PhD in natural sciences: Life in the bubble? The pros and cons getting your PhD

A lot of people say that going for a PhD is like keeping yourself in a safety bubble for another few more years after you finish your Masters degree. Sometimes the “real world” beyond the ivory tower of higher education can seem quite unpleasant, commercial, and eco-unfriendly, while the mini-world of academia seems so familiar and cozy. We ask Kateřina Kadlecová, a PhD student at Czech University of Life Sciences in Prague, what her thoughts on the matter are.

“Why do you suggest that staying in academic world is a bad thing?” asks Kateřina, who is currently completing her 4rd year of doctoral studies at the Faculty of Environmental Sciences “If you enjoy a particular environment, you would want to submerge yourself in it, right?” Still, she admits that academia can be a bit of bubble at times. Psychologically, it can sometimes be a means of escape from a highly competitive job market and the corporate world. It can be more comfortable to stay in the environment you know, among people who share similar passions. As always, there are pros and cons, and you need to ask yourself what sort of working environment will cater to your individual needs and working style.

“First of all, you get to choose your own boss – who doesn’t like that? In academia, you have the option of choosing your supervisors and, in particular, the subject that you will specialize in, whereas in the outside world you may find yourself working in a field that isn’t exactly what you would prefer. On the other hand, you are restricted by the possibilities offered by your supervisor and their department. “And that can actually be good,” adds Katařina, “students rarely know exactly what they would be interested in, so it’s helpful to have some options suggested to you.”

The academic environment also allows you to take advantage of various research projects and grant opportunities. Doctoral studies are definitely the way to go if you plan on working at the University or on a highly specialized team later on. The downside to this however is that a doctorate title may actually be an obstacle in getting a job outside of the academic and research environment as employers may be hesitant to hire someone they see as “overqualified” – in addition to employers being loath to pay someone at the level that their degree requires. Another disadvantage is that, for the time being, PhD students in central and eastern Europe typically have very low salaries. However, there is always hope in grants. Once you start your studies you will probably need to find outside grants as an additional source of funding.

My job lets me concentrate a lot on personal development.” Katařina lists off some of the “soft-skill” advantages that her PhD studies have given her: “I’ve gained knowledge in the field that I’m passionate about, I’ve developed pedagogical and presentation skills because I need to give lectures, I’ve learned how to apply for various grants, I’ve been learning a lot of English as I study a lot from sources written in English, and I’ve developed communication skills as the job requires constant contact with other researchers, team members, and donors. So honestly, I wouldn’t be afraid of living in such “closed” academic surroundings. It’s actually a very lively environment that leaves a lot of space for creativity, where different ideas meet and mash up against each other. It only depends on whether or not you “close” yourself off. I don’t feel separated from the outside world; I do a lot of other things apart from my studies. A lot of students who study in their home country even end up going abroad for their post-doctoral studies.

When it comes to working hours, it depends largely on the University and your supervisor. For Kateřina, her work schedule is quite flexible. “You need to organize your schedule yourself and be able to find a balance between your work life and your private life. Nobody will organize it for you and nobody will find that balance for you. I go to work when I know that I’ll actually get something done, not like in the majority of office jobs where you stare at the screen because you need to sit at your desk for eight hours. I try to work during the times when I can concentrate the best and find my own rhythm. Of course, on the other hand my work will ‘never end’ if I let it, so it’s crucial to strike a good balance. This comes with experience – developing good time management skills is a learning process.”

Some people however do find it comforting to work in an environment where their employer will plan their working time. Otherwise, they find themselves unable to work efficiently. For others, a flexible work schedule is like a breath of fresh air – it is very individualized and it enables you to find out what kind of person you truly are. There are, of course, PhD studies where the work schedule is not as flexible, but it all depends on the program.

“Statistically, the majority of students who start their PhD studies will never finish. This is rarely because they can’t absorb the knowledge that they need to, but rather is typically a failure of willpower and self-organization. This leads to missed deadlines and burnout due to a failure to find a good balance between work and their private lives. Another reason is that some students take on doctoral studies simply to fill time while searching for other job offers.”

Of course, that should not be a deterrent for anyone who is strongly motivated and has a passion for what they do. Like anything worth doing, it’s hard work and it requires a lot of dedication, but the payoff is tremendous. Some people may look at a doctoral program and think that it’s beyond them, but at the end of the day, the people who make it through are just practical people who have put one foot in front of the other to get to where they are today. You may even surprise yourself at what you’re capable of!

***Kateřina Kadlecová is carrying out the research in the field of Hydrobiology at Czech University of Life Sciences in Prague, Faculty of Environmental Sciences, Department of Ecology.

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