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Yes or No : Is PhD Right for me?

is phd right for meBy end of this article, you will should be able to answer this question : Is PhD Right for me?

This is Part 2 of 5 in “The PhD Experience”.

Is PhD Right for me?

You should try to come to a frank appraisal of whether a Ph.D is the right thing for you. You need to be totally honest with yourself about this. You need to consider the question at several levels:

  • Is going for a Ph.D the right thing for me?
  • If so, is the area I am pursuing now right for me?
  • If so, is the advisor I have now right for me?

My goal here is to make you think about these things. Here are some things to think about and pitfalls to avoid in answering these questions.

Don’t be scared or turned off by what is below; I am only playing devil’s advocate to get you to think!

Don’t kid yourself

Liking research it is liking DOING it, not liking thinking about where it puts you, or liking to view yourself as someone who does it.

Separate the process from any perceived goal.

You will only be happy in research if you enjoy the process, the day-to-day nuts and bolts of it.

If to you it is only a means to some end, you are unlikely to enjoy yourself.

Story of My Friend

I had a friend once who from childhood had a dream of being a mathematician. She loved the idea of being a person of the intellect. That way of life appealed to her. However, at the time she had this dream, she had no idea what mathematics really involved.

She followed mathematics and theoretical computer science in college and grad school. However, she had a really hard time setting herself to the task.

Working on math problems was tiresome for her. It was very hard to have the discipline to sit down and do this boring thing.

She was not at all dumb; far from it, being extremely intelligent.

The problem was that although she wanted to be a mathematician, she actually hated doing the stuff. But you can’t be it without doing it.

What is exhibited here is the gap between a picture of how you want to see yourself and what is involved in actually being that.

Be wary of falling in love with a high-level goal when you find the nuts and bolts tiresome.

When you sit down daily to do your work in the lab, working on your research problem, writing the paper, are you bored?

  • Is it hard to motivate yourself to be there?
  • Is it really not fun?
  • Are you saying, “I have to do this?”

Those are bad signs. It is not fun everyday, and all of it is not fun, but those of us that are in this business enjoy a large fraction of the process.

For me, for example, thinking about a research problem is not work. It is probably about the most fun thing I can think of doing.

You don’t have to be that fond of it, but if to you it is just work, to be done and gotten rid off as soon as possible, you are in the wrong business.

You might with a great deal of discipline finish your Ph.D, but experience has shown that even then you will not have a real sense of accomplishment or happiness. You will also make my life difficult. (Professor’s Life)

Again, liking research it is liking DOING it, not liking thinking about where it puts you. Be wary of childhood dreams; they are often formed without any idea of what is actually involved in the process of attaining them.

Am I smart enough to do PhD?

That’s the wrong question. There is no such thing as “smart enough”.

If you love playing the piano, play it. You don’t expect to be Alfred Brendel or Vladimir Ashkenazy. But you are doing something productive for yourself and those around you.

Research is the same. If you enjoy doing it, pursue it.

You will usually find that you can contribute something.

As you go on, you will discover your strengths and find you have something unique to offer.

Maybe there are others who are smarter in some way; they can compute complex probabilities in their head faster than you can, or whatever. But your contributions may be valuable in other ways.

As discussed above, research has many components.

Problem solving, identifying issues, presentation, modeling, and criticism are amongst them.

See what aspects best suit your abilities and personality. There is probably a niche for you somewhere.

What is written above about kidding yourself does NOT refer to ability or perception of ability; it refers to motivation and honesty about motivation.

I (professor) want to be sure you are pursuing research for the “right” reasons.


Self-confidence affects our performance and success in all walks of life, from sports to socializing to dating.

It plays a role in research too.

Sometimes I meet students who don’t have confidence. This can lead to a disinclination to work.

Fear of failure leads to inactivity.

People  “freeze up” because they are so worried they aren’t “good enough”.

If this sounds familiar, at least you know you are not alone.

Increasing your self-confidence is very much a personal issue, but here are some reflections from my experience.

You can find confidence only within yourself. Don’t expect to get it from others, even your advisor. Someone telling you that you did well is useful to boost morale, but in the end you must believe in yourself.

If you are afraid of failure you will have a hard time succeeding.

Bicycle vs Research

You have to fall a few times to learn to skate or ride a bicycle.

Research is worse.

Once you learn to ride a bicycle you don’t fall again, but in research you never stop failing.

You will fail far more often than you succeed. But it is from your failures that you learn. They increase your understanding and maturity.

If you find the process of research fun, failure to solve a problem is not daunting. In fact, it leads to all kinds of discoveries. So you need to learn to not care about failing, but use it to get new ideas.

One nice thing about research is that nobody need know when you failed.

You write papers only about your successes. But that is also deceptive, because you don’t see the failures of others. But they are there. Even the top people don’t always succeed. Gauss failed sometimes, as did Einstein.

Try to ask yourself exactly why you lack confidence. Be entirely honest with yourself. Go back to the discusions above about your motivations.


How much self-confidence do I have with regard to research? (Mark all that apply)

  1. I’m the hottest thing ever
  2. Enough to pursue a problem for a while and be reasonably sure, if I abandon it, that it is not solvable
  3. Enough to pursue a problem for a while and be reasonably sure, if I abandon it, that it would be pretty hard, even for experts
  4. I give up pretty quick
  5. I can’t even start thinking for fear of not solving it

PhD Series:

Credit : Thanks to Mihir Bellare – Professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of California, San Diego who gave permission to share his article. Professor Bellare wrote the PhD Experience for his prospective and current PhD Students.

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  1. I enjoy reading these articles…I can also relate, especially when I read this sentence: ‘people freeze up because they think they are not good enough.’ Thanks for posting!

  2. Inspiring article, one of the best till date. being in research i understand that sometimes it becomes quite boring and frustrating..but the real passion will help u stand up again n work it out.

  3. @Abinaya I agree with you. To be honest, many of accredited Engineering Colleges don’t have proper laboratory at all.

  4. Biggest challenges in my perspective are :
    1.We do research alone and very few help can be expected whilst we do the research unlike the kind of education system we come from in india where we are told what to do and given notes/classroom lectures/syllabus.
    2.Its our research and there is no end to it as we are contributing new ideas into the knowledge base.
    3.To be finacially well covered (funding) while doing the PHD is very important.
    4.Also having an idea of what you want to be after 3/4/5 years of PHD – a job in an MNC or want to be employed as a proffesor(Most likely case)?

    To summarise we have to do research about whether we want to do research 😀

  5. @Prabhakaran, Absolutely. One will be able to decide whether or not to do a PHD right from undergrad. Masters program is never considered a viable research course, it is well another technical degree. Research based master’s program is like a precursor for your PHD. Most schools(in US) don’t encourage a terminal master’s thesis program as there isn’t any enough time to do viable research there. The unquestionable problem which lies in our country is we’re not properly exposed to a research environment. Privately run labs and other research centers are posing a dangerously flimsy overview of research. I would not blame many students if they were carried away with the exposure to such atmosphere.

  6. Wow. Learned a lot . I think this applies to students who are in aa research based Masters program. In my opinion, a research or thesis based Masters program will help one to know if PhD is right for the person.

  7. Agreed. A very good article about the realism of confidence needed. But I do also want to point out that people do get washed out every other while after multiple failures that’s completely normal. Yet if you’re able to get up and do it again for that one thing you want to prove for more than anything then I believe you’re ready. Most students come into research not knowing what to do that’s where the problem lies. They join a lab with capablities and mentored to do certain things, which is when things start to become ‘boring’. If you’re the creator of your own experiement/idea or you’re doing something which will gain a personal insight you’ll never stop doing it.

    1. That’s very good point. Folks applying for PHD should have an idea if their area if interest. Narrower the better.

      Folks who struggle are : I want to do PHD but not sure what is my interest.

  8. But I really doubt how many PhD students out there getup in the morning thinking ‘oh please give me more papers to read’? Phd is like running a marathon, you start the race with all the excitement and all the energy but once you go on you lose your energy bit by bit and just wanting to finish the race. But isn’t that the human nature?

    1. 3 of my close friends did PhD. One wasn’t interested at all and he dropped out in 2 years. Other 2 was eager to accomplish and I never saw them burn down and they are professors in top schools today. So it depends..

  9. I think this is the best article which makes an individual to do any work either it is Phd/ Masters/ Business etc because, it tells about self confidence, approach towards the work and the best thing it quotes is “Maybe there are others who are smarter in some way; they can compute complex probabilities in their head faster than you can, or whatever. But your contributions may be valuable in other ways
    “, which makes a research oriented person very comfortable to attain his/her goals.

      1. Well thats how it is with this blog!! It has served all categories people in the past and it should remain like…post both types of articles,doesn’t matter, someone in the community will consume it…we have rich diversity in our community u know that right?? AND THATS THE BEAUTY OF HSB!!!!!

  10. This certainly has been one of the best articles giving an insight into the reasons as to when and why should one take up researc.

  11. PhD is for one who has passion for research and once that decision is taken, the person has to stand for the decision that he/she has taken. It is sad when students join for a PhD program and terminate with a Masters’. This is happening and that might bring a bad taste to the grad school about the country/region the student is from which will certainly affect the lineage of students from that country/region. My honest advice, in addition to the ones listed above: aim for PhD if you are mentally strong and willing to face every challenge.

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