I was asked a few times in the recent past if doing a PhD is worth the effort. Since then, I have been thinking of writing what I think on my blog but, as usual, I could never find the time for it. Not long ago, Jacopo Bertolotti shared his thoughts on the same matter in a nice twitter thread.

Since that really resonated with what I had to say, I’ll let him speak also for me and add a few more comments at the end.

For another very interesting and useful take on the matter, have also a look at Matt Might’s illustrated guide to a Ph.D..

A few days ago I was asked by some last year students advice on how to decide whether doing a PhD is the right thing to do. I will put here a summary of what I told them, just in case it can be useful for someone else.

[Disclaimer: What follows are personal opinions based on STEM disciplines in Europe. So this is a partial and (by definition) incomplete picture. Also, I am assuming you like the subject you want to do a PhD in, and that you can find a supervisor who is not a sociopath.]

During a PhD you will tackle one or more problems/questions that no one has a answer for. This is dramatically different from what you have ever done at Uni, where all problems had a solution somewhere.

Your supervisor probably has experience in the field, so might have some clue and have made some educated guesses. But they don’t have an answer. They probably don’t even truly understand the question. So this is going to be a learning experience for both of you.

Nobody knows exactly what you should do to answer the question, so the vast majority of what you will try will turn out to be a dead end. Doesn’t matter how good/smart you are, you will spend the vast majority of your time failing to solve the problem.

So the question you should ask yourself is: “do you like the process of learning from your mistakes?” If you enjoy the process of discovery, then you are probably the right person for a PhD. If failing frustrates the hell out of you, you are not.

In the end it doesn’t truly matter who you are, what your background is, how cool was the Uni you studied at etc. If you have no problem accepting you don’t know, and like learning a ton of new stuff from your failures, you are the right person for a PhD.

(Source: @j_bertolotti twitter thread)

Under such requirements, I have been really lucky with my advisors and thoroughly enjoyed my time during the PhD.

There are three more things that I would usually add to this if once a decision to do a PhD is taken.

First, always keep in mind that no matter how hard-working and enthusiastic you may be, the chances of making it in academia are slim, and get slimmer by the year. And there is absolutely nothing wrong in working in industry! There are different, generally much clearer, priorities and different compromises to be made, but that’s about it. If you look around, you will find plenty of interesting and rewarding jobs out there, also involving research, and don’t let me mention the salary gap.

There is a feeling of stigma there when one leaves, and the feeling you are failing the people that supported (and made sacrifices for) you, I know this all too well. But life is unpredictable and you only live once: do not take a move to industry as a failure, it is just a new chapter and a new challenge.

In this respect, PhD programs, at least in mathematics, generally do a poor job in preparing you for non-academic work. I guess this may be due to the fact that the large majority of the people involved have never worked outside academia. So, I think you should take the personal initiative to use your professionalization time to refine potentially useful skills which may ease an eventual transition to industry.

Second, it is extremely easy to underestimate our own knowledge (I am not talking about Dunning-Kruger now). Being surrounded by “experts” all the time, and with the social pressure from the (usually) insane requirements to succeed, the road that leads to believe that we are a fraud and everybody else is better and more knowledgeable, is short and downhill. In Italy we say that the neighbour grass is always greener, meaning that one always perceives that other have it better: we are all in the same boat. There is a term for this, Impostor Syndrome, and knowing about it in advance may be useful to protect oneself better from it.

Finally, but maybe most importantly, make sure you keep a healthy separation between work and life: take time off, cultivate your hobbies, try avoiding working on weekends. When I had left academia, one of the first things they told me at my new job, was: “Learn to work at work hours. Evenings, weekends and holidays are to rest: work to live, don’t live to work”. Of course, this is easier said than done, and after I came back to university I have worked nights and renounced holidays already more than once, but it is important to keep this to a minimum: there is nothing more refreshing than taking a break, and often it is then that one gets the best “breakthrough” ideas.