Before Joining a PhD Program

Deciding to do a PhD is not a trivial matter. Whether you are just considering your options, or you are sure that a PhD is what you want, this article will give you a complete view of what to consider before joining a program, what a PhD is really about, and a few insights into life after a PhD.

Here, we guide you through the important things you need to know before joining a PhD program.

Points to Consider Before Joining a PhD

  1. Does your institute have a lab rotation option? It’s always important to look out for PhD programs at institutes with a lab rotation option. You see, it’s one thing to be passionate about a research area. However, what’s even more important is to be sure that you enjoy the actual work. Regardless of the amount of time you spend having online meeting sessions with your prospective supervisors and lab colleagues, working with them in a lab for a short while helps to give you realistic expectations and clarity. A lab rotation option is an excellent opportunity to fully understand your program and colleagues.
  2. Can you apply for multiple programs? So, you have finally decided to pursue the PhD and have chosen your dream lab and institute. Keep in mind that there are thousands of motivated prospective PhD students across the globe, and there may be hundreds of applicants just like you for your shortlisted programs of interest. Candidates are often weighing multiple factors in their decision making when choosing a PhD program. Sometimes, candidates wait for a particular position for two or three years and later end up in an institute or lab that was not on their dream list, but it was good enough. These candidates are often satisfied with their education, but regret the time they lost coveting the “perfect” position. With the limited availability of PhD slots, it helps to apply to multiple institutions. This increases the chance of getting a slot in at least one or a few of the institutes.
  3. Be patient — it takes time to complete a program. PhD programs are generally designed to be completed in four to five years. However, a report showed that it took an average of six to 12 years to complete a PhD (NCSES, 2020). PhD programs are generally that long because you have to take some advanced courses (1-2 years), write a comprehensive exam, and complete a dissertation phase (>2 years). The average duration also varies in different countries and between universities. Considering the length of time it takes to complete a PhD program is important when making your decision on whether to join a PhD track. You must also consider how long you realistically want to be in school. The pressure can increase in funded PhD programs. There is usually a specified funding period at the beginning of your PhD program that cannot be exceeded. In cases where things go wrong or your program extends longer than expected, you have to start thinking of ways to secure external funding or get the funding period extended. This can be a frustrating experience. When it comes to time, considering these many factors can help you make a comfortable decision on whether joining a PhD track is best for you.
  4. Find a supervisor who can give you time and what their expectations are. Your supervisor can make or break you during your PhD. Try to learn more about your prospective supervisor before deciding to join their lab. Considerations may include:

    Does your potential supervisor have a prolific track record of publishing work?What is the community of scientists like in the lab you may be working in?
    Are there experienced post-doctoral scientists working in the lab?
    Who will your advisor be?
    Are they an expert in the field you are interested in?
    Are you interested in the kind of questions the lab is addressing?
    ” (Earlham Institute, 2016)

    It is equally important to find out what the expectation of your prospective supervisor is regarding you and your PhD program. This can be done via a formal/informal chat with your prospective supervisor before joining the lab. What are you expected to do in your first year? What is their definition of research progress? How many research papers are you expected to publish? Are there any additional/side projects you would be expected to be involved in? The answers to these questions will provide clarity on what you need to do during your program, the expectations you will need to meet, and whether you think the expectations are reasonable for you.

    Furthermore, the importance of getting know your prospective supervisor’s personality cannot be overemphasized. You need to know whether you your supervisor would be a supportive one to whom you can reach out whenever you need help, or one who shows little or no interest in your work, tends to be critical, or makes your PhD life difficult with unreasonable lab and work policies. In simple words, “Before starting a PhD anywhere, meet the people in the lab while the supervisor isn’t there” (James Heathers, 2016). Yaqub Adediji, a PhD candidate at Auburn University, further complements this when he said Speak with the other students in the lab, their life is a mirror of what yours will be.Try tolearn about your prospective supervisor and their work ethic before joining their lab. Doing this will pave the way for making the right decisions, and ultimately ease your PhD life.

  5. Why are you doing it? Don’t do it just because everyone else is doing it. We know quite a few people who dropped out of their PhD program because they realized it wasn’t what they needed. Sometimes you have to do something before finding out that it isn’t for you. However, it feels so much better when you don’t have to give up years of your life just to realize that you made the wrong decision. People settle for PhD programs for many reasons, but the one reason you should never have to do a PhD is because your friends, peers, or family are all doing it. PhD takes so much from you in the form of time and focus. It is thus important to think deeply about whether a PhD is actually what you need or not. You can start by considering career goals, what you enjoy doing, and generally, your life goals. Are you looking to gain deep industry-specific knowledge or contribute original knowledge to the field? Do you enjoy doing research in a specific field of interest? Are you confident about the type of research you intend to do? Do you know where you want to live for the next five years? Are you prepared to stay in an academic environment for six to 12 years? It is important to think of these questions deeply before deciding to apply for a PhD program.
  6. You don’t always need a master’s degree. It helps to get a master’s degree before joining a PhD program, but that’s not always a requirement. If you are confident about your choice of a PhD program, specific research area, and research skills, you can directly apply to PhD programs with your bachelor’s degree. This doesn’t seem new in recent times, but if this is the first time you’ve come across this, we are glad you did. A master’s degree helps to provide you with clarity, relevant experience, and skills that will be helpful if you later decide to study for a PhD. However, it is a fact that some students with a bachelor’s degree have gained exposure to key experience and skills needed to be successful PhD students. If this is you, and you feel PhD is an option, go for it. It’s always nice to know what options are available when making your career choice and deciding whether to apply for a PhD program.
  7. Funding vs non-funding. While considering a PhD program, you should consider the availability of funding. Getting a PhD costs a lot of money, and that may be too much of a cost to bear if the program is not funded. Several PhD students who go for programs that are not funded usually accumulate a lot of debt and sometimes end up dropping out of the program, especially when the PhD extends longer than the planned duration. Funded programs usually help cover students’ living and study expenses, thus allowing the students to focus solely and entirely on their research work without having to worry about money. Some PhD programs even offer a generous stipend, which is enough to cover students’ living expenses with their spouses, partners, or families. This is a good point to consider before joining a PhD program. Prospective PhD students should check for the availability of external fellowship opportunities in the department or institutions, which can help increase their total stipend. These fellowship opportunities are sometimes available exclusively to first-year students and thus should be considered before the commencement of PhD studies. Funding generally comes in various forms. Sometimes, a student is required to teach some courses as a Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA) or assist in research as a Graduate Research Assistant (GRA) during their PhD program. In a few cases, students receive funding in the form of fellowships and do not have additional teaching or research assistant responsibilities. Whichever is the case for you, it is important to think about how that fits in the general plan for your PhD, and which of the offers will be well suited for you.

Now that you have gotten relevant insights into what to think about before joining a PhD, you may be curious about life during a PhD. You may already know that getting a PhD isn’t always a smooth ride. What are the realities of doing a PhD? Let’s give you a micro-view of what awaits during your PhD journey.


Life During a PhD

  1. Likely, you will need a lot of patience. One of the essential things a PhD teaches you is patience. For good or bad, you come out of a graduate program as a different person. You are in a program with long-term goals. Previously, you were undergoing evaluations every month or semester. Now it will be after three, four, five, or even more years. It takes time to plan and set up experiments, which may or may not work in initial trials, and they may give you unexpected results. You may get stuck in writer’s block, or colleagues or supervisors may take ages to respond to manuscript drafts. No matter what, there will be times when you need patience, and in the end, most people say it was worth it.
  2. Many of the experiments fail at first. Experiments often take time to set up. Even a tiny mistake can change the whole result or cause the experiment to fail. If you are performing a new experiment for the first time, it will be better if you sit through and think about all the possible controls, make sure you understand all of the parameters and timelines well, and discuss it with your supervisor or peers.
  3. There will be times when you may not have any time. Yes, at times you may not have any time at all. Some people lose sleep, some sleep in the lab, some skip meals, and many mistakes  are likely made because we were not prepared enough before. It’s not uncommon to feel like you don’t have any personal life left, especially when you are writing your thesis, and even more so when we get reviewers’ comments on manuscripts with experiments and a deadline. Other times, if you start early enough and plan well, you can avoid such situations.
  4. Start writing and assembling data from the beginning. Perform every experiment expecting that it may go to the manuscript. People don’t take a good image or document well thinking that we will get a better result next time, but you never know what will come next time. Also, follow the rule of assembling your data on a weekly basis. For every data, make metadata. Give proper understandable names to your files and especially folders. A “New folder,” “set 1” “experiment for xyz,” “trial 2,” etc. are the names you may not remember after a few months. From personal experience, this is a system we have learned with time: Work/Project Name/Project subsection (localization/interaction/treatment, etc.)/Experiment type(westers/microscopy/)/(Set 1/2/3 with date). Also, put a text file in the folder mentioning all parameters and brief methodology. The sooner you start it, the better it will be for you in the long run.
  5.  Maintain notebooks in a sophisticated manner. Keep in mind, in case of any dispute, your notebook is your only savior. Even if you may not get into any dispute, your notebook will help you understand why you did what you did last year. It will also help the next person who might repeat the experiment or continue the same story. It becomes a nightmare without a proper, well-maintained notebook. Recently, Wang and Pender wrote a nice piece about lab notebooks that we would highly recommend (Wang and Pender, 2023). You can make it digital, or on paper, but do make it and document everything you do or think about the project.
  6. Find a stressbuster outside your work. Most people travel to different cities or countries for graduate programs. For many, it’s their first time away from their home city. New people, new weather, and many expectations (often self-expectations). This can become very stressful. Find something that makes you feel good. Whether it’s through your hobbies, time with family/friends, a daily walk, or weekend outings, make time to do things that help you make time for things you enjoy. If you feel stressed, consult a professional. You may not realize it today, but most of the matters you are worried about now are much more manageable once you have the tools (and maybe the luxury of time) to look back on them. Take our words, a few years down the line, you will think and feel very differently about the things you are so worried about today.
  7. Create a backup. We are living in a technical world where anything can go bad. Computer crashing is a norm. We know an institute that got flooded and another one that caught fire. Everything was lost except data that had been stored online. So, always keep a backup of your data. The industry generally follows the 3-2-1 rule. Critical data should have three copies, at least in two separate storage devices/types, and one of these should be outside user hands such as a supervisor or cloud storage.
  8. PhD is not just lab work. To most researchers, the one thing we love the most is experiments and trying new things, but there will be a time in your program where you won’t be able to focus on experiments. Two major activities you will do during your PhD program are reading and writing. Across your PhD, this may take some 50-80% of your work time. As you come close to the end of the PhD, most of the time you will spend on writing, re-writing, re-re-writing, thinking about writing (writers’ block), applying for grants/fellowships, assessments, data organization and evaluation, and submitting manuscripts.
  9. In the end, it is mainly training. Keep in mind that a PhD is just training on how to do science. It’s not the matter of life and death. And this will be the last time you will officially be a student. So, learn as much as you can. Take things seriously but don’t get too stressed if things are not going your way.

Tough path? Maybe. Everybody with a PhD probably had a similar experience. It just takes commitment and a lot of perseverance to get through it. Of course, the environment matters too. But you can do it! So, what lies at the end of a PhD?


Life after PhD

  1.  Not all who complete a PhD become professors/scientists. If you don’t know this, absorb it now: Industry is not an exception, but a norm. For every faculty position, there are generally 5-25 doctorate applicants. It means most graduates take positions in industry. So, when doing a PhD, keep an eye on which aspect of industry interests you the most. Make connections and work on self-development to make yourself a good candidate. You may think if you have to go into industry, why do a PhD? You are right, and it mainly depends on where you want to go. Graduates who work in industry for many years say if you have a PhD your career will excel at a faster rate and achieve higher-level positions than those who haven’t earned a PhD. The overall personality and critical thinking you develop in a graduate program help you in the long run. But it does not mean those without PhDs will not reach the same high levels in their own careers; it’s just a game of probabilities.
  2. Generally, the story continues after PhD. There, we said it. If you want to be a professor or official scientist, it will very likely take a few or many more years after you finish your PhD. Be it fortunately or unfortunately, a post-doc is the norm, but it is very useful to most graduates. A postdoc gives you a chance to learn new things, trains you in grant writing, and teaches you how to train young graduate students and navigate projects. But unfortunately, nobody knows when post-doc life will end. It’s a double-edge sword with which almost everyone must work. Some people get tenure after two or three years of post-doc while some spend over a decade as a postdoc in different labs or institutes. It’s best to be prepared for any possibility and keep evaluating what you need going ahead.

We hope this was useful for you and this will help you consider your options and prepare your mind for the long run. With this, we wish you all the best for your journey ahead.



About the Authors:

Abdulkabir Abdulmalik is a graduate student at the CEPLAS Graduate School, Germany and a 2023 Plantae Fellow. He has research interest in molecular plant biology, and computational biology. Abdulkabir enjoys writing and shares a passion for science communication. You can find him on Twitter at @Omeiza_PlantDoc.

Kamal Kumar Malukani is currently a research associate at TIGS, Bengaluru, and a 2022 Plantae Fellow. His research is in plant biofortification with a focus on generating rice mutant lines that exhibit higher nutrition values in the grains. You can find him on Twitter at @KamalMalukani.