So you want to get a PhD?

What type of PhD?
How many years years do you want to spend in school? In North America the model is normally undergrad (4-5) + masters (2) + doctorate (3-?). So many years. The British system is slightly different with 3 years for a typical undergrad, followed by a year for a honours degree, and then some schools allow direct entry into a PhD. The other difference is that British-style doctorates are often research-based, versus the coursework etc. required of many North American degrees (i.e. it will probably take less time). So 10-12 years in school? If you’re lucky you’ll get a scholarship to do the PhD., otherwise, you’ll have to find funding. There was a time when you didn’t need a PhD to teach at a university, but this seems to be rare now, more’s the pity. There are many talented people with masters, bachelors, or even no degrees who would make exceptional teachers.

Teaching? – NOT!
Here’s the thing, most PhD programs do *not* teach you how to teach. They are concerned primarily with research. This doesn’t make a lot of sense considering 50% of an academic job is usually concerned with teaching. That’s why you end up with some people who have degrees up the wazoo, but can’t teach to save themselves. Other’s who are exceptional teachers, may not excel at research (but might do well at pedagogical research, which for some reason is not always considered to be “real” research). Usually it’s because they have no time to do research, or live somewhere where they do not fund teaching research (like here in Canada). So learning to teach basically involves “teaching yourself”. Also, not all classes are 15 students. Many first and second year classes are huge these days, especially in science/engineering.

A career in research
If you’re into research, you’ll spend time writing grants to get funding to pursue your research. Most universities do *not* provide you with funding of any sort, except for maybe a start-up grant when you start in a position. In some countries, there are very few funding bodies, and as such it is often difficult to obtain funding. These funding decisions are made by committees of “peers” from your discipline… and if they don’t like your proposal, they won’t fund it – no matter how positively reviewed it is (externally), or how useful the research may be. Sometimes I think they almost expect you to be a research star by the 2nd year of your career, which is completely counter-intuitive. Research takes time. You’ll also have to publish a lot. How meaningful is this? I don’t really know. Many papers certainly aren’t readable by people outside the field, and some are not even readable by people within it. People should learn to write readable papers – but then again they don’t teach you this either (and it seems to be getting progressively worse – papers written in the 1960’s -1980’s are often magically readable). Have a passion for teaching and want to become a teaching focused faculty? In many places that’s not well looked upon, for whatever reason.

Do you like working in a place that may not be well run? Well then academia is for you. Academics are not trained to run large organizations, and as such many make a complete hash of it. This isn’t to say that commercial companies are any better, but people there usually have a slightly better sense of dealing with other people (generally). Some universities try to act like companies, but they are not. ¬†Universities are nearly always non-profit organizations, and from the publics perspective teaching is their core activity. Despite their mantra, universities are also very bureaucratic, and change can be vexingly slow (like snails pace slow). It is a government institution, so that’s not really surprising.

In reality, there is little course for advancing your career. From Assistant Professor, one is usually promoted (at tenure) to Associate. Beyond that, one can advocate for promotion to full professor. What does it buy you? Prestige? Enlightenment? Ego? I have yet to figure it out. The only other alternative is to move into the “admin” side of things, which I would advise to stay well clear of. In commercial companies, there is often quite a few layers of promotion – and rewards, e.g. bonuses (there is no such thing in universities, especially unionized ones). Note that compensation in Canadian universities is extremely good when compared to other places like the US (and even the UK), where you often have to find ways of paying yourself in the summer. It does provide for a very stable career (again in Canada, other places it may not be so).

The pluses?
There are of course benefits, one being that you have the freedom to research what you want. This has good and bad points. You have to manage your research yourself, and find the $$ to fund graduate students, trips to conferences, equipment, journal publishing etc. But research takes time, and if you have large classes, you may find little time for much writing. Hours are usually flexible, but as a general rule you will always work more hours than you should. With the advent of email, it’s often hard to escape work.



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