Got your undergrad degree? “Congratulations!” Got your honours degree? “Wow, keep it up!” Got your Master’s degree? “Amazing! You’re going to THRIVE” Getting your PhD? “…Oh, still studying huh?”.

Can all my fellow PhD buddies raise their hands? This one is for you guys.

I can’t speak for all PhD students, but from what I’ve seen and heard, society doesn’t really understand what doing a PhD means. I’m not even sure they know what it stands for, PhD = Doctor of Philosophy. As a woman in STEM, I feel incredibly proud of how far I’ve come in science, and of the opportunity that I received to do my PhD. However, I don’t always feel this way when I enter a conversation about career trajectories, family goals or financial freedom.

PhD programmes differ in each country and field, some offer coursework in the early years while others (like mine) are conducted by research and I’m only marked on my final thesis so when a person asks me if I’m still “studying”, I always feel conflicted as to how to answer, because the version of “studying” that society knows, i.e. sitting in a library memorizing a pile of books for a series of tests or exams, is not the same as me “studying” pancreatic cancer through working in the lab, analysing my results, and writing up that thesis.

I often blame society. It has not painted us PhD students or even those who have obtained their PhDs in a great light. It often makes us look like boring, introverted, unskilled people. If I had to be vocal about my thoughts towards society, it might go something like this…

Dear Society,

A PhD is a JOB. The only difference is that sometimes the pay isn’t that great but show me a person who doesn’t complain about their pay-check every month. I get up every morning, and often work overtime during the weekend too, I respond to emails, write research papers, spend time in a lab coat and gloves, and go home feeling exhausted, just like you.

When asked what I was studying during my first year at university, I remember someone replying, “Science? Okay, well unless you go all the way to a PhD, you won’t end up making money”. Well, I’m here now, doing the PhD, and guess what? Those same people are now telling me to find a job because having a PhD makes me overqualified and nobody will want to hire me. Out of the very few that have made comments like this, ZERO have a PhD. And that’s just the point. How can I, a scientist, tell a painter to stop painting because they won’t find a job? I have no information about painters, the careers they can have, or the places they could go.

Please stop asking me, “When will you finish studying?” because, like you, I have no idea! I take it day-by-day, one experiment at a time. And I love it, one of the best parts of my PhD is the flexibility. But along with that, comes self-discipline.

So, you might be wondering after all has been said, why do I want to do this PhD, what’s so special about it? Well, a PhD is the most personal choice one can make. NOBODY can force you into it, or out of it (although some circumstances can get the better of us). Believe it or not, I am not doing a PhD to stay in academia or research. Instead, I have plans to graduate and move into a scientific corporate or industry setting as quickly as possible. So why am I doing a PhD if I have no intention of continuing with lab research? Again, that’s the point.

Society believes that if you’re doing a PhD that means 2 things: you’re becoming a lecturer OR you’re going to be in a lab for the rest of your life. Firstly, there’s nothing wrong with those 2 options but doing a PhD means you have the ability to LEARN, be flexible, manage multiple projects and handle large sets of data while designing and implementing changes to the project over time.

There are so many skills and techniques that you end up leaving with once you’re done with your PhD, that you can work at the highest possible position because of your capabilities and that’s something that I hope to achieve.

A PhD is not just a degree, it’s a life skill that only a handful of people are privileged to have (Okay, I’ll stop the glorifying here, we all know that there are some toxic parts of a PhD too!).

Regards,

The PhD student

P.S. Shoutout to my family who have always and continue to support me 😊

So, I hope these words coming straight from a PhD student help you to understand the value of doing a PhD and why unsolicited advice from those without PhDs should be taken with a pinch of salt. Throughout the few conversations I have had with professionals that have a PhD, they have only ever given me a “thumbs up”.

I remain positive that in a couple of years, if not soon, my PhD will push me up as high as I can possibly go, not because of the “Dr” title, but because of the skills and tenacity that my PhD has and continues to give me.

One thought on “Society VS PhD

  1. Amen to that, nice read. It would actually be really nice/interesting and informative if some of those (examples) skills and/or techniques could be reflected/detailed in another blog, for both the PhD and the general societies to reflect and maybe get more understanding. Best wishes…

    Like

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