Diploma Programme (DP) graduate Viola Wiegand reflects on her decision to complete a PhD program and what you should consider if you are interested in that path. This is her third story in our graduate voices series.
Have you ever thought about going for a PhD? I have just finished my PhD defence (an oral exam) in the UK and want to take a moment to reflect on the experience of studying for a PhD. To me, the thought of taking on a PhD did not really occur until I had started my master’s degree—and then, it was only because my supervisor asked if I wanted to apply for PhD funding. Towards the end of your time in the IB, you’re probably preoccupied with your coursework and preparing for your exams. You might not even have had much time to consider you want to do right after the IB—so, don’t worry if you haven’t planned as far forward as for a PhD just yet!
“Pursuing a PhD is an option that you have, especially since you have already demonstrated curiosity during your time in the IB and gathered some research skills”
When I was an IB student, I knew of very few people who had a PhD. Those I knew had some special status like teacher or medical doctor, so, it never seemed like something that would be a realistic pathway for me. Now I know that you don’t have to come from a family of academics to do a PhD. The main prerequisite is that you enjoy research—and if you like writing about it that would be a bonus but, either way, you will get used to the writing (hopefully) as you go. In short, if you like the type of work you are doing for the extended essay, you might also enjoy writing a PhD dissertation. Of course, it will be much longer but you will also have more time and you will be much more experienced in writing.
I think it’s worth knowing that pursuing a PhD is an option that you have, especially since you have already demonstrated curiosity during your time in the IB and gathered some research skills from your projects! In this post I want to outline some of the benefits and challenges of going for a PhD. Note that the components of PhD programmes vary widely across countries (and universities), so I can only provide a general overview.
The decision to study for a PhD is a big step. After all, it is a commitment for several years on top of your previous education. This brings about some challenges, as I indicate below, but most importantly it’s a really exciting opportunity. I’ll start by listing some of the benefits.
Researching one topic in detail
“The PhD track allows you to go into a lot of detail in a topic you (hopefully!) love.”
As part of a PhD programme, you will choose (or, in some cases, be given) a specific topic to research in a lot of detail. You get to spend a lot of time reading and writing about this topic
By the end of the programme, you will be an expert in this area. So, the PhD track allows you to go into a lot of detail in a topic you (hopefully!) love.
Gathering a variety of techniques and skills
PhD candidates often have the opportunity to participate in training. You might be allowed or even required to sign up for particular courses, workshops or summer schools. (In some cases, you even have to take some taught academic modules). The trainings may teach you how to research the literature in your field, how to write according to academic conventions, but perhaps also how to apply the latest methodologies, use a new software, learn to programme or organise events. If the skills offered in such courses are relevant to your project I encourage you to make use of opportunities like these. You might also have the chance to attend specialist conferences and present your work, thereby learning valuable presentation skills and receiving feedback on your research. In addition, many PhD students take up academic part-time positions alongside the PhD such as teaching and research assistantships. These roles can be really valuable for your CV, as they allow you to gather practical experience early on and start off your publications. Sometimes such roles take up a lot of time, however, so it can be challenging to reserve enough time for actual PhD work.
Working at your own pace
Due to the emphasis on independent work, many PhD students are free to work at their own pace. So, in case you work better in the early morning, afternoon or late at night, you can make use of that most productive time. As part of this, you might be asked to develop your own time plan for completing the project. The first plan might not be the most feasible but over the course of the project you will certainly learn to plan and use your time more effectively.
Developing your ideas
“Academics are refining and developing new methods and approaches, no matter how senior they are!”
The PhD lasts for several years—so, the work you do in your first year is not expected to reach the same level as the research you do in your final year. It can be quite exciting to observe how your early ideas extend and develop! In the end you can look back on your learning journey. Academia generally provides many opportunities for feedback, whether at conferences, in annual reviews of your PhD work or from anonymous reviewers of your publication drafts. There is always the sense that academics are refining and developing new methods and approaches, no matter how senior they are!
Show your perseverance
A PhD is often described as a marathon. While the general public and employers outside academia will not be aware of the particular components of a PhD programme, the degree is generally respected. After all, you will write a thesis of similar length to a book! Because of this respect, the “Dr”, title can be helpful even for a career outside academia. Undoubtedly, this will differ from country to country (and also across sectors/industries).
Of course, the PhD programme is not without its challenges.
Compared to the IB and undergraduate/master’s studies, the PhD experience can seem a bit lonely. Obviously, this will depend on many factors, such as how big and sociable your PhD cohort is, to what extent the department organises events that integrate PhD students and your own life situation. A PhD will always be rather niche and, therefore, be about your own, very specific work. Other PhD students will be able to relate to any frustrations you face yet the only people who will really understand your thesis are your supervisor and some other people whose research areas overlap with yours. Even then, you will know a lot more about that little niche than them. So, in the end, it’s all down to what you make of your thesis. Try not to let that pressure and isolation get you down, instead remind yourself of the excitement that got you started–and connect with others with similar experiences.
No instant gratification
Depending on where you pursue a PhD, the experience may be quite different from your previous studies, because in many countries, PhD programmes involve no real assessments until the very end. In some places, like the U.S., you start the programme by taking actual modules and being assessed for those like in other degrees. Eventually, however, you will spend several years working on that thesis.
Job security and pay
As with many other points that I touch on, the question of job security and what salary you can expect will depend on many factors, such as your subject, the state of the economy, the availability of research funding, etc. etc. You should be aware, though, that jobs in academia tend to pay less than in industry/business. Moreover, many entry-level academic jobs do not offer the same security, as they are often temporary. On the flip side, academic jobs may give you more flexibility to work on a topic you enjoy than a corporate job!
The internet contains many free resources for future and current PhD students. You can easily find a range of topics, including the PhD process, writing, etc. by experienced academics on blogs and social media.
“Don’t forget about people you meet in real life who might have valuable advice for you … ask them for advice!”
Of course, a lot of books are available on the topic and some of them are discussed on these blogs. The blogs will give you a good starting point, especially when it comes to posts like Inger Mewburn’s post on the question “Should I do a PhD?”. In addition, social media hosts a lot of resources and discussion threads that you can turn to for advice and bonding with others in similar situations. For example, you can check out hashtags like #phdchat on Twitter and other platforms. Also, don’t forget about people you meet in real life who might have valuable advice for you. As you move from IB to an undergraduate degree, chances are that some of your tutors will be PhD candidates. Don’t be afraid to ask them for advice!
You still have lots of time to decide on your career pathway and the decision to pursue a PhD can be made at many different career stages. In fact, some people even start a PhD programme when they have already retired from their day job. Nevertheless, it’s worth being aware of this option early on. So if the idea of doing PhD is something that interests you, you might be able to make your course choices and select part-time jobs (like research assistantships) that are relevant to this goal.
Viola Wiegand is a graduate of the IB Diploma programme at the Felix-Klein-Gymnasium in Göttingen, Germany. She studied English linguistics at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University and the University of Nottingham in the UK. Viola works as a research fellow at the University of Birmingham and has just finished her PhD. To relax from her academic work, she likes to knit in her spare time. Connect with her on Twitter or LinkedIn.
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