Whether you are considering simply the thought of a Ph.D., or if you have already submitted your GRE scores, and SOP letters, these are the top factors that I recommend considering before you dive into the journey of completing your doctorate degree.
I will also preface this with the background that it took me an entire year to adequately align my interests I discovered in my undergraduate studies towards a Ph.D. career that I had strong resonance with. Overall, I recommend taking your time discussing the Ph.D. process with a variety of people in the roles you one day wish to pursue.
Following are the top 5 factors I believe are of utmost importance when deciding if a Ph.D. is right for you. I ordered these based on the importance they fell for me in regards to making a decision to become an Ocean Sciences Ph.D.
1. Your WHY?
It should be emphasized that one rarely should wake up and simply feel that a Ph.D. is the next direction in their professional career. A good few months research into your reasoning behind this should be extensively ruminated on. A Ph.D. takes on average six to eight years to complete. Therefore, proceed with this understanding when investing yourself into the journey. This is why your passion and program path should be thoughtfully investigated to somewhat guarantee your future success and happiness.
The first half of my personal why was that I really enjoyed the undergraduate research I experienced in two separate research labs from Fall 2017 through Summer 2019, while getting my degree in Biological Engineering at the University of Missouri, pictured below. I loved seeing the progress made, doing literature reviews, and collaborating with interdisciplinary teams of researchers. Although I was only a student researcher, I gained the love and knowledge of the innerworkings of an academic research lab. I incorporated this in my transition to Ph.D. work, as I did not complete masters studies beforehand.
The second half of my personal why was my passion for Ocean and Environmental Engineering topics, specifically surrounding water and climate conservation. This was shown in my Senior Capstone project during Fall 2019.
Through this, I developed a deep appreciation of data visualizations produced from remote sensing to aid in high-priority decisions as a researcher. I used LiDAR and the employment of computational design to produce a digital elevation model for a flood mitigation plan to preserve Sanborne field, a historic agricultural experimentation field on my campus. It was a very prominent point in my academic career to see the great potential in my degree. After discovering there were Ph.D. positions across the U.S. focusing on my top academic interests, I of course had to apply! This is the rational I utilized in deciding a Ph.D. was right for me.
Now for some this may not need to come as factor number two. Yet, for me I knew that if I was going to go to graduate school, I would not be able to pay for it or take out any loans. I had to do so for undergraduate studies, and it was a top priority for me to avoid this during a Ph.D.
Luckily, unbeknownst to me, many schools offer stipends for those pursuing their graduate studies. It is important to note that this number is quite variable across the United States. It will differ where you apply, and also depends on the department.
The other large financial factor I wish I would have thought about more before moving to Miami, my university's town, was the cost of housing. It has gotten to the point where a studio apartment costs around 2/3 of your entire stipend for a clean, livable place within 25 minutes of campus. You can of course have roommates to get the cost lower, but I personally value having my own private place to come to after a long day, especially for my mental health.
Therefore, do not forget to factor this into your monthly cost of living. Being a Ph.D. student is already a challenge, and finances can become more of a headache than they should be. Plan accordingly!
Many forget to take into account the relationship with their Ph.D. advisor. Your advisor is typically the one you will directly report to in regards to your research progress. They will also be the one you go to for advice, and sometimes direction. Therefore, your relationship with them should be approachable, professional, and respectful.
If you do not feel comfortable being able to work alongside your advisor throughout the entire Ph.D. process, it may jeopardize your success. Having a conversation with your potential advisor before applying is my recommendation for this factor. I did, and it greatly helped my decision
4. Independent work
A large adjustment for me has been the consistency of independent work that must be done to make progress in your Ph.D. Undergraduate studies tend to foster an environment where one is constantly given direction, and instructions from either your professor or T.A. When you enter into the world of Ph.D. life, you will most likely not have someone hovering over you constantly to monitor your progress. For some this may be daunting, but for others this may be a breathe of fresh air in terms of learning freedom. Personally, I am the type of person that values room for my own growth, and an adaptable schedule. Of course, I am not prone to procrastination at times. We all are humans, yet I found planning my week or at least the following day has been a great contributor to my success as an independent working Ph.D. student.
5. School location for work/life balance
Some may debate this, but for me I knew school location mattered. After attending my undergraduate university in a town of only 100,000 people, I knew I wanted to expand. Although I never took Miami, Florida to be the place I would move to, I am happy that I considered it.
My biggest requirement for location was that I simply would be able to have a variety of outdoor activities such as hiking, biking, and swimming available when I needed to let a bit of steam off due to excess Ph.D. stress. Stress is evident, and understanding where you live can greatly effect this is extremely necessary. You would be surprised how much simply one morning at the beach can reduce one's stress ten-fold. Stress management was definitely the reasoning behind location being a priority.
Undoubtedly, if you choose the Ph.D. route, it will be a journey of finding yourself in the realm of academia, but with smart, goal orientated decisions, you will go into it more prepared than ever.
I wish you all the luck.
If you find any questions arise, I would love to hear from you. My contact is located on my home page.