Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Many Considerations for Considering Doing a PhD

I was asked to speak to my masters alma mater on doing a PhD. There are many factors to consider both academic and lifestyle. Assuming you have already decided that a PhD is right for you, you are willing to make the sacrifices, and can't be convinced not to do a PhD, then here are the key considerations.

Choosing a Program
Try to have an open mind when exploring and evaluating PhD programs. It's important that you feel that you will fit into the program (trust your hunches) but no program will be perfect. Here is the process I went through, in order:

1) Consider disciplines
Communication majors might want to consider related fields like information, journalism, English, etc. Also consider various different names for essential similar programs, so communication can also be very similar to Media Studies and Cultural Studies. Also think about ones programs covering topics you like but from different approaches, for example sociology, anthropology, engineering (if you go too far afield, however, you may need extra time to learn the basics of the field).

2) Consider programs
Once you have a sense of the academic discipline, check out specific programs. The best way to start is by reading their websites. Websites have the official material for prospective students, but check out their recent course list (if there is nothing offered that interests you in the last couple years, that's a good warning). Also ask your social network for their thoughts or experience. Once you have a handful of programs that interest you, contact the admissions officer to ask them your specific questions. Another good way to get a sense of a program is to look at all their recent graduates (say for the past five years) dissertations (via ProQuest). If the program is not graduating any students doing anything remotely up your alley, that's another warning sign.

3) Consider the university
As there are a glut of PhD grads every year and only a handful of tenure-track position, the reputation of your university does matter. There are various lists of top universities, but also consider the standing of the program as well. Also consider the location (commute time, aesthetics, etc.) and facilities (office space, library, labs) of the university as well.

4) Consider the faculty
PhD programs require students to work very closely with a handful of professors. So it is essential that you find permanent faculty (i.e. tenure-track) who will support you and your research interests. If you already know of a professor whose work you admire, arrange to talk to them and tell them your plans. Otherwise, go over faculty biographies (usually published on the website) and check their background and research interests. Read their recent publications.

You need to find at least one faculty member who could feasibly be your advisor, but I recommend having more than one person that you can see yourself working for. Professors frequently leave for various reasons (e.g. denied tenure, better job opportunity, sabbatical leaves, retirement, death). You will also need professors to serve on your committee so while not everyone has to have similar interests to you, there should be others that will not be diametrically opposed to your work.

To make sure there is a good fit with your potential advisor or committee members and to improve your chances of acceptance, arrange to meet with faculty.

Paying For Your PhD
A good thing to keep in mind is that you shouldn't have to pay to do your PhD. Most programs will offer some sort of funding (however minuscule it may be). If you can't find any program, anywhere willing to cover your tuition and a share of your living expenses, then that may be a sign to reconsider doing a PhD.

There are various sources of PhD funding, including:
  • grants (offerred by the university, province, country, or a company)
  • teaching assistantships
  • research assistantships
Also consider the benefits you'd qualify for such as health care, dental plans, daycare reimbursement, etc. These may come from a graduate students union or a TA union.

How To Do Well
Consider your career goals and work towards from day one. Many people doing a PhD aspire to be a full professor. I heard that only 1/3 PhD graduates in Canada will work in academia - and this may mean adjunct faculty or non-teaching roles. If you do desire a tenure-track position, from the first year you should be building your record of:
  • publishing in peer-reviewed journals
  • awards
  • presenting at conferences
  • teaching portfolio
  • service
Considering the lack of tenure-track positions, I continue to develop my Plan B. This could be a career in professional research, consulting, non-university teaching, etc. PhD students don't have a lot of free time, but I do think it is worthwhile to do some work to keep viable alternatives.

PhD is a life sentence, so making the choices right for you are crucial.

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