Author: Lorenzo Giunta -
Completed our MSc Engineering Design and is now studying for a PhD in the Department of Mechanical Engineering
“Why a PhD?” I have had friends and family ask me this question quite often. “Why would you want to do a PhD now? Isn’t a master degree enough?” Indeed a master degree is more than enough to find a job in most industries; a PhD is a nice to have but somewhat redundant degree especially if you consider that those three to four years could be spend garnering work experience instead. Some have guessed that I want to pursue a career in academics, where a doctoral degree is almost always a prerequisite, but while the idea appeals to me I am still unsure if I truly want it.
So why a PhD then? Why not join the working world after five years of studying? When I look to my friends who have found jobs right out of university they all seem quite happy with their choice. They work from nine till five every day and never feel pressured into taking their work with them when they go home. There is also a financial element; even those friends that found jobs through graduate schemes earn a comfortable wage. I feel that this is the reasoning that friends and family alike follow when they claim they do not understand why I pursued a PhD instead of a career. In many ways they are right but I cannot bring myself to agree with them fully. A PhD is, to me, an opportunity to explore and learn in a completely different environment compared to a bachelor or master. There are no classes to follow and few mandatory requirements other than keeping up a steady progress towards your final goal. And it is this goal that makes a PhD truly worth diving into. This is the first time for many of us doctoral students that we have almost complete control on the direction of a project. No strange criteria to meet or material to cram just before a test. A PhD allows us to investigate a problem we find fascinating rather than because some dry textbook is making us do so.
In fact the main reason I chose to do a PhD was because the project I was working on for my dissertation in my masters was so interesting. The amount of work you can do in a Postgraduate Taught dissertation is severely limited and it feels like you are only grazing the surface. This may be fine if your topic of research does not particularly fascinate you, which presents a problem in of itself as you will find yourself struggling to find motivation. However if you are interested in not just expanding your field of research, but also in developing yourself and your research skills you will find yourself cramped by the limitations imposed. In a PhD these limits are, for the most part, removed. Want to explore a new direction after attending an interesting seminar or conference? Go ahead and try! Just make sure to run major decisions past your supervisor and you will be good to go. Even then as you advance in your research your supervisor may default to your greater experience in a specific area. After all, a PhD means becoming the world’s foremost expert in a specific niche subject, small though it may be. Obviously, since every PhD is unique, your experience may vary and will be greatly influenced by the type of project you are on as well as the size of the research group you are in.
To answer the initial question: a PhD is a unique opportunity for students who want to grow more and continue learning beyond the very clear cut limitations that they have had imposed on them during their bachelor or master programs. It is one of the few times when you as a student will be able to determine what content you learn and how. Depending on your project it may well take you into the world of work giving you some of that much desired work experience. It could give you a good insight in how academia functions preparing you for a career as a professor. But most important of all a PhD is an excellent experience for personal and academic growth. In your thesis you will need to demonstrate a tangible addition to scientific knowledge. But to get to that point you will have had to learn not just about your topic of study but also learn a wide array of “soft skills” those skills that you just cannot be taught in a classroom no matter how much theory you study. In all going from a MSc to a PhD feels much like moving on from being in a tightly controlled environment where there is a right and a wrong answer to every question, to a world where every answer has multiple facets and the more you discover and learn the more you understand how much you still need to learn.