists also emphasized that if you lost interest quickly then do not do a PhD. Of course, you don’t have to be smart to do a PhD but hard work and determination are much more important. Think of a PhD as a journey to hone your skills and add to the bountiful knowledge humans achieved.
What factors do you consider before applying?
There are two aspects you must consider, the lab you will work in and, arguably most importantly, your supervisor.
You will be working on a problem for at least 5 years depending on how intense your research is. You must ensure that your PhD education is worthwhile and pleasant, not boring and tiresome. Another related factor is the university you are applying to, such as their resources, reputation, and fit with your interests as well as practical factors like location and funding. Reach out to labs and supervisors to get a feel of what they do and their working environment.
You must also be on the same page with your supervisor in terms of the area you want to research. Whether it be their flexibility when it comes to decisions, the knowledge of what you are trying to do and so on. Our panelists mentioned that students must be proactive in reaching out to professors and supervisors. You must also make sure that they are good people in general, and not just tailored to research.
What would the transition be like from my previous degree to a PhD level?
Have a disciplined schedule and establish a routine so it’s easier to get things done and gives you time for self-care.
For the first few years, you will be attending classes and learning the foundation of what you want to do, this time will also be spent looking at research questions. The biggest change compared to an undergraduate or master's degree, our panelists said, was that a PhD has no set schedule other than your first-year classes because you are given unlimited time to work on it. The biggest disadvantage of this was that you had no one to tell you what to do. Their biggest advice: have a disciplined schedule and establish a routine so it’s easier to get things done and gives you time for self-care. An average day of a PhD student will depend on the person and their schedule.
Our panelists also talked about the struggle of coming up with research questions because you have to make sure that you don’t repeat questions and that they are complex enough for a PhD. One of our panelists related it to his work experience, when they encounter a problem they will have a set process to solve it but with a PhD you have to discover the best and most effective process to solve your chosen problem.
Imposter’s syndrome is also quite common, it’s something inevitable and something PhD students just have to deal with. However our panelists mentioned that they found that the most brilliant people are also some of the most humble, so don’t let the arrogant, show-offs pull you down.
One thing he learned was that brilliant people are often very humble, and if you ask them a question about a topic they do not know much about, they will be honest with you, so do not let arrogant people who like to show off pull you down