PhD or no PhD, that is the question

Posted by Fiona Richardson on 19 January 2015
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Before Christmas WWIP held a fascinating panel discussing a question many students grapple with - should they do a PhD or not?

One of the speaker Heather Williams has been kind enough to write some notes summarising the discussion.

1) Why did you decide to hold this event?

The number one question I get asked at career events is, ‘should I get a PhD?’ After answering it so many times I really gave some thought to the question as to how the PhD experience helped me achieve my career goals and whether or not those benefits, along with the challenges, would transition to all career paths. I also asked myself, ‘what do I wish someone had told me about the PhD experience beforehand?’ Many of my peers in the PhD programme along with professional colleagues at Chatham House and elsewhere weighed in, and we thought it would be beneficial to try and bring together our conclusions for undergrads and MA students and to give them an opportunity to ask questions.

2) Please can you briefly describe each of the speakers' backgrounds?

Maryyum Mehmood is a second-year PhD student who went into the PhD quickly after her BA and MA, and she recently completed her mini-viva, which is an initial defence of your PhD after 18 months. Maryyum provided her unique perspective of going straight into a PhD programme and the early stages of the PhD process.


Monica Allen is a special advisor to the Deputy Prime Minister who completed an MA in War Studies. She has had an extremely successful career in politics without a PhD, so we were eager to get her perspective on whether or not she ever considered a PhD and if PhDs were beneficial for a career in government.


I worked for four years in the US Department of Defense between my MA and PhD and had recently submitted my final dissertation. I tried to give an overview of the entire PhD process, the highs and lows, and to focus on aspects I wish someone had told me before.


Dr. Birthe Anders is a lecturer in War Studies who finished her PhD last year, so she also spoke to the PhD experience and provided a great overview of careers in academia and how to apply for jobs.

3) For those speakers who do have PhDs, what was the value in having one? Has it enhanced their career opportunities?

It depends on your goals. If you career goals are to go into academia, then a PhD is necessary, though there are occasional exceptions. In government, a PhD really isn’t as necessary because you are juggling so many issues and tasks rather than focusing on one niche area within a subject matter. In think tanks and other research environments, a PhD opens a lot of doors and exposes you to opportunities, however I know plenty of people working in think tanks doing great exciting research who don’t have a PhD but have worked in the field, government, industry, or within a think tank for a while and gained the necessary experience through other routes.


The greatest value of the PhD come from skills and confidence. The PhD is likely the only time in your career, certainly in the early stages, when you can completely focus on research- even in academia and think tanks you are usually juggling multiple responsibilities. It affords you the opportunity to hone your research skills, develop a project, present your findings, write a lot, and learn about your working style and how you manage a big project. These are really useful skills that you can transfer to various career paths, so a PhD isn’t just about becoming an expert in your subject matter. In the process, you do gain confidence and suffer less and less from ‘imposter syndrome’. There is a great sense of achievement in knowing you are an expert in your field and that you can speak authoritatively about the issue to any audience.

4) For those who haven't gone on to do a PhD, can you tell us their reasoning?

It’s important to remember that the PhD is not a normal path to follow. Monica summed it really well during her talk when she said, ‘I was asked to speak on why I chose not to get a PhD, but this is really a question I never considered.’ Very few people in government have PhDs. Many people only consider a PhD if they are having a hard time finding a job, which really isn’t the right reason to go into it. If you find a career that appeals to you or are on a career path that you enjoy that doesn’t require a PhD, then stick to that.


Perhaps the most important piece of advice when considering whether or not to get a PhD is to ask yourself the question, ‘is there a topic that I love so much, as if it were my own child, that I could commit to it for a minimum of three years?’ It needs to be a very specific and original topic; for example, ‘US-Russia relations’ is not specific enough for a PhD, but ‘US-Russia strategic arms control since 1968’ is a PhD topic (mine). When you are looking at something that niche and for that long, you have to be genuinely passionate and curious about it, otherwise it is a horribly painful process. For people who choose not to get a PhD, they may not want to limit themselves to one such issue for such a long time but instead prefer to focus on developing a broad range of skills and professional development.

5) Are there any other top tips your speakers offered for people interested in a policy/IR career [please alter these sectors to suit your speakers!!!]?

Have a strategy. Everyone spoke to the need to set career goals based on what you are passionate about and your strengths, and figure out how you’re going to get there. Inevitably, you won’t stick to the plan and stuff happens, but setting these goals is key. In a PhD or any job, think beforehand about what you want to achieve during your time in that role and what you want coming out of the process. For most PhD students, these outcomes include a job (no small task), publications, research skills, and teaching experience. In a job, the goals may be salary and work-life balance (neither of which you will get in the PhD), travel, management or other skills development.


If the PhD is part of your strategy there are some important things to consider. First, really think about your topic and devote a lot of time to developing your research proposal. Again, this is a topic you will come to love and hate like your own child, so make sure you’ve thought it through beforehand, which will also make your application stronger.


Second, research potential supervisors. For the PhD, while a university or department might bring a prestigious name, the most important relationship will be the one you have with your supervisor. Look for a supervisor who has a subject matter and expertise that meshes with your topic and vision for the project. If possible, reach out to him/her beforehand to find out if they are accepting new PhD students and are interested in working with you.


Third, go into the process with your eyes wide open to the fact that the PhD is challenging (this is what I most wish someone had told me beforehand, as I may have approached the process with a bit of hubris- actually, people did tell me this and I chose not to listen to them). There will be days when you would rather be a professional dog walker, and all that entails, than write your dissertation; when you are convinced there is nothing original about your findings and everything you write sounds like it was written by a seven-year old; when you have to miss parties and weddings; when you realize this ‘niche’ topic requires enough reading to fill a lifetime; and when you weep at academic jargon and words like ‘hermeneutic’ and run on sentences with too many clauses. Anticipate those days because they will happen, but somehow it all manages to work out. And it is actually worth it.

Topics: Peace, Politics and Policy, Postgraduate study

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