For those of you who are thinking — vaguely or seriously — about postgraduate study, here are some thoughts from a recent and from a less recent PhD student…
A recent student’s perspective
It’s that time of year where everyone starts to think about their plans after graduation. For the majority of students this will involve job interviews, graduate entry schemes and weighing up the pros and cons of working for various companies. However, some students will be asking the question I asked myself 3 years ago: “should I do a PhD?”
As a former PhD student I thought that I would share my thoughts on the PhD experience at Strathclyde and pass on some of the advice that was given to me.
Deciding which project to undertake is an important decision. First of all you must find the project and the area interesting. You are going to be working on this for 3 years so a keen interest in the area and the project is essential for maintaining motivation when times are hard. It will also make the good times even better.
Your supervisor is your main point of contact during the project. You will be having regular meetings to discuss progress, new ideas and areas where you are having trouble and it is important that you can develop a good working relationship with them. Like the choice of project, it is essential that you pick a supervisor that you can work with and that you get along with. Choosing the wrong supervisor can make the whole experience a nightmare, so think carefully.
Undertaking a PhD is like riding a roller coaster: there are many highs and lows. At the start you will feel lost. This is normal! The hardest thing is realising that you don’t know all you need to know. If you do a PhD you will have to keep reminding yourself that this is a learning process and you are not expected to know everything (I know I had to). Over time your knowledge base will increase and you will be given the chance to present your work to the scientific community. This is when you realise that others are interested in your research and it feels amazing.
So should you do a PhD? Well, that is up to you. If you want to learn more about a subject and wish to tackle research questions that are important to the wider scientific community then it may be for you — but before you go knocking on doors to discuss various projects, think back to your final year project. Did you enjoy it? Did you like working on a project where you influenced its development? If so then you will probably enjoy a PhD.
Stephen Corson did his first degree in the Department of Mathematics (as was) and stayed on to do a PhD in mathematical epidemiology.. He completed his PhD this academic year and he’s now a research assistant in the PME Research Group.
A less recent student’s perspective
When I started prospecting for PhD places all I really knew was that I wanted to work in a particular but rather widely-defined area (geophysical fluid dynamics), because I’d seen a bit of it as an undergraduate and thought it was interesting. Fortunately I was given some good advice: first, find a department that’s a good place to study; second, find a supervisor you can get on with.
It’s important to be in a department where plenty of good research is going on. A lot of what you learn as a grad student isn’t directly from your own project: some of it’s from seminars and other formal events, but a lot of it is simply from chatting to other researchers — students and staff — and learning the way they think and the problems they reckon are interesting. It also helps to have plenty of other PhD students around. PhDs are inevitably a lonely experience at times, and it’s good to have someone nearby who’s going through the same process and who can help you let off steam or provide a shoulder to cry on.
Your supervisor is probably more important than your project, because a project will often shape itself to suit the student’s abilities and enthusiasms, whereas a supervisor generally won’t. Make sure they’ll have time for you — unless you’re extremely self-reliant, it’s no use working “with” the greatest mathematician in the world if they have fifty other grad students and can’t speak to you more than once a month! Make sure that you can imagine working at close quarters with them when you’re feeling under pressure. (Geology students may literally have to share a tent in the wilderness with their supervisor for a week at a time: in maths it’s rarely so extreme but relationships can still get pushed to breaking point.) And, if you can, make sure your supervisor has lots of ideas — so if the one you start working on doesn’t work out, there are other directions you can take.
Should you do a PhD? To what Stephen says, I’d add this: graduate study is a marathon (or worse: during my own PhD I frequently compared it to Frodo’s journey across Mordor), whereas undergraduate study is more like a sequence of sprints; they need rather different strengths. If you’re the sort of person who needs immediate rewards and immediate deadlines to motivate you, you may find a PhD pretty tough. Equally, if you’re the sort of person who gets frustrated with undergraduate material flying past too quickly to think about in depth, then you might find graduate study is the right thing for you…
David Pritchard did his PhD in fluid dynamics at the University of Bristol, finishing in 2001. After several years of postdoctoral research he ended up as a lecturer at Strathclyde, where he’s now supervising some long-suffering PhD students of his own.
Some other possibly helpful advice
There is a lot of measured and sensible advice out there on the PhD process, including at least one book (Phillips and Pugh’s How to get a PhD, now in its fifth edition). There’s also plenty of less measured and sensible stuff, which may give you a more accurate picture of how it looks from the inside. (The number of webpages on “how to survive a PhD” certainly tells you something about how much more appealing it is to write a webpage than to write a thesis.) Here are some links that some people have found helpful.
The long and winding road to a PhD. To quote the person who supplied this link: “It’s very US biased, and it’s likely to put a fair few students off, but if someone can read this and still want to do a PhD then they are (a) nutters, and (b) probably suited to doing it!”
The importance of stupidity in scientific research. An essay published in Journal of Cell Science, but highly relevant to non-biologists too.
A graduate school survival guide. Written mainly for computer science students in the US, but with some good nuggets of advice.
Ravi Vakil’s advice to potential students. Prof. Vakil, of Stanford, appears to be that rare thing: a supervisor who’s up-front about what he expects!
Tough love: An insensitive guide to thriving in your PhD. Advice from a neuroscientist, but with quite a lot that’s relevant to mathematicians, and as the author says, “written in the real-life politically-incorrect language your supervisors use when they’re at the pub talking about you behind your back”.
PhD Comics. An online comic strip with a cult following among grad students (who don’t always get much attention in popular culture). See in particular the list of the most popular comics — and never tell potential supervisors that you base your life decisions on advice from a comic strip…