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Is it a good time to be getting a PhD? We asked those who’ve done it

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.

Read more: 2021 is the year Australia's international student crisis really bites

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.

Read more: PhD completion: an evidence-based guide for students, supervisors and universities

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

Checklist of honorific
It takes years of hard work to be able to tick the PhD box, so you have to be sure it’s right for you. Shutterstock

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.

You’ll have to make some judgement calls about how a PhD can fit into your life.

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.

Read more: Ten types of PhD supervisor relationships – which is yours?

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

Read more: 1 in 5 PhD students could drop out. Here are some tips for how to keep going

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

Table showing guests of Career Sessions podcast, their PhD thesis titles, and what they are doing now
Guests of Career Sessions podcast and what they are doing now. Author provided

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