The Pros and Cons of Doing a PhD/Postdoc

OK, so it’s my turn to write something this week and I thought to write about what it is I actually do and why I’m a no-show to most of our gatherings.

 

For those of you who can’t remember or simply don’t care, I’m a PhD holder (as of 2016) and spent the past 4 years sitting in front of a bunch of different computer screens, analysing and interpreting Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) data (yes, it’s that giant brain scanner in hospitals that looks more like a slot machine for coffins than an actual camera). I did this to try and find a cure for a rare disorder where young children are wheel chair bound by age 10.

 

In that time, I lived, breathed and slept research, because I was working from home and remote controlling my office computer to run all my experiments mostly 24/7.

 

Figure 1

Figure 1: Work-life balance in Research. Presented in this format because I now know no other way of presenting figures amongst text.

 

Now, after a brief stint in a Government job, I’m back in town doing a Postdoctoral position (Postdoc).

 

Figure 2

Figure 2: The definition of a Postdoc.

 

I’m finding that the Postdoc environment I’m currently in however is very similar to how my PhD was. Specifically:

 

PROS:

  1. I get to be my own Boss and do whatever I please research/work-wise.

 

On the flip side, it is exactly how my PhD was:

 

CONS:

  1. Isolation despite being part of a large research group. This is because researchers are inherently introverted people and when work starts, we’re all sitting at our desks looking busy and not conversing very much.

 

  1. Very poor social skills amongst co-workers despite the in house opportunities to meet, greet and eat. See No. 1.

 

  1. No sense of “collaboration” amongst researchers despite us all working on the same problem. Most of us don’t want to share our ideas because we’re scared that someone else will steal it and write their name on the paper our names should be on.

 

  1. No recognition/acknowledgement for our work. Everybody and their mother has a PhD in this environment so we all work for little pay and reward to advance knowledge with original research.

 

Figure 3

Figure 3: PROS and CONS in a nutshell.

I like reading and writing a lot so I guess this is why I stuck at this for so long.

 

Figure 4

Figure 4: My steady relationship with Research.

 

Now though, after working in Government, I’m finding that I like that environment more because:

 

PROS:

  1. I get to do varied research tasks that immediately impact the public.
  2. Job stability.
  3. That work life balance.
  4. Opportunity for career progression.
  5. Co-workers who are more social than the average researcher.

 

I’m going to list some CONS below about what I know of Government jobs but honestly, these things don’t feel like CONS to me.

 

CONS:

  1. Timesheets
  2. Work can be slow and there might be a lull period before you get heaps of work.
  3. I can’t think of anything else.

 

Figure 5

Figure 5: Research in the Federal Government.

 

So if my choice is so clear cut, why then have you chosen to do a Postdoc, you may ask.

 

Well, there are several advantages to doing a PhD/Postdoc that will help in your intended career path:

 

  1. A PhD/Postdoc helps to polish your problem solving skills. Problem solving was the bane of my existence during school because for the life of me, I could not problem solve (especially in Maths). I finally got it towards the end of my High School days and continued to refine it in Research courses throughout Undergrad. It was only when I was doing a PhD did I understand the level of consideration you need to put in to solve a real world problem. That is, you need a healthy dose of management skills, organisation and creative thinking to identify a problem and then proceed to solve it. This skill is valuable in the workplace and during any part of your career, whether you work for someone or for yourself.

 

  1. A PhD/Postdoc helps you gain skills that you never knew before or never thought you had the capacity to learn. I was a Biomedical Science major during Undergrad. In research terms, this means experiments will be conducted on living organisms. This in turn means that should your cells/mice/rats/any other animal model that gives you a living biological environment to do experiments on dies/is out of commission, your research sort of dies alongside that. During my PhD, I decided that I disliked biomedical (wet lab) research wholeheartedly and decided to pursue pure computational research where I wouldn’t have to work with living organisms again. I found that I could code and programme well despite not having a shred of prior knowledge. In my Postdoc, I actually understand what it was I was trying to do with my PhD research even better and can design my own experiments in this new knowledge area. So new skills can be acquired and you’ll develop a newfound appreciation for your ability to adapt to a new working environment, something that is very useful in any career.

 

  1. A PhD/Postdoc helps you gain computer savvy skills. We all need some of this and yes, this may be an extension of Point 2.

 

  1. A PhD/Postdoc helps you gain Project Management skills. From designing your own experiments, to directing people in the lab, to networking (in conferences), you gain skills in Management that would be useful in any career working with people. That sounds counterintuitive to what I said about research being an isolated, anti-social work environment but it works out because you’re in the Boss’ shoes.

 

  1. A PhD/Postdoc allows you to travel the world. Such experiences help in gaining you wider exposure to working in and with other cultures.

 

Figure 6

Figure 6: Research Tourism.

 

In a nutshell, doing a Postdoc will help you gain supervisory/leadership/technical skills to apply for a better position in your intended industry.

 

For fun though, I’ve found a diagram that tells you where PhDs and Postdocs end up working:

 

Figure 7

Figure 7: The career avenues of PhDs and Postdocs.

 

From Figure 7, you can see that many PhDs and Postdocs end up working outside of a University environment (aka Academia). So I’m not going to end up lecturing anytime soon (I never did like teaching or grading).

 

In conclusion, a PhD and Postdoc helps you gain additional knowledge and skills for your chosen career path. For anyone wanting to pursue postgraduate studies, whether it be a Masters/PhD/Professional Doctorate, I urge you to make the leap now rather than later. The tuition fees for Undergrad now are 4 times what we had to pay before, and since more people now are getting some form of Degree, you’d be wise to invest in your knowledge now to secure your future intended career (and so that you don’t have to pay any more than you have to for your Postgrad degree).

 

~Gelato Ice cream Emoji.png

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7 thoughts on “The Pros and Cons of Doing a PhD/Postdoc

  1. Hey Ishni! I thought PhDs are sponsored by universities; meaning you don’t need to pay fees and you’re actually paid a scholarship (as long as you get one I mean, which most people with good grades can)?

    Anyway it was an insightful read about what you learned, I had no idea you learned coding for your research! Are you very good at programming now?

    Like

    • Hey Bonnie!

      Thanks for your comment!

      Yes that’s correct; you get paid a stipend but this is from the Government. You apply via your University though. There are other scholarships too but the above is the standard one.

      Since more PhDs are graduating than ever before, it will be difficult in future to get such scholarships. This may even reach the point where they don’t hand out scholarships at all.

      I’m OK with programming I think (not as good as the senior researchers though 😅). It was a learning curve but I enjoyed it!

      Like

  2. I just learnt so much from this one post about what it’s like to be a PhD student (and their after lives, if you want to call it that). When you mentioned about your experiments being dependent on your subjects staying alive, I can relate to that in a sense because of my work with bacteria. It must be frustrating and hence why it makes so much sense to switch out of it. Bioinformatics has always intrigued me too. You’ll have to tell me more next time we meet. And maybe you can teach me how to code as well.

    Like

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