As graduation season draws to a close, many will be thinking about their futures and what path is right for them. Here are a few tips from a research student to help you work out if life as a postgraduate student is for you… by James Blake
Going to university can be a daunting experience, even for the most confident among us. My apprehension as a fresher, however, paled in comparison to the nerves I felt on the day of my graduation. I was fortunate enough to have secured a postgraduate position within the Astronomy Group at Warwick, though I wasn’t exactly sure what it would entail.
I’m pleased to say that it was the right decision for me. Of course, postgraduate study isn’t for everyone, so I wanted to put together a list of pros and cons to help if you’re considering a PhD after graduation.
Pro: Pursuing what you love
My choice was heavily influenced by a set of summer projects I carried out during my undergraduate studies. These introduced me to the world of research and, sure enough, I kept going back for more. If there’s a particular subject you’re passionate about and feel you’d be able to pour your heart and soul into, then postgraduate research could be perfect for you. After three/four years of taking modules for CATS, you finally get to dictate what you spend your time studying. For some, this is the ultimate freedom, though others may find this difficult…
Con: Seemingly endless concern
Doing a PhD is hard, both intellectually and emotionally. Whilst the freedom to dictate where your research is heading may help you thrive, the pressure of having this new-found responsibility is a very tough thing to deal with. Perhaps for the first time in your life, you’ll be faced with a problem that doesn’t have an answer…yet. It’ll be up to you (with varying levels of help from your supervisor) to plan out your research and work your way towards an answer. What’s more, things usually don’t go to plan. It can be hard to pick yourself back up and try again when answers continue to evade you. Of course, this is all part of the challenge, and you’ll be sure to learn a whole bunch of valuable lessons along the way.
Pro: Become the expert
An obvious benefit from doing a PhD is that you’ll eventually become an expert in something you love. This can make you more employable, as employers will know that you’re able to dedicate a huge amount of time and effort towards a particular goal; you’re sure to be a hard working individual, with the motivation to get through good times and bad. As an expert in the field, you’ll be able to think of lots of cool and exciting ways to communicate your research to a wide range of audiences. Some of the best days of my PhD thus far have involved a simple conversation with a stranger about my research; nothing can beat the feeling of impressing someone you’ve only just met with the things you do every day.
Con: Not your typical grad job!
Let’s be honest here: postgraduate pay isn’t the best in the world. If money is the thing that motivates you, research probably isn’t the path for you. Furthermore, it can be tough to know just how much work you need to put in. Most graduate-level jobs will have set working hours. This isn’t really the case for the vast majority of postgraduate positions. As mentioned earlier, you get to dictate where your research is heading, and with that comes the power to decide how much time it will take. As a consequence, work can often follow you back home of an evening. These challenges only serve to emphasise the level of passion and motivation that’s required to see a PhD through. In this sense, postgraduate research can still act as a good stepping stone towards a career outside of academia. Also, there’s no tax to worry about, so I guess we’ve got that going for us!
Pro: No need to give up student life
The fun doesn’t end there. Student life can continue to whatever degree you feel is necessary/appropriate. You’ll have the freedom to join societies, play for clubs and be involved in the general ongoings of university life as much, or indeed as little, as you like. Many see this as a more familiar transition into the world of work, something that can be most welcome if sudden realisation occurs on graduation day!
Hopefully I’ve provided a few words of wisdom to help you along the way. Research definitely has a lot to offer, but if it isn’t for you I wish you the best of luck in finding something that is.
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