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A PhD: do you volunteer as tribute?

Matthew Yap PhDs

By Dr Matthew Yap

The shelves of a library in the background; in the foreground a very thick book open in thee middle with a graduates black cap and tassel resting on it

Potential Hell Discovered

Probably Highly Depressed

Pounds Head on Desk

Permanent Head Damage

These are some of my favourite PhD acronyms. They certainly make more sense than Doctor of Philosophy. I chuckled when I first heard these acronyms years ago. But having recently completed my PhD, I can attest that they’re all accurate descriptions of the postgraduate experience.

During my third year as a postgraduate, I considered writing a PhD survival guide. I put the project on hold because research and writing were all-consuming. Now that I’m done, I hope to demystify the PhD for anyone considering undertaking one to help them decide whether it’s right for them. I also hope to encourage those struggling through their dissertations to remember that what they’re doing is worthwhile.

In its purest sense, the purpose of a PhD is to produce original research that contributes to humanity’s knowledge. But people pursue a PhD for many other personal reasons. Embarking on and committing to a PhD is a herculean challenge akin to entering the Hunger Games, so before you volunteer as tribute for postgraduate school, it helps to know what you’ll face.

A PhD: Ask Yourself Why

You can start by asking yourself why you actually want to do a PhD and what you expect to gain from it.

Is there a topic that you’re genuinely passionate about understanding? Doing a PhD is a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to immerse yourself in your chosen field. You’ll develop insights and expertise that are unparalleled in breadth and depth. But remember that interest is more important than passion. When passion wanes – and it will – remaining interested in your research is vital, especially when you start wishing that your thesis has a neck you could throttle.

Do you believe that earning a PhD will improve your career prospects? Can you see yourself pursuing (and staying in) a career that actually needs an advanced degree? Most jobs outside the sciences and academia are perfectly open to other qualifications. Even if you get your PhD, you don’t need to stay in academia forever. Many other worthy professions can use your expertise. You can still contribute your knowledge as a writer, policymaker, science communicator, or educator.

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Take time to reflect if your interest in doing a PhD might be symptomatic of peer pressure and FOMO. Maybe you think a PhD is a good idea because your friends are doing it or because you’ve always done well academically, and your family thinks a PhD would be the ultimate badge of honor. Never do a PhD for glory – there is none. There’s only one person to whom having a PhD should matter – yourself.

A PhD: Ask Yourself What

What is the PhD experience like, and what can you get from it?

As trials by fire go, pursuing a PhD is an intense crucible that forges immense mental growth and emotional strength. You’ll discover what you’re made of and see how far you can go. Your intellectual horizons will expand exponentially, and you’ll hopefully also develop a more disciplined and detail-oriented mind. You’ll learn to value fact-based knowledge while remaining open to alternative ideas and non-traditional voices that challenge your worldviews.

Research forces you to look at everything written so far about a topic, and writing compels you to synthesize your understanding of that knowledge to say something new and noteworthy. Over time, you’ll find yourself gaining the ability to see the big picture and the minutiae. You’ll start seeing connections and drawing parallels between seemingly disparate ideas. You’ll be amazed (and impressed with yourself) when the reams of research you’ve been reading, which once felt impossibly obscure, now make sense.

The PhD journey will push you so far to your limits that you’ll need to develop resilience, self-reliance, self-discipline, a thick skin, and the ability to withstand pressure. Sacrifice is a perpetual constant – you’ll have to choose between your dissertation and the time you’d rather spend with family, friends, and other interests. Your research never really leaves you, and you’ll be perpetually thinking about it – that’s actually a positive! Allowing your research to percolate in your mind while you go about your day can produce surprising insights and (re)solutions.

Along the Way

Whether you’re at the start or completing your PhD, you’ll often feel anxious, overwhelmed, and inadequate. A PhD is grueling, so it is perfectly natural to experience these feelings. But if the stress and exhaustion become chronic, talk to your PhD peers or those who’ve recently finished. They’ll understand what you’re going through. Your supervisors are also another source of advice and support. That’s why you must select your supervisors carefully, for they’re the ones who’ll be with you throughout the journey – and what a journey it is.

I used to wonder why my professors insisted that we use their first names. Now I understand that while being called “Doctor” is nice, it doesn’t matter. I was happy before I got the title, and it hasn’t changed who I am or how I relate to other people.

What matters most is that by going through the PhD experience, I’ve developed a lasting sense of satisfaction and confidence in myself that will last a lifetime. That alone makes the years of hard work worth it.

Matthew Yap is a Malaysian writer and editor. He graduated from Monash University with a  PhD in Literature. Matthew has taught Film Studies courses and writes a weekly newspaper column where he shares his love for books, films and TV shows. At 19, he published the academic book, Answering is An Art, for Australian Matriculation students. Matthew’s short story MARI won first prize in a 2020 national writing competition. MARI explores Malaysia’s pandemic experience told from the perspective of the COVID-19 virus itself.  Matthew is interested in writing stories from a South-East Asian perspective that resonate with readers globally. Read Matthew’s online column.

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  • Atlin Merrick on

    James, I agree in all regards. However, for someone like myself, who wouldn’t be adding much to her hire-ability, a PhD has always intrigued me due to the depth of study it needs. I’m fascinated with the idea of drilling way down. That said, that depth costs time and money and those are what has caused me to daydream about it but not pursue. I love Matthew’s essay because it helps me understand that more.

  • James Dick on

    This was really interesting and informative to read. In my own life, I’ve considered stepping up my education to include a Master’s Degree in Media, but there are two facts that have conviction me not to: it wouldn’t increase my actionable skillset, and I’m lazy.

    But the former is the more important point. Employers in my field care less about what you KNOW, and more about what you can DO. I’ve already gotten all the hands-on training I could wish for from my current program. And I’ve always had more fun when I’ve been able to work with my hands on a project rather than do research (although I’m relentlessly curious about all things).

    I think that’s another important point to consider: measure the skills demanded by your field against the methods of work you enjoy the most.

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