Three simple letters with so much meaning. A terminal degree. Subject matter expertise. Street cred. The pinnacle of your academic training. For me, it’s the ability to finally become an academic researcher and a professor.
For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to pursue a career that would allow me to teach, mentor and explore new ideas. I was an extremely inquisitive child – I constantly sat in the front row and raised my hand to ask my favorite question of all: WHY. I also loved the feeling of creating something new, whether it be through dancing, singing, acting or writing. That is why it doesn’t surprise me that I gravitated towards research.
I distinctively remember being in a high school seminar where we were discussing what professions to explore in college. My hand shot up when they asked who wanted to be a scientist. Since I loved genetics, I was convinced my career goal was to pursue a PhD in Biotechnology. Well, the few scientists I knew all had PhDs, so it was pretty simple: I need a PhD to be an academic researcher. The plan? Linear and concrete: Go to college, get a bachelor degree and go straight into a doctorate program.
Fast forward to today: while I’m finally pursuing a PhD, my path was anything but linear. It took nine years after graduating from my undergraduate program to finally start my PhD. During that time, I transitioned from basic sciences to public health, got an MPH, and worked within multiple job settings: Lab Research. Federal Government. County Government. Academic Partnerships. Health Education. Even some retail and serving in between. Quite frankly, I wouldn’t have it any other way, because these experiences gave me invaluable insight… the exact insight necessary to once again answer the question:
Why a PhD?
If I’m being completely honest, knowing the answer to this question from the start is the key to a successful doctoral experience. Few people openly talk about the difficult aspects of pursuing a PhD. And, guess what: It is scary, daunting, and by far one of hardest thing I have ever had to do.
Yes, pursuing a doctorate degree is an exciting, stimulating process. It is extremely rewarding to finally be immersing yourself in theory and literature, designing your own dissertation and pushing boundaries. However, it can also be incredibly lonely. Although your advisor is there to help guide you, you are expected to delve into a topic and become an expert on your own. On top of that, you will be partaking in required coursework, completing comprehensive exams, and most likely engaging in other research projects and extracurricular activities. So, finding a way to juggle it all, while also trying to keep your personal life afloat, is taxing.
In my case, I knew I wanted to pursue a PhD after exploring different career options and realizing I was happiest when I worked on designing and implementing new research projects, and while I was teaching. I am also extremely passionate about mentoring others. Academia offers a venue for me to do all of these things. Being clear and decisive about my reason to pursue a doctorate degree has been instrumental in staying motivated and making the journey much more manageable.
Know there will be periods of darkness, frustration, and doubt. Every PhD student I know has gone through them, at least once. You will inevitably go through phases of the imposter syndrome, and don’t be surprised if you start questioning your beliefs and other aspects of life. If you don’t know why you are pursuing a doctorate degree, these moments will seem much more difficult than they actually are.
So, , I would encourage you to ask yourself the following questions:
- Why do you want a PhD?
- What is a PhD going to provide you that another degree will not?
- What do you envision using your degree for?
- Why now?
These questions may seem obvious now, but trust me when I say that this will be one of the most difficult phases you will ever go through. Write down your answers and revisit them every time things get challenging, lonely, or you start to question why you are doing this again (because, you WILL question it!). Having a clear end goal has truly helped me navigate my emotions during the process.
Also, be open to these answers changing slightly (or entirely) throughout your doctoral trajectory. Your personal journey may challenge you to reevaluate your end goals, or you may come across something new that inspires you to move in a different direction. The important thing is to have a reference point that will help you navigate your experience and allow you to constantly check-in with yourself.
To clarify, I am not trying to deter anyone from pursuing a doctorate degree. This period has been so fulfilling and I would do it again in a heartbeat! The road to getting a PhD has challenged me in so many facets of life, and has definitely made me a better, stronger version of myself. I only encourage you to make sure you know why this matters to you. Know your reasons for pursuing the degree and have them serve as an anchor and as motivation throughout the process. And, remember: there are no wrong reasons, as long as they make sense to you.
As for me, I’m less than 15 months away from graduating and achieving a goal I’ve had since high school. Although my path here couldn’t be farther from what I had envisioned, I’m sure my 15-year-old self would be incredibly proud.