“Should I do a PhD?” Questions for prospective doctoral students in IR/political science

“Should I do a PhD?” Questions for prospective doctoral students in IR/political science

After several conversations with future, current and past PhD students in my field, here is the list of (tough) questions prospective doctoral students should answer. Don’t let the critical nature of these questions distract you. With the right motivation, context and people, a PhD is one of the most rewarding experiences one can embark on.

1. Why do I want to do a PhD?

Your motivation is what will carry you through some potentially testing and ultimately reward years of study. Be clear on your deep, intrinsic motivations and complement them with extrinsic goals beyond completing the degree. Calling yourself a doctor is not going to be enough.

Ask yourself: What is my intrinsic motivation – during my studies, for myself? And what is my extrinsic motivation – in terms of career opportunities or real world impact? This has implications on methods and research topic, as a PhD for a policy career can be quite different from one for an academic career.

2. The nature of doing a PhD:

Have I understood how the PhD differs from a Master’s degree?

Is independent research with sometimes limited supervision something I am ready for?

Have I understood the difficulties of the academic labour market?

3. Implications for private life:

Am I ready to move abroad (also after the PhD)?

What do my partner and my family think?

4. Opportunity costs:

What will I lose by doing a PhD? What career paths will I give up on?

Am I ready to see my peers advance quicker outside academia, both professionally and financially?

5. Alternatives: Taking non-academic career steps seriously

A minority of PhD holders finish up in academia. Even if academia is your goal, have a clear set of alternatives. Develop them early, and don’t settle on a single path. Ask yourself: How can I maintain/gain a foothold in the non-academic/policy world? How can I translate my doctoral training in the language of the policy world? What aspects of my doctoral work will be appreciated more, which less?

6. Topic & format:

What topic will I be passionate about for 3-5 years and is career relevant?

Do I prefer (and I am allowed) to write a papers-based dissertation or a monograph?

7. Methods:

What methods do I want to use?

Am I ready to fit into a discipline that is increasingly dominated by quantitative and data driven methods?

8. Funding:

Is there a reliable prospect of financing the entirety of my doctoral studies?

What’s my plan B if a promised scholarship/position falls through?

9. Department/University:

What is the faculty like?

Is there a doctoral school and/or coursework requirements?

Is there a cohort of other doctoral students with whom I can interact?

Is there a track record of good academic placement of doctoral students?

10. Supervision:

Which professor will supervise me? What is their availability and have they supervised many other students? Can you potentially speak to a current/former supervisee?

Apart from the committee, who are my academic mentors?

Comments and suggestions for edits are welcome in the comments below or by e-mail!

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