Should I do a PhD?

It’s that time of year again, summer has come and gone, COVID-19 is hopefully clearing up, people are putting their lives back together and some will be wondering if the time has come to do a much-desired PhD in archaeology or Egyptology. This post is inspired by a friend asking her post-PhD Egyptologist buddies if she should do a PhD and what, if anything, she should consider before she begins. We dutifully answered her, but I thought the subject could do with a longer treatment.

Misconceptions

Before you decide to do a PhD its worth considering whether a PhD is really right for you and that means exposing several misconceptions:

A PhD does not guarantee a job

A PhD is the basic entry requirement you need for a research career, typically in academia. But it is only a foundation. To land a full-time, permanent academic job you typically need a PhD, a post-doc or two, teaching experience and a big helping of luck. There are some fields where academics do not routinely have PhDs, but academic archaeologists without a terminal degree are the exception. The normal post-doctoral route for archaeologists and Egyptologists is to undertake one or two post-doctoral projects (applying for appropriate grants, undertaking original research and publishing it), before landing an entry level academic position, often of a temporary nature. Full-time, permanent academic jobs in Egyptology are rare, and although archaeology is slightly better, there are many applicants for each job. You will often have to move location and sometimes country for every new job. It is entirely possible that you will complete an outstanding PhD but find your career stalled at the post-doc or adjunct stage. Now that is absolutely not your fault and its not the end of the world, but its worth considering carefully before you begin.

Before you decide to start a PhD please have a good look at the various authors and writers who are honest about success in academia and alternatives. Keep an eye people like The Professsor Is In (US-centric but honest about the problems with the academic job market) and Tweeps like @FromPhDtoLife @ProfessorIsIn @AcademicChatter and #PostAc #AltAc #WithAPhD #PhDChat. From Phd To Life has just published a list of books about the many fulfilling alternatives to academia depending on what really interests you about research. You can also look at the National Coalition of Independent Scholars (@NCISorg on twitter) and their British partner group FIRE-UK for more information about researchers outside the academy. Having a PhD has great value in many fields and you absolutely don’t have to be an academic to find it worthwhile, but its not a guarantee of a career in academia or elsewhere.

A PhD is not an ego-boosting experience

A common public misconception about PhDs is that they are ego-boosting experiences which innately clever people undertake almost without effort as an exercise in recognition. This misconception is common in TV and film where examples of the ‘omnidisciplinary scientist’ trope often have multiple PhDs. In fact a PhD is quite the opposite of an ego-boost. No matter your competency original research is hard work, involving multiple failures and dead-ends, problems with data, and confusion over new techniques. Academic writing necessitates regular peer review with considerable constructive, and sometimes less-than-constructive, criticism. Even the most competent and capable student is likely to experience competence-related anxiety at some point during their PhD. A PhD is absolutely not an ego-boost and may well leave you feeling like you know less at the end than at the beginning. (You don’t actually know less, you’ve just discovered how little you – and probably anyone – really knows about your chosen subject).

A PhD is ‘a real job’ and a hard one

Another public misconception is that people do PhDs because they don’t know what else to do. I’m sure there are some people who’ve done so, but I doubt they enjoyed it. PhDs are really hard and personally stressful. You’d have to be very relaxed indeed to undertake all that out of boredom. To get finished most PhDs require the passion of an interesting subject and/or the motivation of career goals.

Image of the author sitting on a balcony overlooking an Egyptian field with a differential GPS.
Programming the differential GPS on the terrace of the Marsam Hotel, Luxor. What this photo does not show is that this GPS was of an unfamiliar design and I only had a few hours of training with it. I spent two stressful days figuring out how it worked before I could begin our research.

Do you need a PhD for the next stage of your career?

PhDs are hard, stressful, challenging, expensive, confidence-sapping and there are no guarantees of either academic or career success. So why do one? If you can achieve your desired outcome without one then that is perfectly reasonable and you have saved yourself a whole lot of expense, stress and frustration. On the other hand, there are a number of very good reasons to do a PhD. There are career options where a PhD is likely to be either essential or highly desirable. As Chris Naunton discusses in this blog post, exactly how we define ‘Egyptologist’ depends very much on our perspective, but it is much easier to be recognised as such with a PhD in the subject. Archaeology is a much broader church, but a PhD is still useful for demonstrating your mastery of higher research methods to future employers. Fundamentally there several good reasons to do a PhD:

It’s an essential requirement for your preferred career

As an apprenticeship in original research a PhD is the basic requirement necessary for various research careers. There are still some fields where academics do not generally have PhDs, but for archaeology and Egyptology if you want to have a chance of teaching and/or researching in a University or equivalent setting a PhD is the basic requirement. Various academia-adjacent careers may also expect or prefer post-holders to have PhDs. If you want to go into any sort of higher research in academia or elsewhere it is a likely that a PhD is highly desirable, if not essential.

That said, archaeology offers a variety of opportunities to undertake research without a PhD. It may be worth getting experience in archaeological research before you decide a PhD is the right choice. If you can do the type of research that interests you without a PhD, you will have saved yourself considerable time, energy and money.

It’s fun

If you don’t have career concerns or worries about paying the bills, it’s perfectly reasonable to decide to do a PhD for fun. The advantage is that you won’t be anxious about always ensuring you are in the best position for your future career, but you also won’t have ambition driving you through the harder parts. Even the best job has its boring bits and PhDs are much the same. Be prepared for those times when you wonder why you thought this would be ‘fun’. It’s also worth doing some serious self-reflection about why you want to do a PhD and what it might do to you. A PhD is an intellectual marathon. At some point, much like a marathon runner, you will hit ‘the wall’. A colleague looked at my face towards the end of my PhD and said ‘you’ve reached the point where you not only want to throw your thesis out the window, you want to throw yourself out after it’. I knew exactly what he meant. I was totally and absolutely fed up with my thesis and I wanted it to be finished. (Don’t worry, the feeling passes). You will inevitably face criticism and it may not be constructive. A PhD will expose exactly what you do and do not know and any insecurities you have. If you are going into this ‘for fun’ be prepared for it to be tough at times. To counter the inevitable bad days be sure to pick a subject that really interests you.

Author and tripods set up against an ancient inscription on a rock face.
Sometimes it’s just fun! Reflectance Transformation Imaging at Hatnub

Someone is paying you to do a PhD.

It may sound like a dream but sometimes the stars align and someone will literally pay you to do a PhD: your current employer; a research institution; or a grant-funding body. It sounds like an offer too good to miss, but depending on your benefactor they may not be as generous as they seem. If your employer is offering to fund your PhD then please make sure you are absolutely clear (and get it in writing) exactly what they are offering. They will usually pay your University fees, but you will also need funding for conferences and research expenses and time to undertake the work. Original research is intellectually taxing and unless your job is extremely easy for you, undertaking your PhD research in the evenings and at weekends will be extremely tiring. Try to negotiate time for your PhD research during your working day. You should also negotiate whether PhD-related conferences will be included in your work-time or not and who will pay for them. If your employer is funding your PhD, your research will probably relate to data they hold, but the chances are that at some point you will need to go elsewhere to collect data or relevant sources. It is worth negotiating with your employer for such trips to be paid for and included in your work time. If your employer is paying for your PhD, treat it like part of the job. Don’t let gratitude obscure the need to negotiate the details with them.

Funding from research institutions or funding bodies varies. At best funding will include your fees, a stipend, and research funds. A fully-funded PhD will allow you to work full-time on your academic achievements as well as providing necessary funding for attending conferences and doing fieldwork. Some funded PhDs form part of larger projects and are advertised on jobs’ boards like other academic posts. In other cases you will need to apply for funding to the relevant body in cooperation with your University after you have decided upon a suitable project. Funded PhDs are obviously highly sort after and competition is fierce.

Can you cope with self-funding?

If a PhD is what you want to do, but you cannot obtain funding you will need to self-fund; paying your fees to the University and finding your own living costs. You may be able to apply to smaller funding pots or grants for conference and research expenses, but these may not cover all your expenses.

Unless you are independently wealthy or retired, you will probably need to work while doing your self-funded PhD. Most self-funders work part time and study part time, but exactly how much time you can devote to working and studying is very personal. You will need to determine what you can afford, both financially and in terms of personal energy. It requires a lot of mental energy to undertake the deep thinking, creating and analysing you will need to complete a PhD – it is ‘deep work’ as Cal Newport describes it in his book of the same name. How much of your full-time work you can afford to give up is a very personal decision and depends on both what you need financially and how much mental energy your bill-paying work requires. Only you can know what you are capable of after a long day at work and how much actual work you need to do to pay the bills. Ironically, while living costs may be easier if you are living with others, that may also make it harder to move for research or future academic posts.

Focussing your PhD research to maximise your career-options

You really do need a PhD and you’ve worked out how you can afford to do one. But the post-doctoral career market is fierce and a PhD doesn’t guarantee you a future in research. How can you give yourself the best opportunity to get the career you want or the most transferable skills to shift into the other sectors? It might seem strange to discuss this before you’ve even decided to do a PhD, but focussing your PhD research on the right things can provide a better foundation for the next phase of your career. There are a number of ways to maximise your chances of getting those important post-doc and lecturing positions, and those skills can also help if you decide upon a career outside academia. Ideally your PhD should include a practical inter-disciplinary skill, teaching of relevant subjects and, if you’re an Egyptologist, ancient language:

Learn a practical skill

Being able to teach or provide a practical inter-disciplinary skill can make you more attractive as a post-doc or lecturer, and can also provide a useful practical skill you can offer to the world outside academia. Can you incorporate archaeological drawing, photography, GIS, coding etc into your PhD? Can you get experience in a museum? How can you develop a practical aspect of your PhD that will appeal to a future employer?

Author standing on a mudbrick pyramid with a differential GPS de
Using GPS to survey a mudbrick pyramid at Dra Abu el-Naga, Luxor.

Now you can do, please teach.

Getting teaching experience can be hugely advantageous in obtaining your post-doc or first lecturing post. It doesn’t really matter what you teach, although it would be better if it was related to your PhD research. Many Universities allow PhD candidates to teach classes or cover for lecturers. Grasp those opportunities with both hands if you possibly can.

Acquire language skills

Most Egyptology lecturing positions expect you to be able to teach some form of ancient Egyptian language, often as well as various historical or archaeological subjects. Acquiring language skills and learning to teach ancient languages will be very appealing if you want to be an academic Egyptologist. As with most the other aspects of this list, integrating these skills into your PhD research will make the process easier overall.

An offering scene showing a man and woman in front of an offering table
TT35, Dra Abu l’Naga. Being able to read and teach basic Hieroglyphs is a useful skill for anyone hoping for a career in Egyptology.

Always have a plan B!

What’s your plan B? Academic posts are rare and competition is fierce. You can write the most amazing PhD, teach, learn all the skills, get grants and publish regularly but still miss out on a post-doc or lecturing post. If you don’t get into academia, or want an alternative research career, how can you set yourself up to succeed in the world of work? This is a very personal question and it depends on your pre-doctoral experience and the nature of your doctoral research. For the most part the skills learnt during a PhD are very transferable, but you can improve your chances by learning practical skills that are valued in industry. My career has been advanced much further by my GIS skills than by my Egyptology. Coding, programming and other ICT skills are much in demand and various industries will always appreciate skilled grant writers and researchers. Before you begin your PhD consider how you can turn your PhD and your past experience into a career both in and outside of academia.

Where should you study?

Where you study and who supervises you is an intensely personal decision. If you are funded as part of a larger project you may have little choice. Personal constraints in terms of family and employment may also play a part. It’s worth considering the requirements of the institution and the individual supervisors before you decide. It goes without saying that you will need an institution and supervisors with appropriate skills for your field of study. As a rule it is probably wiser to pick a supervisor or supervisors who specialise in the aspects of your PhD where you are personally weakest. But there are other considerations too. How often will you need to meet your supervisors? Can you work remotely? What opportunities for teaching are there? Does their style mesh with your needs? Do you need greater independence or greater involvement from your supervisor? These are all very personal considerations that you should take into account when deciding on your preferred institution and supervisor.

Bibliography

Cal Newport 2016, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

About hannahpethen

Having completed my PhD in archaeology at the University of Liverpool, I am now a freelance archaeologists working with landscape and topographic survey and satellite imagery. I specialise in GIS, GPS, desk-based assessment and landscape projects and have a particular interest in Egyptian archaeology.
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