Tuesday, December 22, 2009

What does it take to do a PhD?

Students often ask me whether I think they could do a PhD, or whether they should rather do a Masters, go clinical, etc… I got my PhD in Psychology two years ago, in Germany, and won a couple of dissertation prizes and so I guess you could say I was a successful PhD student. However, more importantly, I was a very happy PhD student. I didn’t do a Masters etc., but I can maybe tell you one or two things about the PhD. Obviously, what I’m going to say isn’t valid for every University, Department, or even every Psychologist at UQ, and your potential PhD experience will depend a great deal on your supervisor, but hopefully I can give you an impression of whether or not you would have a good time doing a PhD.

In general, I think, you’ll have a fantastic time as a PhD student if you’re cut out to be a researcher, that is, if you think, act and work like a researcher. What does it take to be a researcher? Here are some of my ideas – very subjective and idiosyncratic, obviously, but maybe it’ll help you.

First, researchers don’t have anybody who works out their schedule for the day, they have no direct supervision, no boss to tell them what to do. You, as a PhD student, will have your own project, and you’ll be ultimately responsible for the progress. There will be a million things you need to know (both knowing how and knowing that), but no one to teach you. Supervisors may be helpful or they may be a hindrance. You may have to seek advice from others, and teach yourself one or two things without anybody helping you. Do you believe that you can learn without a teacher? Or do you even like learning new things autonomously? That’s really essential. Another important factor is: Can you discipline yourself, and do the things that are necessary, instead of only the things you like best? That’s important for your progress.

Second, successful researchers usually come in two broad flavours: critical or creative. Have you ever been praised for your critical or creative thinking? Have you ever excelled in a course where this was demanded? If not, don’t despair. If yes, that’s a good indicator that you have what it takes to be a researcher (because our prime job is to extend the current knowledge pool).

Third, there’s a reason that the most successful researchers often seem to be absent-minded: They are really involved with their research, they think about their project all the time. They often put in more hours than just 7, 8 hours per day, and when they go home, they take their research with them. Are you capable of working 12-14 hours a day? Are you prepared to work on a weekend? Have you ever been really involved with a topic, up to the point of becoming real fanatic about it? That’s a great plus.

With motivation and discipline, you can obviously learn everything that’s required to do research. However, one important thing is writing skills: If you don’t have good writing skills, it’s going to be difficult for you. You may overcome these difficulties, but it probably won’t be much fun. So you may be off better choosing another good job instead of researcher/PhD student: No reason to make it harder for you, right?

Hope this helps!!! Cheers, Stefanie.
Are you studying Psychology@UQ and want to contribute to theuqpsycblog??
Send Will an email to find out how: will.harrison@uqconnect.edu.au

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