My own graduate experience and 20 years in academic research have taught me that someone can be a good student without necessarily having what it takes to get a PhD or a career in academia. Often, students I see think that a solid undergraduate degree should guarantee later academic success, but the reality is quite different.
Along with a healthy dose of luck, the key attributes needed to produce a worthy PhD thesis are a readiness to accept failure; resilience; persistence; the ability to troubleshoot; dedication; independence; and a willingness to commit to very hard work — together with curiosity and a passion for research. The two most common causes of hardship in PhD students are an inability to accept failure and choosing this career path for the prestige, rather than out of any real interest in research.
Undergraduates who lack a clear understanding of what postgraduate work is all about can end up taking this route out of naivety or because it is the ‘trendy’ thing to do: doctoral students will know that although a PhD can seem glamorous, in reality it is anything but. I consider it essential that undergraduate studies include tutorials that raise awareness of the realities of doing a PhD. It is our duty as educators to fully impart that the degree is neither the natural continuation of undergraduate studies, nor a ticket to a smooth career path. Failed experiments and wrong or risky hypotheses are the driving forces of scientific discovery, and scientists must embrace failure if they are to eventually succeed.
Principal investigators who accept undergraduates in their laboratories should help them to understand the demands and expectations of postgraduate research. And students who consider a PhD should be encouraged to learn about the challenges of graduate school from their peers and professors, from scientific journals and from online resources. Educating undergraduates in this way could help to screen out those who are not suited to a research career, and prepare others for a smoother transition to graduate school.
Another way to help students before they embark on the lengthy road to a PhD would be to require them to gain some mock PhD experience. Several US universities already require candidate graduate students to have undertaken extended lab experience before they can be admitted as postgrads. Students who are seriously considering the PhD route should be advised to use these experiences as an opportunity to determine whether they enjoy the challenges of the work, and whether they have the fortitude to deal with the discouragement that repeated failure can bring.
Similarly, the general examinations required before graduate students can begin working on a PhD should serve as an opportunity for candidates to decide whether they truly have the level of interest, and the skills, that are necessary. It is crucial for students who are unhappy at this stage to understand that not pursuing a PhD can be a positive decision, rather than a sign of failure, and that they could be much happier by going directly into the job market.
A PhD is an exceptionally challenging process that is not for everyone. Educating undergraduates about the realities of graduate school, and applying stricter filtering, will reduce the number of dissatisfied young scientists and help students to make an informed decision about the options available to them.
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