Tamara Agnew, Researcher, and Stephanie Champion, Postdoctoral Research Associate,
College of Nursing and Health Sciences, Flinders University
The number of Australian PhD graduates reached around 10,000 a year in 2019, twice as many as in 2005. However, the number of PhDs has been exceeding the available academic positions since as early as the mid-1990s. In 2020, universities purged around 10% of their workforce due to the pandemic, and many university careers are still vulnerable.
Given these statistics, you might wonder if doing a PhD is still a good idea. Based on our discussions with PhD holders, there are still plenty of very good reasons, which is good news in 2021.
In June 2020 we interviewed 12 PhD holders from multiple disciplines for our podcast Career Sessions to investigate the question: why do a PhD?
Why do a PhD?
The PhD is a mechanism for developing high-level research skills, learning about rigours of science or the development of theory. It sets you up with project management, problem-solving and analytical skills that are meaningful within and beyond academia.
“It just taught me all those transferable skills, project management, and also now starting businesses. I’m amazed at how close starting a business is to doing a science project.” – Dr Andy Stapleton
For our interviewees, the PhD is an opportunity to dive deeply into a topic they are passionate about. They also considered contributing new knowledge to be a privilege. The process taught them to be better thinkers, critical thinkers, and to view the world through new eyes.
“The mental fitness to work at a high level, to be able to think at a high level, to be able to write it […] The topic is less important.” – Dr Gareth Furber
The PhD is a voyage of discovery to a better understanding of how things work. It gives them a credible platform from which their voice can be heard and respected, and they can contribute to change.
“I think it’s definitely like a springboard or something. It launches you into a whole other place and it gives you […] more of a voice. It’s a political act for me. It’s about making change.” – Dr Elizabeth Newnham
The PhD is a tough and sometimes painful journey, but ultimately rewarding. The extraordinary was tempered by frustration, and the experience shaped their lives, increasing self-confidence and leading to new self-awareness.
When asked whether they would they do it again, no-one hesitated in saying “yes”.
“You will never stretch your brain in a way that a PhD forces you to.” – Professor Kate Douglas.
The PhD is not necessarily a golden ticket to an academic career, but the experience and skills you develop will be meaningful for your future.
“What I’d done in my PhD gave me a lot broader sense than just my own personal experience. There were a lot of people that have heard me speak and a lot of that’s been informed by the PhD. So it might not be direct, but it’s informed who I am.” – Dr Susan Close
Advice from our guests
You’ll have to make some judgement calls about how a PhD can fit into your life.Keep both your eyes and your mind open. Pick a topic you are passionate about. Speak to people both within and outside academia to find out where this could lead. Think about whether you actually need a PhD to get to where you want to be.
And find the right supervisor! They are the most important relationship you will have throughout your candidature, and they are a solid reference for what comes next. Finding the right supervisor will always enhance your PhD experience.
A PhD isn’t right for everyone. Ask yourself, is it the right time for you and your research interests? Are you resilient? Mental health among PhD students is poor
Our podcast guests have witnessed PhD students’ struggles. The pathway of a PhD candidate is not linear. There are many ups and downs. You will meander in many unplanned directions and often take wrong turns.
When you have completed your PhD, the hard work is really just starting. It is a gateway, but there are a lot of PhDs out there. It is what comes next that really counts.
“It’s a gateway. You’re learning how to do research. But if you really want to be successful afterwards, you need to apply that, and be diligent about that as well, and have a good work ethic.” – Dr Mark Krstic
A PhD in any field is an achievement. Even the most niche topics will contribute knowledge to a field that is important for many people. The reward is intrinsic and only you can identify how doing a PhD will contribute to your life. It gives you a great toolkit to identify the doors that are appropriate for you.
“The first paper was the most exciting thing. […] at that time I thought of papers as like a version of immortality. My name is on something that will last forever. I think this is my legacy.” – Dr Cameron Shearer.