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Seven questions to ask before you enroll for a PhD

Written by

Dr. Ree Langham

Date

November 4, 2018

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Questions to ask before you enroll for a PhD

A PhD can be a path to earning more money, having more job opportunities and achieving greater personal fulfillment. But it also involves a significant investment of time and money. Before you enroll for a PhD, it is important to consider carefully the implications. If it turns out that a PhD is not right for you, you’ll only waste your time and end up feeling like a failure (which you’re not). The good news is that by asking yourself the very important questions posed in this article, you’ll be better prepared to enter a doctoral program. 

Bernard Jones attended the University of Maryland as a day student, graduating in 1998 with a degree in chemistry. After working for the Dow Chemical Company in Midland, Michigan, for a year, he returned to the University of Maryland to take a Master’s degree before going on to Yale to pursue a doctorate. For Jones, a PhD was critical for his continued professional growth allowing him to rise to a senior role with his employer.

Not all of us are like Jones. It’s common to have an idealized and overly enthusiastic perception of earning a doctorate. And, while furthering your education with a PhD is really awesome, it’s important to determine if it’s the right path for you. And, because applying for a doctoral program is often accompanied by an onslaught of advice and “guidance” from friends, family, graduate professors, the Internet, and other doctoral students, it can be difficult to know which advice you should take and hold dear, and which advice you should toss to the wayside. So, before you start imagining all of the research awards you’ll win, once you get your PhD, think long and hard about whether or not a PhD is right for you.

Listed below are some questions that may save you from a whole lot of stress AND help you figure out if earning a doctorate is really worth your time and effort.  

What are Your Expectations?

It’s important to be realistic when you set your expectations of earning a PhD – because it will be no easy feat. In fact, there may even be tears – and a lot of sweat. Ironically, if you ask hopeful doctoral students what earning a PhD entails, most will answer something to the effect of “it has to do with a lot of research, developing a more advanced understanding on a topic, and going to school for a really long time.”

And, while all of that is true, there’s so much more to earning a PhD then many prospective doctoral students and the public, in general, can even fathom. Earning a PhD often comes with juggling a full-time or part-time job, coursework (yes, you still have coursework at this level), conducting a research study, writing a lengthy (think 200-500 pages) dissertation (research paper on your results), “defending” your research paper in front of a stern-looking and inquisitive doctoral committee, and possibly doing an internship in your field – all at the same time.

You will be tired and frustrated often, so it’s important to prepare yourself for the toil. You will also miss social events and have to push dates with your partner to the side – for now. Your love interest will become the library…yes, he/she is quite “stuffy,” yet oh so efficient, when it comes to earning an advanced degree.  So, think realistically, when contemplating on if you should earn a doctorate and thoroughly weigh the pros and cons. Because, it will save you a lot of unnecessary heartache is you do.

Can You Handle the Longevity of Earning a PhD?

The truth is it takes time – sometimes lots of time to earn a PhD. It could take anywhere between four and seven years to earn this degree, depending on if you are a full-time or part-time student and the requirements of your particular program. The coursework (at the beginning) starts off pretty routine (i.e. learning how to research, how to conduct research studies, and how to craft a dissertation). These courses feel like they are flying by – and they are, in comparison to what lies ahead. The thing is, once you finish the coursework, you enter independent study.

What does that mean? It means you’re pretty much left to your own devices. More specifically, you become the captain of your own ship. This is where time slows down to turtle speed. It’s up to you to find a topic (in your field) to research, gain approval from your academic advisor/doctoral supervisor, set up the study (i.e. develop the design, decide on the purpose, get participants, develop an hypothesis, conduct the study, analyze the results, and form a conclusion), write your dissertation based on your research, “defend” it in front of a committee, and commit to a different internship (in your field) every 6-months to a year. This all takes time.

The truth is getting a doctorate involves of a series of small steps – and victories. And, keep in mind, when you get to the dissertation part of the program, you will most likely be required to complete each section and turn it into to your advisor/supervisor, than the committee, which means there is a risk that they will send it back to you several times before they “accept” that section and allow you to continue.

So, as you can see patience truly is a virtue, when it comes to earning a PhD. The good news is that it’s so worth it – if it’s right for you. So, before your apply for a doctoral program make sure you can handle the longevity of earning a PhD.

Do You Prefer Independent Study Over Professor-Led Lectures?

What’s your preference when it comes to doctoral programs? Would you prefer mostly independent study (where you work by yourself without the constant aid of a professor) or would you prefer mostly professor-led lectures (where you see the professor at least once or twice a week)? If you prefer professor-led lectures, enrolling in a doctoral program may not be right for you.

Yes, there will be coursework at the beginning, but eventually (and rather quickly); it levels off into independent study. Now, don’t get me wrong your academic advisor/doctoral supervisor is available during office hours and at weekly follow-up appointments with you (to check up on your progress), however, when you start your independent study, you will primarily be working on your research study and writing your dissertation.

Keep in mind that working alone may prove problematic if you are a social butterfly, because most of your time will be spent in the library – by yourself. But, don’t worry; you will be very busy during this time. So, before you throw yourself into an intensive, doctoral program, have a long hard talk with yourself and decide if you are okay with spending most of your time working alone.

Do You Like to Read, Research & Write?

If you don’t like to read, research and write, earning a PhD may not be right for you. A doctoral problem requires that you read many lengthy and sometimes boring texts, previous dissertations on your topic, and peer-reviewed journal articles. When I was getting my doctorate I remember reading so much that my eyes would sometimes cross. Well, not literally cross, but they would get blurry and burn. And, there were a couple of occasions when I would nod off… but don’t do that though.

The thing about it is, many times you are required to read and analyze documents quickly. For instance a peer-reviewed journal article may be 7-to-10 pages long, complete with a lot of scientific and/or medical jargon. And, at the beginning, you may have to read that same journal article a couple of times – just to understand what it’s saying. However, it’s impossible to spend hours and hours reading one journal article, so you have to have really good, no scratch that, great analyzation skills.

More specifically, you need to determine if a paper is right for your study by skimming it first, and reading its abstract, if there is one. So, before entering a doctoral program, determine if you really like to read, research, and write, and if you do – all steam ahead, however, if you don’t, well, earning a PhD may not be right for you.   

Can You Accept Productive Criticism?

Are you the type that bristles when someone is critical of you or your work – even if it’s productive criticism? Or, are you the type that accepts productive criticism pretty well, viewing it as a learning opportunity? Well, if you don’t take criticism well, earning a PhD may be difficult for you. On the other hand, if productive criticism doesn’t ruffle your feathers – too bad, you may be on the right path by enrolling in a doctoral program.

It is important to understand that earning a PhD comes with tons of criticism – some productive and some not (unfortunately). So, if you can’t take someone pointing out flaws in your work, getting a PhD may not be the right path for you. Because, it will happen over and over again in your doctoral program. And, it will sting. If you can brush it off – great! But, if you can’t…well, you get my drift. And, if you need a PhD for your future career, but don’t take too kindly to criticism of any form, well, you may want to adopt a stiff upper lip in a hurry.

Take the productive criticism for what it is – a way for you to improve. And, remember, every doctoral student experiences criticism, so don’t take it as people calling you a failure – because you’re not. Evaluate who you are, as a student, and ask yourself if you can accept productive criticism, if you can, you are in great shape to enter a doctoral program, but if not, it’s time to reevaluate if earning a PhD is right for you.

How Good Are You at Motivating Yourself?

Honestly, when you get to the doctoral level, no one can motivate you like yourself. And, the key to earning a PhD is staying motivated – through thick and thin. Being a good researcher is secondary. As I alluded to above, getting a PhD can be lonely and wrought with challenges. Plus, it’s a lot of hard, time-consuming work. I promise you, you will be tempted to drop out – several times, so it’s important that you know how to motivate yourself to keep going – even when you want to quit.

So, find something that helps push you along – i.e. rewarding yourself once you finish your coursework, after you finish your study, after you gain approval for a section of your dissertation, after you successfully “defend” your paper to the committee, and once you graduate. Develop a reward system and escalate it, as you get closer to graduating. This will give you something to look forward to, so you don’t take the easy way out.

But, if you suck at motivating yourself, the risk that you’ll drop out before you graduate rises. So, determine if you know how to motivate yourself when the going gets rough in your doctoral program – before you jump into the deep in. 

What is Your True Motivation?

Why are you thinking of applying to a doctoral program? Is it because you want to further your current career and it requires getting an advanced degree? For instance, are you an elementary school teacher, who would like to become a college professor, for which a PhD is required? Are you doing it for the praise and recognition? For the advanced knowledge and expertise in your field or because you want a future career in an area with lots of opportunities and high salaries?

Maybe, you are interested in getting a PhD because it delays you entering full-time into the workforce… The truth is people apply and enroll in doctoral programs for a wide-variety of reasons – some good and some not so good. If you are doing it to advance in a current or future career that requires one – keep going.  

Or, if you are interested in having more opportunities and a higher salary, it’s probably a good idea, but if you are doing it out of boredom or to avoid family or work responsibilities, earning a PhD may not be right for you. So, before you make that important decision, research your career field and the current and future job market statistics and predictions to see if getting a doctorate in your field is worth it.  On the other hand, if you are doing it “just because,” earning a PhD may not be right for you.

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Written by:  Dr. Ree Langham

Dr. R. Y. Langham holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from Fisk University, a Master of Marriage and Family Therapy (M.M.F.T.) in Marriage and Family Therapy from Trevecca Nazarene University, and a Ph.D. in Family Psychology from Capella University. She is currently a medical, health & wellness contributor, copywriter, researcher and psychological consultant for Livestrong magazine, Upwork, Blue Cross/Blue Shield of TN, and Disorders.org.

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