To Ph.d(o) or not?

I admit, the title isn’t the nerdiest one I have come up with. Usually academics are busy coining titles like “ A doctorate: an ethnographic perspective of a PhD candidate” or “ An affective view of what makes a graduate student adhere to the path of consistent dispersion of effort”, but I won’t do that. This title writing was never my strong suit anyway.

In the past 5 years, I have met many people from different walks of life, wondering much about the PhD life, particularly with the intention of applying for one in top business schools around the world. This post is kind of a summary of all the questions that have come my way, and my two measly puny cents (what does 2 cents buy us these days anyway) on the best way to go about finding an answer to those questions.

Q1. Is PhD for me?

It’s impossible for me to give a yes or a no answer to that question. But what I can say is this: If you like to ask questions, if you are curious, and if you like teaching or can fathom being responsible for teaching students in the near future without rolling your eyes, I would say please continue reading this.

PhD is not about changing the world (sometimes, though it is). Your contribution to the body of knowledge that exists in the world will be miniscule. But what will be real is this : does it speak to your curious mind? Does it satisfy you intellectually? Does it push you to ask questions you thought you never would?

In the end, it is more about changing the way we think rather than changing anything else. And in the process, if you can make the world a little bit better than when we found it – yep, that would be just splendid!

Q2. What is the PhD life like?

Ah, the PhD life. To use a cliché – it is what you make of it. Yes there are constraints = classes, homework, comprehensive exams, proposals, thesis, papers, conferences, etc. But there is a sufficient amount of flexibility built into the system. It all depends on where you want to go.Academia works by this law: Publish or Perish. All your endeavors as an academic are fueled by this very desire. Get a Top Tier Publication. This determines first off – where you get a job, then later your tenure, promotions – you get the idea.

Now publishing is hard. Rejection rates (yes, rejection, not acceptance) are really high (90% for A journals; tad less for B, B+). So that requires perseverance, gumption, luck, some amount of creativity and intellect. Now that you know the output required, the left side of the equation can be figured out to arrive at the appropriate optimal solution, depending upon the output you desire to achieve.This of course depends on several  things: Which school do you want to do your PhD at (Ivy league? Others?) What kind of teaching / research balance do you desire? What kind of work life balance do you desire?


 Copyright (c)  Mudra Mukesh  at IE Business School

Q3. What are my career prospects post a PhD?

Academia: Tenure Track position at a University. Depending on the type of school you will be doing one of the following: a) research with some teaching thrown in b) teaching with some research thrown in

Industry: Finance PhD grads, and those from physical sciences do venture outside academia, but I don’t have enough to go on about that tangent.Hedge Funds, R&D divisions, statistical institutes are some options from the top of my head.

Q5. How much will I earn once I am done?

There will be significant opportunity cost of pursuing a PhD while you are doing it. Your friends from college would run ahead of you raking in the big bucks while you are picking up pennies from vending machines, but once you graduate, depending on how you have done, you should assume to be at par with your former-college peers in terms of salary, atleast. I don’t have any data to back this up, and my little observational data sample is comprised of data points from business schools which may be outliers to begin with, so check with your industry professionals to find an objective answer to this question as the number varies from one field to another. (Also see Q1)

Q6. What kind of research topics can I explore?

My main motivation for doing a PhD was to explore and question domains I AM INTERESTED IN. Not my boss, not my uncle, not my professor, but me. Most of our education is driven by course and syllabus driven by institutions. But in its own little way a research degree empowers you to go in depth of an issue you want to find an answer to. Is there a question in your field bothering you? Is it interesting? Well, go to Google Scholar, and start digging, you never know what you will find – or not find. A theoretical gap- is often a great way of starting a research idea or a question.

For Social Psychologists and marketers like me, I also often look to the world and use observational skills to see behaviors which I can’t wrap my head around. Digging deeper into these phenomenon has often lead to me exciting and interesting research questions and papers.


Copyright (c) Vana Prasad at London Business School

Q7. How do I find an advisor?

Talk to as many professors in your school, outside your school. Those who are interested in the same area as you are, or those who are just amazing mentors and advisors. Ask them questions. See if both of you can arrive at some interesting research questions together. It is important that your style of working Is aligned with the style of working of your potential advisor from the word go. This means not only expectations but also the approach to research, their paradigms and worldview in your area of interest.

Q8. How can I motivate myself for so many years?

I recently saw a TED talk by Angela Lee Duckworth, (Link to the Ted Talk) which highlighted that the greatest/strongest predictor of success was not IQ but GRIT. That’s it – those who decide to persevere, do (persevere that is).

So yes, it will be challenging, it may be frustrating when hypotheses are not supported or when papers are rejected. But in the end, the rejection, and failure is not going to be an impediment. You are doing this because you want to learn, explore, and achieve a paradigm shift in the way you view the world. If you are true to yourself, the rest will follow.