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Should I do a PhD?

My friends often told me about their interest in doing PhD and then asked my advice about the admission process and which universities they should apply to. I often asked them back about why they want to do PhD, and sometimes I was surprised by their motivation. From my experience in a PhD program, I found that the primary motive of doing PhD will often determine the success, not only in the admission process, but also during and after the program.  While I acknowledge many good reasons to do a PhD, there are also many wrong reasons to do so. More importantly, wrong motives may cause a professional and/or personal regret in the future if you find that PhD program does not give what you are looking for. Given that a PhD education requires a long-term commitment, you should really contemplate about your motive(s) before applying to one. So, in this short article, I try to explore and explain some of the wrong and right reasons for doing a PhD. I hope that this article can help you making an informed decision about whether you are willing to spend the next 3 to 5 years (sometimes to infinity) in a PhD program.

Wrong reason #1 (the most common) – Because I got good grades in undergraduate and/or master program!

It is quite common that people want to do a PhD because they think they are smart, as indicated by their flying marks in the undergrad/master program. People often think that high grades in undergrad or master program will translate automatically into the success of PhD admission and the success in PhD program. Well, the bad news is that it is not always the case! There is a big huge difference in the pedagogy between an undergraduate/master and a PhD program. Undergraduate program intends to introduce basic theories (in a few specific discipline) as a preparation for students before they enter a career in their chosen field(s). In most programs, undergraduate students are tested based on their ability to comprehend basic theories and how to apply these theories to solve a problem in a professional setting. Master program is designed in a similar way but with additional benefits of professional networking and more advanced analytical tools. What I am trying to say here is that high grades that you receive in undergrad/master programs means that you are good in understanding and applying theories, but it does not necessarily mean that you are good in creating a new one!

PhD program, on the other hand, is designed to train students to dismantle the existing theories in the field and provide a new or modified way of explaining why thing happens as it is or how things would happen. Dismantling a theory requires you to go beyond simply comprehending a theory. A good PhD program will challenge students to critically analyze the flaws of a theory (either the flaws in the assumption, or even in the logic of a theory), and develop a new theory to fix flaws in the old ones. Thus, your success in undergraduate program may not translate automatically to the success in a PhD program if you are good only in comprehending theories, but not in criticizing the theory (let alone creating a new one). Sure, high grades in undergrad may signal your high intelligence, and this could mean that you possess the ability to engage in critical thinking, but this is not always the case! So, before you apply to a PhD program make sure that you have the curiosity, energy, and time to engage in critical thinking and to propose a new theory!   

Wrong reason #2 – Because I hate my current job!

I know some people who want to pursue a PhD just because they hate their current job! So they think that getting into a PhD program is a good way to escape their boring routines, toxic workplace, or annoying boss. Guess what, all problems that you have in your current job may still appear in the PhD program, but now you have to face them while accepting lower income! But more importantly, a PhD education is no picnic. It is not a place for you to escape your routines. If you simply hate your workplace, the top three things you have to consider are: (i) change the environment of your workplace, if you have a power to do so (ii) get a vacation to interesting places around the world, or (iii) move to another company with a better environment. Doing a PhD is nowhere near the top 10 strategies to escape your job.  

Wrong reason #3 – Because the title “Dr” or “PhD” before or after my name makes me look smart!

No, it does not! If you think this way, you get it all wrong! I know some people who think that having “Dr” as the title before their name can help them building their political career, as the title “Dr” may increase the legitimacy in the mind of potential voters (I know, this sounds absurd, but if you are from Indonesia or other developing countries, you may have heard this before). Well, a PhD program is not a right place for you to start your political career. As I say earlier, a PhD program is a place to train you to think critically and develop a new theory, not a place to prepare you for politics. In fact, working in a PhD program can be an obstacle for your political aspirations. PhD students are often required to work alone in their lab/office doing experiment or some sort of statistical analysis. At times, your supervisors will ask you to help them with grading or other administrative stuffs. All these jobs would distance you from what happens in the real world, and thus prevent you from starting a political career. True, there are some academics who turn into politics later in their life (well known example would be Woodrow Wilson, Barrack Obama, and Elizabeth Warren). But there are many more successful politicians that did not start their career in academics. Moreover, we may misunderstand the relationship between an academic success (getting a PhD) and a political success. The fact that Barrack Obama or Elizabeth Warren started their career in academics before turning into politics does not mean that the academic job is the one that prepares them for politics. So, if you have passion for politics and want to build career in this field you should look at the key success factors of the majority of politicians, and not focusing on the success of the few.

Wrong reason #4- Because I want to experience living in foreign countries (for international students)

Many international students apply for PhD program so that they can have experience living in foreign countries. Some others just apply to PhD program to extend their visa. I do not really see the point here. Unless your home country is at war, or that you are being persecuted in your home country for political, religious, or other reasons, then I do not see why you need to pursue a PhD for the sake of getting experience living in a foreign country. Starting a new life in foreign countries are difficult, and at times require you and your family to sacrifice. When I move to the US for my PhD, my wife had to leave her career as a lawyer in a top law firm in Indonesia.  We found later that it was not easy for her to restart her career in a foreign country. We sometimes regret our decision to move to the US. So, before you start to do so, make sure that your objective to do a PhD (especially if it is in a foreign country) is worth the sacrifice! If you just want to experience living in foreign countries, there are much simpler ways to do so! Book a flight to the country that you are interested in and stay there for a while. Sure, this strategy can only happen if either (1) you have trust fund that can help you pay your bills without working, (2) the organization you work for allows you to take a long break or (3) the organization you work for allows you to work from anywhere.

to be continued…..

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