Monday, February 13, 2012

Doing a PhD: is it work or school?

I'm often confronted with the question what a PhD actually is: is it going to school or is it having a research job? Explaining people that it is somewhere in between both seems to be a rather unsatisfying answer, while that is my best and most honest answer to it.
While this topic has been covered previously in "10 easy ways to fail a PhD" and "Is the 9-5 PhD a myth?". From the first, especially this passage makes me both smile and want to pull out my hair at the same time:

"Ph.D. school is a monastic experience. And, a jealous hobby.
Solving problems and writing up papers well enough to pass peer review demands contemplative labor on days, nights and weekends.
Reading through all of the related work takes biblical levels of devotion.
Ph.D. school even comes with built-in vows of poverty and obedience.
The end brings an ecclesiastical robe and a clerical hood."

Here's my take on this:

Reasons why it is work 

- It requires continuous effort, you can't pull an all-nighter before your thesis defense like you can do for an exam and call it a day.
- You receive a salary (or: something that keeps you alive), and if you're lucky like PhD students in the Netherlands, these years count as professional years towards your retirement and money is saved somewhere for when you retire.
- Depending on where you do your PhD, you also pay taxes, like any other person with a job.
- Your university considers you as a temporary employee.
- Teaching duties are work, and should be taken seriously and dealt with professionally.
- You're not somewhere alone in the universe, but you'll have to defend your decisions in front of your funding body.
- You have deadlines from your funding body which are similar to deadlines in any regular job.

Reasons why it is not work 

- No one checks how you spend your day and how many hours you work. There might be something like a timesheet, but typically you'll just book 40 hours a week on your project, regardless of what you actually do.
- Even though supervisors have a certain level of authority over you, you still are fully in charge of your PhD.
- I think working 9 to 5 is a myth when you do a PhD. I typically am in my office from 8 to 6, and then I do additional work from home in the evening after dinner and during the weekend (on Sunday, I like to keep my Saturday for myself).
- You are still working towards a degree, and a PhD is the third cycle of higher education.

Reasons why it is school

- You are still working towards a degree, and a PhD is the third cycle of higher education.
- You are taking courses and studying topics which you do not fully master yet.
- You are physically in a school.
- You can go and ask questions to professors from other research groups and they'll be glad to help you like they would help a student and they won't charge you their expert fare as they would charge a professional in industry.
- You have a student card, and get a reduced fare at museums and the movies.

Reasons why it is not school

- Doing research is not like doing homework. There are a lot of differences between studying and researching.
- You need much larger levels of independence and determine your own course of studies.
- While it only takes a semester to finish a course, or a year (at least) to get a Master's degree, it will take at least four years to get a doctoral degree.

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