So You Want A PhD

By Neuroskeptic | June 15, 2013 3:31 am

I’ve been thinking lately about PhDs, so I’ve written down some advice for anyone considering starting one, based on my own experience and those of the students and former students that I know. My PhD was in neuroscience but as far as I can tell, the situation is similar in most sciences. However, I’m not sure how far the following applies outside of the UK.

It’s important to find a course and supervisor that’s right for you – because your supervisor is pretty much your God. There are few checks and balances on their influence. If you don’t get on with God, you’re in hell. I know plenty of horror stories of PhD students who were mistreated by their supervisor. I was lucky enough to have an awesome one, but it really was ‘lucky’, because I didn’t get to know her before I started. It could have gone either way.

Don’t fall into the trap of assuming that someone who’s published lots of exciting papers is going to be good to work with. Scientific talent and basic human decency are, unfortunately, uncorrelated.

This is why I’d recommend working with prospective supervisors before you commit to a PhD with them – either as a master’s student, or as a research assistant. A few months will be enough to know if that lab is a good place to be. This is also a great way of getting onto a PhD course, because it teaches you practical skills (see later).

You will know more science than your supervisor. In fact, you know more science now than you ever will again. During your PhD you’ll forget most of what you learned previously (although if you do teaching, this will slow the decline some). The reason is that (except maybe in physics) the day-to-day business of research just doesn’t involve the kind of knowledge you were taught.

What this means is that you will not be expected to know lots of facts except in the narrow domain of the speciality you’ll be working in. And even there, you rarely need to memorize anything, you just pick it up.

PhD students are there to do, not to know. So when applying for a PhD place, you’ll really benefit from knowing how to do things. If you’re skilled at using an important method, or piece of equipment, or software, that will put you in demand. Some kind of coding (MATLAB, C++, R) is a big plus in many fields; in neuroimaging, knowledge of one or several of the big analysis toolboxes (SPM, FSL, FreeSurfer, etc) is also a big help. Getting good exam results is also important, but it’s by no means everything.

Hopefully if you’ve read this far, you’ll have worked out that a PhD is very different from other degree courses. In a nutshell, while the main challenges for undergraduates are intellectual, on a PhD the challenges are emotional. Instead of wrestling with exams, grades and essays, you’ll face self-doubt, frustration and boredom.

I’m not trying to be negative: on a good PhD course, there will be plenty of awesome things as well. But inevitably there will be challenges, and they will not be the kind of thing you can overcome with intellect alone.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: science, select, Top Posts, Uncategorized, you
  • Neo

    # “Don’t fall into the trap of assuming that someone who’s published lots of exciting papers is going to be good to work with. Scientific talent
    and basic human decency are, unfortunately, uncorrelated.”

    First though, don’t fall into the trap of assuming that someone who’s published lots of exciting papers is scientifically talented 😉

    # “PhD students are there to do, not to know. So when applying for a PhD place, you’ll really benefit from knowing how to do things. If you’re skilled at using an important method, or piece of equipment, or software, that will put you in demand”

    Why is this ? Shouldn’t the professors making a nice paycheck and being the smart & capable people they are/appear to be, be capable of doing this themselves ?

    Or could it be that some Master- or PhD-students could possibly know more about science in general than their professors. Or could possibly know as much as their professors in the narrow domain of the specific research topic of the professor after just about 5 months of reading the occasional article related to this narrow topic. Or could possibly be far more skillful at using statistical- and other computer related software. And could possibly come up with far better and more useful research-ideas ?

    I think you may have left out something PhD-students could ponder about: maybe they should not necessarily listen to their professor at all, or take him/her too seriously (after all: they could just appear to be a professor/ scientist). Maybe PhD-students could try and find information for themselves, try to come up with their own ideas, and try and find out what information to take seriously, why this is the case, and in turn who to listen to. They could try and switch things around, so as to possibly enhance the chance of seeing things for what they really are.

  • disqus_HZwCPLqpmz

    Accurate. I have, however, seen advisors (supervisors) become power hungry and crazy with their PhD students, even 4 years in. Tricky situation.

    Also, in hard sciences at least, the PhD students definitely need to know – there are qualifying examinations, which are different from school to school.

  • Saima Ishaq

    It very well tells you what you need to be as a graduate student. I have observed two cases. One, where the mentor baby you, and the other where the mentor is no where to be found. Honestly, I liked none of them. You must find a mentor who is easy to talk, be available, and must be able to work around your schedule, and wouldn’t demand you coming off hours for visit (as they would expect for you to have no life). A perfect mentor in my view is one who is friendly and wouldn’t feel threaten by your knowledge, and can also give some room to breath, so you can learn to be an independent scientist.

    • Neuroskeptic

      Yes – you need someone who balances supervision with freedom. But different students flourish under different levels of support.

      The job of a supervisor should be (within reason) to adapt to the student’s needs, which requires getting to know them on more than just a superficial level.

      • Jinyi Hung

        I’m a non-UK doc student; I agree with what you said. I had the same question about the balance of their research/other responsibilities and mentorship. I understand they can be very busy but it puts me into a situation in which I want to move on but I’m not sure if I should keep going without any feedback. I don’t think they need to baby-sit me but I think a better communication/discussion can bring more thoughts/angles to research.

  • Joe Masters

    May I ask where in the UK/with which group you did your PhD then?

  • practiCalfMRI

    Much recent debate at my institution about the value of a PhD, especially in psychology, if one isn’t interested in an academic career. You may or may not want to discuss your post-PhD plans with your potential supervisor – my own feeling is that anyone who isn’t truly interested in your career development should be avoided like the plague – but I wouldn’t go into a PhD assuming that not becoming an academic is the only option. I have half a dozen former colleagues now pulling fat (and I mean *fat*) salaries at various high tech companies. (There’s an argument to be made that a good psychologist would have more access to interesting data at a Google or a Twitter than in academia. Although I hear the NSA may be just as good!)

    The bottom line is that doing a PhD is – should be – an apprenticeship to get stuff done, as NS has intimated. Having done a PhD you should be sufficiently confident to tackle almost any unknown field. The point is to develop the self-sufficiency skills required to address a problem. In that respect it is fundamentally different from all prior forms of education. You may see a spoon during a PhD but you’ll probably have to pick it up and learn to feed yourself with it.

    In closing, then, for my tuppence I would argue that the world could always use more PhDs. Whether there are too many PhDs clamouring for academic jobs is only one corner of the debate. Besides, if you happen to get into Stanford or Harvard and drop out partway through you turn into a billionaire. Oh, wait, that’s a correlation and not causation, right?

  • Sarah McKay

    MATLAB …. that word still makes me shake in my boots. One of the few things I DID learn during the PhD that I’ve tried to forget!

  • Jelk

    Basically, as a neuroscientist, THE MOST useful tool you will need is MATLAB… After studying psychology for 3 years and neuroscience for 2 years, I am now doing signal and image processing in Matlab. Basically all that brain stuff is something anyone could pick up any time… what you really need is programming knowledge. In fact, I think this is underemphasised in degrees prior to PhDs. You are better off today as a neuroscientist with a computer science background and an MSc in cog neuro than someone with a neuroscience background…. at the end of the day, you can learn brain talk easily but writing code is like learning a language…

    • Neuroskeptic

      True. Well MATLAB or R. Also you need to know *nix so that you can move files around and batch tasks.

  • Pingback: So You Want A PhD - Neuroskeptic | Tin can | Sc...()



No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


See More

@Neuro_Skeptic on Twitter


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Collapse bottom bar