Should I do a PhD?

While studying for your postgraduate degree, you may be considering whether or not a PhD would be a suitable next step for your career. With many prospective students asking the same question, King’s PhD student Heather Williams decided to bring a panel of speakers together to help students make this important decision.

The speakers included Maryyum Mehmood, a second-year PhD student; Monica Allen, special advisor to the Deputy Prime Minister; Dr Birthe Anders, a lecturer in War Studies; and Heather herself. This article summarises their key advice:

“To answer whether a PhD enhances your career opprtunities – it depends on your goals. If your career goals are to go into academia, then a PhD is necessary, though there are occasional exceptions. In government, a PhD really isn’t as necessary because you are juggling so many issues and tasks rather than focusing on one niche area within a subject matter. In think tanks and other research environments, a PhD opens a lot of doors and exposes you to opportunities, however I know plenty of people working in think tanks doing great exciting research who don’t have a PhD but have gained the necessary experience through other routes.”

“The greatest value of the PhD comes from skills and confidence. It affords you the opportunity to hone your research skills, develop a project, present your findings, write a lot, and learn about your working style and how you manage a big project. These are really useful skills that you can transfer to various career paths, so a PhD isn’t just about becoming an expert in your subject matter. In the process, you do gain confidence and suffer less and less from ‘imposter syndrome’. There is a great sense of achievement in knowing you are an expert in your field and that you can speak authoritatively about the issue to any audience.”

“However, many people only consider a PhD if they are having a hard time finding a job, which really isn’t the right reason to go into it. If you find a career that appeals to you or are on a career path that you enjoy that doesn’t require a PhD, then stick to that.”

“Perhaps the most important piece of advice when considering whether or not to get a PhD is to ask yourself the question, ‘is there a topic that I love so much, as if it were my own child, that I could commit to it for a minimum of three years?’ It needs to be a very specific and original topic; for example, ‘US-Russia relations’ is not specific enough for a PhD, but ‘US-Russia strategic arms control since 1968’ is a PhD topic (mine). When you are looking at something that niche and for that long, you have to be genuinely passionate and curious about it, otherwise it is a horribly painful process. For people who choose not to get a PhD, they may not want to limit themselves to one such issue for such a long time but instead prefer to focus on developing a broad range of skills and professional development.”

“If the PhD is part of your strategy there are some important things to consider. First, really think about your topic and devote a lot of time to developing your research proposal.”

“Second, research potential supervisors. For the PhD, while a university or department might bring a prestigious name, the most important relationship will be the one you have with your supervisor. Look for a supervisor who has a subject matter and expertise that meshes with your topic and vision for the project. If possible, reach out to him/her beforehand to find out if they are accepting new PhD students and are interested in working with you.”

“Third, go into the process with your eyes wide open to the fact that the PhD is challenging. There will be days when you would rather be a professional dog walker than write your dissertation; when you are convinced there is nothing original about your findings and everything you write sounds like it was written by a seven-year old; when you realize this ‘niche’ topic requires enough reading to fill a lifetime; and when you weep at academic jargon and words like ‘hermeneutic’ and run on sentences with too many clauses.”

“So, anticipate those days because they will happen. But for those who make the right decision, it really can be worth it.”

This event was hosted by the King’s College London Women in War and International Politics (WIWIP) Network

If that’s got you interested in applying for a PhD / research degree here at King’s but you’re not sure what the next steps, then click here to find out more.