“I don’t know why anyone would do a PhD”, an old friend told me yesterday, shortly after I shared with him my PhD-related life updates. “I don’t know either”, I replied, and we both laughed.
Many people, including my friend, think of a PhD as a gruelling way to spend 3+ years studying in extreme depth a topic which may seem insignificant and boring to most.
But that exchange got me thinking, why would anyone do a PhD? Why did I choose to undertake one? What reasons do I have for not quitting? Et voilà — this article was born.
If you’re keen on doing a PhD, if you’re already doing one and are doubting your decision, or if you just don’t understand why people do that to themselves, then read on…
1. You’re (mostly) in charge of your schedule
In many PhD settings, you work mostly alone and are not bound to the standard office-based 9–5. You may spend a lot of time in a lab, or on the field. Or, in my case in front of my laptop screen.
If it’s the former, you may not have lots of flexibility about when you can be in the lab or on the field, but you do when it comes to analysing data and when you do your writing. The lab hours may be fixed, but if you’re a night owl for example, you could always do your writing and data analysis in the evening.
If you’re not lab or field-based, this may mean infinite flexibility with choosing your own working hours, where you work, and how you work. I personally love working from the comfort and warmth of my home, with a hot cup of my favourite coffee, some jazzy music playing, and no distractions from other people. Most of these things I wouldn’t be able to have in a co-working office.
2. You’re becoming an expert
If you try for a minute to shake off those imposter-syndrome thoughts and beliefs — you’ll realise that, day-by-day, you’re developing into an expert in your field. This can powerfully change your perception of yourself and increase your confidence and motivation.
Additionally, nothing beats the intellectual stimulation of a good conversation and idea exchange on your research topic with other experts at an international conference, and the thrill of budding potential when identifying possible areas of collaboration with others.
3. You’re changing the world
Unless you’re doing some really ground-breaking and directly impactful research, your work can often seem inconsequential and meaningless. This can be a motivation and self-esteem killer! However, take a second to remind yourself that most progress is slow, and that includes technological and societal progress.
People build on each other’s work, and slowly but surely progress is made. You may not feel like your work has a massive impact today, but trust that it is shaping the world for the better. As Isaac Newton famously said:
“if I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”¹
4. You may just get to collaborate with others on cool projects
Some of us are lucky to be working in collaborative projects where we can work together with others on research projects and publications. Usually this comes from existing affiliations and projects that supervisor(s) are involved in. However, if you use your own initiative, reach out to people and network, you’ll create those opportunities for yourself.
5. You’re building amazing project management skills
A PhD is essentially a huge and long research project that is just yours to complete. But, that doesn’t mean that all you do is research. A big part of the work is managing the project and, well, yourself! This is no easy task, and the project and self-management skills you’ll gain are not only invaluable to you, but will also make you a stand-out candidate in the job market.
Which brings us to…
6. You’re becoming proficient at motivating yourself
This was one of my main reasons for undertaking my PhD. The flexible schedule can be a recipe for procrastination, but within it is an incredible opportunity to learn how to motivate yourself, how to schedule your time and how to focus your attention. These are skills that not only boost your employability but will also benefit your personal life in a huge way.
7. If nothing else — at least you’ll be a doctor (of philosophy) in the end
It may sound trivial, but the prestige of having Dr or PhD next to your name on your CV can make a big difference in your employability. If all else fails — it can, at the minimum, give you a confidence boost and an added dose of bragging rights. Yes, you deserve a bit of flattery after completing such a challenging undertaking.
For those of you already doing a PhD, it is my hope that these reflections give you a renewed interest in your research and the impact it has on the world and yourself. For those considering to do one, perhaps this has given you insights into deciding whether it is for you. For the rest, I hope that you now have a better understanding of the benefits of doing a PhD.
 Newton, Isaac, 1675. “Letter from Sir Isaac Newton to Robert Hooke”. Historical Society of Pennsylvania.