Is a PhD for me?


You may arrive at the junction of life nearing the end of your undergraduate or graduate study where you have to choose between doing a PhD or starting your career. If you decide to pursue a PhD, it had better be for the right reasons (and for the sake of getting more education is not the right reason, by the way). I hope that this article can help to point out several things to consider before making your choice.

1. Are you intellectually curious?

Do you get excited when coming up with a brilliant original idea? Do you like to spend hours thinking about solutions to interesting social problems or creating little gadgets that make your life simpler? Or perhaps you want to better understand the forces of nature and why things come to be the way they are? If this is true, a PhD study may be an enjoyable journey for you. Pursuing a PhD gives you the liberty to explore a topic that interests you.

Intellectual curiosity alone, however, may not suffice to ensure your success. You need to understand that you will be doing research on a very specific topic for a long period of time. You need to have patience and perseverance to carry on with your research even when unexpected things happen. A good way to gauge your interest is to take part in some research activities in your undergraduate institution. In many ways, this experience will give you a taste of how research is like and allow you to judge how much you enjoy it.

2. PhD is different

A bachelor or Masters education is inherently different from a PhD education. In the former, you go to classes and learn from the accumulated knowledge that is already proven to work. In the latter, you spend most of your time putting your hypotheses to test through field investigation, laboratory work, or numerical simulations. A PhD study, therefore, does not constitute learning in the traditional sense. It is NOT a natural next step in your education. Instead of learning from textbooks, you are breaking new grounds and coming up with new ideas and technologies. You learn to be independent and creative, to let your ideas run wild and to take full charge of your progress. You hold the key to your own success.

3. It’s not about the money

If you decide to pursue PhD solely because of the potential for higher earnings, you are in for a let-down. Although it is true that the starting salaries of graduates with PhD degrees are higher on average than the salaries of those with lower levels of education, this premium does not commensurate with the number of years you spend obtaining the degree. If financial gain is your priority, you are better off working after your bachelor’s or Master’s degree as the years of experience will earn you a higher lifetime income. Note, however, that you can always find exceptions to this. Certain companies, especially those at the forefront of technology, will readily pay higher salaries to PhD graduates.

4. Can you handle failure?

Failure is inevitable in research. You can think of it as a high-risk endeavor. It takes many failed attempts to finally succeed. You are among the many researchers who go in different directions to push the boundary of research in your academic discipline. Ultimately, only a handful will survive and prove to be superior to others. Even these will eventually be replaced with newer and better ideas in the future as the boundary gets pushed further. In a bigger scheme of things, your contribution may be relatively small and insignificant. You need to be ready to accept that the ideas you have been working on for years may be a flop and have the resolve to simply move on with your research.

5. Know your options

Don’t go into a PhD study blindly. You may be lucky to find that it matches your expectation, but chances are you will be disappointed. As mentioned before, you learn differently in a PhD study than in other levels of education. A PhD study will prepare you for a career in research or academia. If this is what you want to do after your study, you are in the right place. If you want to work in the industry instead, you should explore all the options available to you. Companies that you previously planned to work with may not appreciate your PhD degree after all. You need to understand that what is important in job search is the skill you obtain from your study. A company will look at what you have to offer and will only hire you if you have what it needs. Companies whose practices rely on established body of knowledge may not fully appreciate the skill set that you bring in. On the other hand, companies that value creativity and resourcefulness may find your PhD training vital to their success. It is therefore important to know which doors will open and which ones will shut before you start your PhD career.


All in all, my advice is to know what you are getting yourself into. A PhD study is going to take five or more years and this length of time is not to be taken lightly.  Given that you will primarily develop skills pertaining to research, you need to consider whether it is what you want to do in the long term. That said, I welcome any comments you have or about your personal experience if you have started this journey. I hope you have enjoyed this article and get something out of it.


Photo by Thomas Guignard via flickr

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Martin Tjioe is currently working as a geomechanicist with Shell Exploration and Production Company in New Orleans, LA. He attained his MS and PhD in Civil and Environmental Engineering from Stanford University. For his undergraduate study, he went to Lafayette College, a small Liberal Arts College in Easton, Pennsylvania where he had a chance to double major in A.B. Mathematics & Economics, and B.S. Civil Engineering. He is fortunate to have received full financial aid to study both at Lafayette and Stanford and he encourages other Indonesian students to look into these opportunities. Prior to studying in the U.S., he was an ASEAN scholar studying in Singapore's Victoria School (VS) and National Junior College (NJC). He is from Medan, and he is passionate about helping talented students obtain the quality education they deserve.


  1. thanks for the article. this article is enlightening anyway 🙂 i am actually still an undergraduate in Indonesia, I have read the education system in UK which PhD is actually a postgraduate in research (not taught courses), while what I know is in Indonesia PhD means S3, so we have to take S2 first. How about in US? Is it similar to UK? What about bachelor of communication who wish to take psychology in developmental or social area (I have read some on stanford site)? what will be needed besides GRE, TOEFL, etc? Thank you very much.

    • In the U.S., you can apply to a PhD program after you are done with your undergraduate (S1) or Masters (S2) study. If you apply after you’ve received your Masters degree in a similar field, you may be exempted from taking some required classes, shortening the length of study. The general requirements for any major are very similar. I’ve confirmed this after checking the psychology departments of some schools. You can find out more about the requirements in the ‘Prosedur Aplikasi Pendidikan Pasca Sarjana’ article in this website. In general, apart from what you’ve mentioned, the letter of recommendation from your professors are very important. Your statement of purpose is also vital to your admission success.

  2. to become a PhD student – you need 3 things – keep calm, stop complaining and move your ASS !!!

    1) Keep calm

    Don’t let it become cumbersome, your project needs to be real! not just dream. In this case, be idealistic

    2) Stop complaining

    I can’t do this, I can’t finish it, etc, well no such a thing like completely perfect in this world, thus you need to start believe with your own hypothetical assumptions.

    3) Move your ASS

    First word of your thesis / dissertation is the hardest part, well indeed that’s true, but skip that first. Let the “force” fills out your brain and you will understand what it means for “move your ASS”. I meant start to do your work ~!

    In the end, the approaches that everybody uses, not only for PhD, is completely same ! You just need to know how to start and let it flows!


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