Ten reasons why you should (not) start a PhD

Hi everyone! Today I am writing on behalf of Dr. Sarah Cohen-Gogo, French pediatric oncology fellow, recently arrived in Toronto, Canada.
I am a MD, with a PhD is cancer genetics and I was wanting to tell you a little about some of my views on why you should, or should not do a PhD. This is especially relevant for YIs with a medical background, whose core training is already so long and intense. Still, you might be considering this PhD option and I hope this post can be of guidance to you.
Here are five good reasons to go for it….

… You like teaching and learning
A PhD is a fantastic opportunity to learn and teach. When arriving in your lab as a fresh first year PhD student, everything will be new and available for you to take in: the people, the literature, the techniques. And then another student will arrive and you won’t be the newest peep anymore – you will probably be able to teach her/him something! Some PhD students even mentor or teach younger students in a more formal way in specific university courses.

… You know how to think “outside of the box”
This is how great discoveries happen. You stop assuming that what’s written in textbooks is the absolute truth and start challenging it. It might be a difficult step at first, but as a “naive” newcomer, you might just be the best person to address a question with fresh eyes. If you have the opportunity, go talk with the oldest researchers in your lab. The ones that discovered the things that look like everyday basics to you. You will learn a lot from their state of mind.

… You’re stubborn and hard working
On the first few weeks of my biology PhD, an “older” PhD student told me in a very calm way “95% of what you will do will fail. So whenever you think you’re within the 5%, celebrate!” I remember crying when my cells died, until an engineer pointed out that those cells were not patients, and that I could still start that experiment again. And again. And again. Until it worked.

… You’re (too) curious
Were you ever caught in the PubMed infinite paper loop? Reading one paper and clicking on the right-sided bar that says “similar papers” and ending up with 36 open tabs? That’s curiosity, trying to push the limits of your knowledge a bit further. This is one of the main qualities you will need for a successful PhD.

… You quite know why you’re doing it
I am saying “quite” because of course, life happens, and 3, 4, 5 years of PhD is a long time. Still, you want to be sure that this rather long period of your life means something to you. This could be coming back to a lab where you already did some research, and get on board with a new exciting perspective, or start something from scratch in another country with an exciting PI, or any other setting really. As long as, most of the time, you feel at peace with being on this path and getting a glimpse of where it will lead you.
And five bad!

…Peer pressure or fulfilling the ambitions of others
So everyone around you is doing a PhD, or your mentor thinks it is a good idea, or your parents always assumed you would be thatkind of doctor. Don’t let this be the main reason for applying. You will be the one going through those hard research years, not them.

…Glamour and titles
You might have noticed that some like to have that loooooong stretch of acronyms after their names in their e-mail signature, which you need to Google to understand. It’s okay to just be John Smith.

…To be doing something “next”
If you’re training in a large pediatric haem/onc centre, you might feel that enrolling for a PhD will help you stick around and remain available for further opportunities. I might be repeating myself but again: those years are tough! Pressure can be high, money can be lacking – it’s not just about showing up every morning, you will need a LOT of stamina.

…You think you’ve done this kind of thing before
If you’re considering a PhD, you probably have already been through a little or a lot of research though a Master/MSc/whatever they call it. This is good, because you have a hint of what a PhD will look like. A hint, because it’s actually very different. As a PhD student, you will be asked to come up with your own questions, ideas and solutions. You will have to embrace your topic and try to move it forward. No one else but you.

…To get a rest from the clinical work
It is definitely a different job if you’re coming from a medical background– no contact with sick patients, worried parents and overwhelming families. That is if you’re doing research full time, of course. Time is also probably less scattered, as you can manage your own schedule without being constantly interrupted by your pager or phone. Still, it doesn’t mean your days (or evenings, or week-ends) will be quiet. If you’re in a wet lab, cells and mice will need everyday attention. You will have deadlines and conference talks. This can get as stressful as was patient’s care, and daily rewards from your Excel sheets can be scarce.

Let’s keep this conversation going! Please tell us about your own PhD experience in the comments.


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