About once a week, I receive an email notification that someone has added a new PhD-related question to Quora. Sometimes I read the question and notice that I’ve often wondered the same, and other times I read it and realize I never even thought to ask the question.
I’d be seriously misguided if I hadn’t thought a lot about this. The most obvious answer is that in the course of earning a PhD, you gain research skills that can be applied in your career after grad school. Many people still think of a PhD as training for a life in academia — and while achieving a PhD is the only route towards becoming a university professor and researcher, becoming a professor and researcher is not the only productive use of a PhD.
The range of responses to this question on Quora demonstrates that there are lots of non-obvious benefits of earning a PhD. Fahad Ali points out that working towards a PhD can be intellectually satisfying, can help build confidence, and “[y]ou’ll learn how to be tough (mentally tough that is) from all the grilling, criticizing, and second guessing you will have to endure…” Abhinav Varshney added that you will cultivate patience and the habit of observing things closely, since good research and breakthroughs are built on many small things.
So many suggestions! A few on this thread that especially resonate with me:
- Critical thinking
- Attention to detail
- Ability to collaborate
Some of these may come naturally, but in my experience, even if they don’t, they can be cultivated.
My own advice stems from something I often struggle with: just be present. Try not to think of a PhD as a means to an end, but instead as an experience in which much of the benefit is in the process itself. Immerse yourself in your field, your work, and building relationships with the people around you.
Scott Fahlman, a Quora responder, similarly advocates for focusing on the aspects of a PhD experience — like the ability to delve into a topic you’ve chosen — and considering ways to maximize those unique aspects. He notes that working with a PhD advisor is an opportunity to learn from someone at the top of their field, and that other graduate students present opportunities for learning from brilliant and interesting peers.
If you’re ambitious (and most of us are), a lot of the stress you feel will be self-inflicted. So try to modulate your ambitions and not try to solve the most cosmic problems in the 3 or so years available for PhD research. There is an after-life for most students, so try to save something to work on during the rest of your career. (Do as I say, not as I did.) -Scott Fahlman
Similar advice reminds people that to receive a PhD, you don’t need to be the smartest… PhDs are earned through hard work. But on the flip side, perseveration on a dissertation isn’t the path to success: “The best type of dissertation is a completed dissertation.” Joseph Perazzo sums a lot of the advice up well: “Making the best out of the PhD experience, in my opinion, requires stepping out of one’s comfort zone. You can’t be afraid to meet people, ask questions, and learn learn learn!”
I’ll leave off with one of my favorite question-and-answer combos:
- “Uh, they didn’t. From talking with many of my academic colleagues, it’s clear that the large majority of graduate students do not become good at writing even when they graduate and defend their PhD.” -Ben Zhao
- “Your question is worded (grammatically) to imply that they are good at writing. Which I disagree with.” -Maxine Power
- “They didn’t… PhDs learn how to research topics. (And, frankly, they often don’t do that well, either.) Their writing often lumbers and lurches along—inelegant and often unfocused.” -Donald Tepper
The assertion that PhD students, by and large, are not very good at writing is a recurring theme in the responses to this question. I love this in part because I know I’m not nearly as good at academic writing as many people I collaborate with. But I also love it because it reminds us that achieving a PhD doesn’t necessarily mean mastering research skills in your field (I consider writing about research to be a research skill). When you earn your PhD, you’ve contributed at least a drop of knowledge to a much larger pool, and you’ve massively improved and honed your research skills. But the PhD is not a magical transition from apprentice to master researcher — all throughout your career, you’ll continue to improve. The PhD is a first step of many.
You can find more curated questions and answers about the PhD experience in an earlier post.