from Guide to the PhD on Oct 30, 2022

Why pursue a PhD? Is it for me?

Many reasons for and against doing a PhD are based on oversimplified rumors, and context is the best remedy. Let me clarify what you heard on the grapevine.

If you're uncertain about graduate school ambitions, specifically for a PhD, this post is for you. Once upon a time, I was absolutely certain I would bail from the school at the earliest possible opportunity — a masters wasn't even on my radar, much less a PhD. Yet, here I am today. I've started and heck, even finished a PhD.

However, in retrospect I realize that many would-be researchers chose not to apply based on the wrong information; yet others left the PhD disappointed for the same reason. To save you from both fates, let me clarify several misconceptions about the PhD, reasons both for and against doing one.

No research experience? Got research experience? This is for you.

This post is written from a 30,000-foot perspective. It's not meant to be a list of criteria to make decisions with, and instead, the post is designed to add context to rumors. This post should clarify confusion but might augment any indecisiveness, putting you right back on the fence. Regardless, I hope that this post makes you ultimately more confident in your decision, whichever way you swing.

There are roughly three categories of potential audiences; regardless of which audience you belong to, this post is written for you, and separate from this post, there are clear action items that make this post relevant to read:

  1. Anyone without research experience - ideally an early undergraduate in freshman or sophomore year. At this point, you should try research regardless of your academic or industry inclination. Specifically at UC Berkeley, there are plenty of research opportunities abound, and it's a fairly established part of the undergraduate experience. This post can additionally help you understand if a PhD is worth entertaining. To find research opportunities, see How to get into research, as an undergraduate.
  2. Anyone with research experience - likely an undergraduate in junior or senior year. Bluntly said, you don't have a decision to make until you get offers. It's possible hiring or admissions committees will make the decision for you, so you should apply no matter what — then decide later. In the meantime, before application season, this post can help you understand how earnestly you should pursue research. For the application itself, see How to write your personal statement, for PhD admissions.
  3. Applicant with offers in hand and deciding between academia and industry. This post can help you understand which decision criteria are based off of faulty hearsay. I hope you've heard of this clarifications before, but if not, these are must-knows before choosing.

If you're reading this blog post, you're probably familiar with the basics. Regardless, I'll go over a few clarifications to address common misconceptions:

That's it for the basics. Below, I'll challenge several ideas you may have heard. These opinions below will certainly sow disagreement with someone else, but they're opinions I stand by pretty strongly, after my own experiences and discussions with my peers. These are bad reasons to pursue a PhD, and right after, we'll cover bad reasons to do a PhD1.

Bad reasons to do a PhD

There are a number of good reasons to pursue a PhD, but there are also a slew of misconceptions that accompany those good reasons. If you find one of your key motivations for graduate school below, it's worth reconsidering:

Don't spend time trying to keep up with every paper. Don't rush research for the sake of flag-planting. Don't make decisions with the goal of being "in".

Bad reasons to avoid a PhD

There are a long list of reasons to not do a PhD; funnily enough, ask any graduate student whether or not it's worth doing, and the answer is almost often a resounding no. I've to-date never heard a graduate student recommend following their footsteps. However, there are also very common — and very wrong — reasons for avoiding a PhD program; you'll often hear these as cons:

Impostor syndrome should not stop you from pursuing the PhD, but it should also not be the motivation for doing one.

Why I did a PhD

To be completely honest, I had no particularly strong reasons to do a PhD. I in fact started it believing I would not finish. In the end, I picked based on gut, and my gut said that the PhD would be the most new and exciting possibility. To help you in your decision, here are two pieces of advice that I realized in retrospect:

In sum, I had no particularly strong reason to pursue the PhD when I actually accepted the offer. In hindsight, I can certainly rationalize it and pass on the rationalization. As long as you didn't find any red flags above, I would say you're off to great start deliberating between PhD or not. To get a glimpse into how you'll grow as a PhD student, see What defines a "good" researcher? To get a preview of your post-PhD self, see What I learned in my PhD.

Pick the option that opens the most doors.

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  1. With that said, It's worth clarifying that "I just feel like it" is a perfectly good reason to pursue advanced studies. I don't claim to have had a reason myself, nor am I suggesting you need one!