Hey, I just want to tell you that… your PhD matters.
Yes, it does matter.
Who the $%&@# cares about my PhD? What am I achieving with it? Will my PhD mean anything for the world?
I asked myself these questions every single day of that PhD.
Do you ask yourself the same?
Then keep reading…
Your PhD Matters
People often wonder why I still write in Next Scientist. This is a blog for PhD students and young scientists and I have been away from Academia for 2 years. Why should I write for academics if I am long gone from Academia?
Two reasons: I like to write and I want to help PhD students.
People tend to understand the writing part. If some folks like to read, there must be people that like to write.
The helping PhD students part disorients them more.
Why do you help PhD students? Where do they need help? Aren’t they smart? Can’t they figure it out themselves?
Look, a PhD student is a human being. A smart human being. But human after all, with its virtues and flaws.
Among those flaws there are insecurities, fears, procrastination, entitlement, and others. We all have those, PhD or no PhD. This means a lot of room for improvement.
All these flaws limit the potential and impact of people.
If you doubt yourself at every step. If you waste time on Facebook instead of doing good work. You won’t give the best of you. You are half-assing your output.
We all waste our talent to some extent.
I do, daily.
What frightens me is the amount of talent wasted if a PhD student decides to binge on procrastination. Think of how much quality work we lose if a PhD student decides to quit her PhD or to be employed as a janitor after graduation (with all due respect to the janitors out there).
As PhD student you are already an accomplished person and most likely you are very smart (yes, if you arrived till here you are smart, trust me). I don’t want the talent of some of the smartest people out there to go to waste. That would be a loss for the world.
It might not feel like that, but your PhD matters.
The World Needs Your PhD
It pisses me off that nobody talks about how much we need PhD students to invent the future and how much they are changing the world today.
When you read or watch media out there, who do you find being talked about like that? Who does media see as the transformative power our society needs?
Screw Entrepreneurs, PhDs Are The Heroes
I read plenty of blogs and books about technology, online trends, self-improvement, educational, and the like.
I get bombarded with the message that being an entrepreneur is cool, that you need to create a company before you reach 30. If I don’t read in your Twitter bio “serial entrepreneur” you suck.
I hear that entrepreneurs will save the world’s biggest problems with their ideas, dreaming big, taking bold risks, creating your own destiny, contributing to the economy with your own business.
Heard of Elon Musk? The Google guys?
You only hear those stories of entrepreneurs that risk everything, work 100 hours a week and follow their guts till they succeed. These outliers are great material for Hollywood movies and news articles that will be shared in social media. But they are not representative of the success rate of entrepreneurs.
In fact most entrepreneurs fail.
Anyhow, I am going on a tangent here. Let’s see get closer to PhD students.
On which knowledge are entrepreneurs building on?
If nobody had done research in network communications, we wouldn’t have Internet today. And without Internet there would be no social network startups with billion dollar valuations.
If nobody had done research in relativity theory, no research would have been possible in GPS. And without GPS, Foursquare would just be the Yellow Pages and Uber a taxi company listing freelance drivers.
Let’s not forget that behind new startups there are many years of research mostly conducted by PhD students and young scientists.
I am not saying we don’t need entrepreneurs. Don’t get me wrong.
We need entrepreneurs to commercialize and turn our discoveries into commodities. Let’s admit it, most of us have the business skills of a 2 year-old toddler. It is obvious we need each other.
What about the risks?
Entrepreneurs take the risks, some say. My ass they take risks.
Sure, entrepreneurs spend the $15K they have managed to save in the last 2 years. They work their ass off for a year and a half. Then they borrow some money.
If they are extremely lucky they make it big. In most cases the business won’t succeed, they will call it a failure, write a blog post on how educational failure is, fill in for bankruptcy and move on the next adventure. Hey, and don’t forget to say that you will learn from your failures.
Pat yourself in the back.
That’s cute. Now let’s see the risks a PhD student takes.
The Risks Of Doing A PhD
In some countries a PhD student walks out of grad school with $100K+ in debt.
How’s that for putting your money where your mouth is?!
Other PhDs receive a scholarship that feels like a minimum wage, just enough to get by. In that case you can consider yourself lucky, because many people do a PhD without getting a compensation.
Then you work like crazy for 4+ years. You spend until your late 30’s jumping from postdoc to postdoc to the next temporary position.
How’s that for taking one for Team Science?
If you are extremely lucky and close to a genius you make it big in science, not in millions of dollars, but in your impact to humanity.
The most likely scenario is that in your late 30’s you realize the best years of your life are gone.
You have no money or are still in debt.
You still haven’t built your own family. Your personal and social life is like a wasteland.
You have lived in more countries that you can count with your hand since you started climbing the Academic ladder.
But you cannot call for bankruptcy and start again, can you? Can you go back to square one? Sure, as a janitor, go ahead.
You end your stint in science being overqualified and old.
How often do you read “overqualified” and “old” in job descriptions?
You can handle difficult tasks, on your own terms, you are the one that calls the shots in your research. While that is the nice part of doing science, it hinders finding an alternative job that fills you up.
How many jobs offer intellectually stimulating tasks at PhD level, where you can call the shots as a new hire?
Let’s not get all negative.
The Travelling PhD syndrome
At least you have seen the world, right? You’ve lived in those different cities, different countries hoping from postdoc to postdoc.
So much travelling sounds terrific for vacation, but not so much to settle down in a place. It creates the syndrome “dude, where did my roots go”, or also known as “I don’t know where I belong anymore”.
You might decide to go back home to your motherland, but you’ve been away so long that you can’t belong there anymore.
If you are a woman in Academia it’s even worse!
The Extra Hurdles Of Being A Female PhD
You might not be able to have children anymore. Ooops, nasty trade-off alarm!! Your biological clock didn’t pause while you were writing papers and grant applications. Maybe you shouldn’t have pushed you academic career so hard.
As a woman, that sucks. From a species point of view it sucks too. It doesn’t sound like a good idea that some of our smartest women cannot reproduce. It’s like a reverse and perverse survival of the fittest.
You read that Silicon Valley is a white male monopoly. There is no place for women or other skin colours there. Well, tell me how that’s different for Academia. After 6 years doing research in Natural Science I still have to meet a full professor that is female or black.
So yes my dear friend, it is rough in Academia. It is risky in Academia. But…
You got the balls or ovaries to be doing a PhD. And I salute you.
I salute you because YOU belong with the brave ones
Without expecting any reward, YOU are creating knowledge that will push the human species further.
Now it might not seem like that, but your PhD matters to the world. It’s the accumulation of many YOU’s doing PhD level research that fuels this unstoppable force of knowledge.
You might make that groundbreaking discovery, or it might be somebody else. The important thing here is that somebody does.
In the meantime, you should realize that receiving knowledge, improving it, and passing it on to the next generation of scientists is an achievement of which you can be proud.
If you just do that, your PhD will be considered a success.
We need you, so please don’t quit your PhD. Stay.
Your PhD matters.
And move on, in Academia or Industry.
Your PhD matters.