5 questions to ask if you want a PhD

Getting a Doctorate in Philosophy also known as a Ph.D. or PhD in a booming field like robotics is both tempting and a life changing experience. So, before you get started with applying for open positions, you need to ensure that you really want to do a Ph.D. for all the right reasons and that you are well aware of what to expect from the journey ahead of you. This article covers the 5 critical questions you should ask yourself if you want a Ph.D. to help you prepare yourself for the journey and all that it entails. While these prompts help you evaluate if PhD is the right choice for you, there are also additional questions you should ask your potential supervisor to understand if you have synergies with them.

Q1: Is Ph.D. the right career choice for you?

Unlike any other academic degree, Ph.D. is a very long, strenuous and demanding journey. If you have some form of prior college/university education, you might be used to getting a predefined syllabus. Contrary to this setting, Ph.D. is like a blank canvas where you as a researcher have to carve out your own path within academia and develop your area of expertise. This often means that you need to learn to be self reliant for the most part of your journey. So, the million dollar question is: Is Ph.D. the right choice for you?

Q2: Is this the right time to start your Ph.D.?

If you have gone through the introspection exercise mentioned in Step-1 and have come to a conclusion that PhD is indeed the right choice for you, then there is yet another question. Is this the right time to start your PhD? Now, there is no golden rule for the “right time” for pursuing a PhD however, some factors can help you decide whether or not now is the time to kick start your PhD journey. These factors could include your age, your current academic qualifications and your current career status which cumulatively might necessitate for you to pursue a PhD at this time.

Q3: What soft skills are required for researchers?

If the results of Step 1 tell you that PhD is the right choice for you and after Step 2 you conclude that this indeed is the right time for a PhD, you should equip yourself with the right skills.

Pursuing a Ph.D. in the field of your choice entails some hard skills governed specifically by your research niche and some soft skills which broadly apply to most research fields. 

Let us look into some of the soft skills which PhD scholars are expected to have or develop over the course of their PhD:

  • Evaluating research trends: As a PhD researcher scholar, you would want to stay abreast with the latest happenings in your niche which will help you identify upcoming opportunities where you could potentially contribute. This can be done by finding recent research papers and scholarly articles which are often made publicly available once peer reviewed and accepted by the publishers.
  • Effectively reading research articles: There will likely be numerous articles published day  after day in your niche. At times, this can get overwhelming to keep up so you should develop an effective reading strategy to quickly filter through the articles without having to do a deep dive through them all but only a select few.
  • Plan and manage literature: As you read more and more recent research articles, your reading list will grow over time. So you need to develop a system to help you plan and manage your literature review so that you can quickly look things up when assimilating your learnings.
  • Identifying research gaps: As you learn to keep up with the trends and develop an effective reading framework which works best for you, you should start critiquing the publications and identifying the research gaps. In doing so, you will slow start preparing a research proposal which outlines a blueprint of the research gaps you find during literature review and you intend to contribute towards them over the course of your PhD.
  • Outreach: As a PhD research scholar, your greatest assets will be your scientific articles which you should aim to publish at top tier venues. In the robotics community these would include conferences like ICRA, IROS, CASE, RSS etc. and journals like Transactions on Robotics (T-RO), Autonomous Robotics (AURO), Robotics and Automation- Letters (RA-L) and International Journal of Robotics Research (IJRR) to name but a few options. Aside from these peer reviewed venues, you could occasionally present your preliminary research finding at workshops in conjunction with these conferences.

Q4: How to find and apply for open Ph.D. positions?

So you have decided you want to pursue a PhD, now is the right time and that you have the hard and soft skills that would prime you to succeed in this journey. The next step is to start looking for open positions and reaching out to professors to evaluate which PhD position would work best for you.

 

While applying to various graduate schools, be mindful of their requirements. For instance, some might require you to write a brief research statement or some might need a motivation letter and so on. So, as you apply, start preparing drafts of such supplemental material.

 

Also, do not be disheartened if you do not hear back from Professors. There are a lot of potential candidates like you who are doing similar outreach like you and professors are often swamped with admin, teaching and research duties. So, be patient and accommodating with the outreach.

Q5: What happens next once you get an offer?

It might take up several months and even hundreds of applications before you get shortlisted and finally are extended an offer to pursue a PhD. But once you do get an offer to pursue the PhD at your dream university, it is often at this time most early stage researchers are clueless about what to do next and where to start. So, to ensure you are actively investing your time and efforts from the first day onwards, I put together a list of 15 things to do in the first year of PhD. One of these 15 things is to set up a literature review database which would also require you to understand what a research question is and how to write a good research question. This will come in handy when you get to writing your research proposal.

 

I did these things myself which helped me free up my bandwidth in the coming years and dedicate the rest of my time towards research. A word of caution though, despite all this knowledge you would take away from this article, there is one aspect you not have anticipated- procrastination and lack of motivation. As I said earlier, PhD is a very long and strenuous journey, often beset with hurdles which sometimes lead to loss of motivation and you start to procrastinate instead. So, I tried to share some ways to help you manage time and overcome procrastination.

Conclusion

As I was building my own academic credentials I always wanted to have a decision making framework which you allow to take data driven decisions and reduce the role of emotions in them. Over the years, I have refined this framework and in this article, I discussed the 5 questions to ask if you want a PhD. PhD is no less than a marathon that can take anywhere between 3-8+ years so signing up for such a long tenure requires you to give it some deep thought and have real good reason for pursuing a PhD. If you try to do a PhD to please others, it is very likely you will loose the motivation and quit mid way through so be sure that you want to do it for the right reasons, at the right time and have the soft skills to succeed.