This is a question that probably plagues every research student at some point in his/her career.
The decision to pursue a PhD after getting your Masters degree is a difficult one. A PhD is a huge undertaking emotionally, mentally and financially. It takes 3-4 years to complete during which you are on a pretty basic stipend (ok, you’re poor). You also need the ability to continually motivate yourself through the times when your experiments are not working (most of the time).
People pursue PhDs for a variety of reasons: some know from the start that they want to run labs at a university, some feel pressured to go for the top degree in their field, some see it as a natural progression after receiving their masters, and some continue on because they just don’t know what to do next.
For all, it is a highly personal decision that shouldn’t be taken lightly.
During my undergraduate degree I had the opportunity to work in a research laboratory as part of a summer vacation scholarship. The PhD student supervising me on a day-to-day basis gave me a really useful piece of advice that has stayed with me to this day; don’t do a Masters/PhD just for the sake of doing one. She encouraged me to thoroughly explore my options and not to merely drift into a postgraduate course just because I didn’t know what else to do.
Based on her advice, I came up with the following questions to ask yourself if you are contemplating starting a PhD.:
1. Do I need a PhD for my future desired career path?
Not every job requires a PhD for you to be successful. In fact, many do not. If you are not planning to stay in academia long-term, then a PhD may be of no additional benefit to you. Picture the type of job you would like to have once you are finished with your education, see https://bitesizebio.com/articles/alternative-careers-for-scientists/ for some options. Have a career discussion with as many people as possible to get different opinions and viewpoints. Try to talk to people who have chosen a variety of career paths.
2. Have you explored other options like gaining experience in industry or working in a laboratory as a research assistant or technician?
It’s hard to make a clear-headed decision when you are caught up in the middle of things. Sometimes it is better to take a step back and pursue an option without making a multi-year commitment. Working as a research assistant in an academic laboratory for a year or so is a great way to figure out if you enjoy working in the academic environment and more specifically within a particular laboratory.
3. Have you found a supervisor and a topic that you can commit to for three to four years?
A good PhD supervisor is worth their weight in gold and finding a good mentor should be a priority. Furthermore you need to be passionate about your research topic to motivate you during the tremendously tough times. Make sure you work on something you care about.
4. Do I have support from family and friends?
Talk to your support network, i.e. your friends and family. They are the ones you will rely on heavily during the course of the PhD for emotional support (parents may also be a source of financial support).
If you are looking for further advice, make sure you check out the following article that contains pointers for PhD students: https://bitesizebio.com/articles/10-dos-and-donts-for-phd-students/.