By Rochelle D. Smith, Assistant Provost for Diversity Initiatives, Washington University in St. Louis
Before you start researching potential schools and programs, you may be asking yourself if a PhD is right for you. This article describes the many benefits of a PhD, as well as some of the strategies graduate students can deploy to get the most out of their degrees.
The PhD, or the Doctorate of Philosophy, is the highest degree in research. This degree is awarded to individuals who have contributed to “the creation of new knowledge” by deeply studying a particular area of research, and advancing it by discovering or uncovering a new method, approach, design or protocol. Eight primary benefits of obtaining a PhD in STEM are:
- Qualification for the highest academic and research positions
- Diverse career options and higher lifetime economic gains
- Funding for living expenses and tuition waivers
- The sense of accomplishment from completing an advanced degree and academic respect
- The ability to impact millions of lives through research
- Mastery of the scientific method
- Development of critical thinking skills to answer complex questions
- Improved Leadership and time management skills
Due to the depth of the research PhD students conduct, completion of the degree takes longer than undergraduate study. However, many scholars in STEM areas complete their doctoral studies in 5-7 years or less. Effective mentoring and consistent monitoring of progress can accelerate your progress while simultaneously maximizing the number and quality of research and professional tools that you acquire. You can sign up for a mentor through TLA Connect, as well as the National Research Mentors Network (NRMN).
The First Two Years: Typically, doctoral programs begin with coursework and a qualifying exam. You will have the opportunity to develop your core areas of knowledge and add new, critical tools to your toolbox. There will also be a period of rotation among labs to get to know potential research mentors. If your program does not have formal rotations, there will be some other means for you to evaluate the Principal Investigators (PI’s) in the department, as well as the labs that they run.
You and Your Mentor: Your relationship with your PI will be central to your graduate career after your courses and exams. This close, often lifelong, professional relationship is one of the most valuable things that you get from a PhD program. You and your PI will be responsible for setting key milestones and ensuring that you reach them as you develop your research question, conduct your doctoral research, go on the job market, and establish your research agenda at a new research institution. It is helpful to have an Individual Development Plan to guide you in these efforts. You and your advisor may also consider a mentor/mentee compact.
Midway Through Your Program: Completing your PhD is a lot like completing a marathon; midway through you have loosened up and begun to hit your stride. But even while you are in the groove, the end can feel a long way off. Make sure there are concrete, realizable goals built into your research and your Individual Development Plan. Savoring these accomplishments will help fuel you toward the finish line.
Finishing: You’ve almost made it! In your final years, you’ll be writing up your research and preparing to go on the job market. You have added tons of new tools to your scientific toolbox. You have developed a network of fellow scientists, including both peers and mentors. And you have added to the sum total of human knowledge through your doctoral research. Now it is time to begin putting together your job market dossier, which will feature your research and research skills, teaching accomplishments, and anything else job applications call for. Take this opportunity to highlight all of the above accomplishments. Focusing on all you have achieved will give you momentum for the job market, as well as navigating well-intentioned questions from friends and family around the holidays.
The depth of knowledge gained by earning the PhD is very rewarding. It is a worthwhile endeavor and one of the best ways to find career and personal fulfillment, and at the same time provide the world with expertise and information that can eliminate suffering and provide information to make life better for humankind. To really gain additional insight set up short informational interviews with three individuals who have a STEM PhD in your field of interest.