• Joey Lee

On considering a PhD

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I wrote these notes to a former student of mine who asked me about pursuing PhD opportunities.

As someone who has gone through a master's program and plans to complete a PhD one day (fingers crossed!) and as someone who has many friends who are in PhD programs and/or have completed their grad work and are now professors, these are some reflections and notes I've collected that might help shine some light on what you might think about in looking for PhD positions and grad school programs.

NOTE: These notes are just notes and brain pickings are from my own experiences and observations for programs in general social and physical sciences and specifically in Geography and atmospheric science. There may be very different situations in the humanities, legal, business, and medical universes.

The right supervisor is key

  • At the PhD level, I would worry very little about which university and focus 100% about finding the right supervisor for you and the work you want to do. There are too many horror stories (and I’ve seen too many to count) of horrible supervisor-student relationships ranging the gamut from exploitative to unsupportive or otherwise just unhelpful.
  • I don't want to say that the institution doesn't matter— it can be very important for funding opportunities and access to facilities etc , but at the end of the day, you want to learn from a person who is a leader in the field (and hopefully is a good, nice person). I've seen and experienced instances where "rock star" academics are "fancy" universities are so busy being rockstars that they have little or no time for their grad students or put undo responsibilities and pressures on their students with the promise of aiding them in their academic careers. That can work for some people, but I don't think this is the healthiest situation and would avoid that if you can see those signs earlier than later.
  • Some academics that I think are awesome by nature of how supportive they are, their commitment to inclusivity and accessibility, their principles for research and commitment to public good, and more (and of course because they are mega smart):

Finding a supervisor is a process

  • Everyone has their methods, but when I found my advisor, Andreas Chisten, who I consider to be one of the biggest influences on my life, it was through reading scientific papers. For months I was reading work in the urban climate universe and found a lot of work that I found to be really impressive and I had the “this is exactly what I want to do and how I want to do it” moment. When applying to different schools, I met with different prospective supervisors who I’d also identified through reading papers, they all asked me the same question:

      1. Where else are you applying?
      1. Do they have funding for you?
  • When I told them I had an offer from Andreas Christen at UBC, they all said, 100% you have to work with Andreas and 100% Vancouver is an amazing place. I loved their honesty and funny enough they'd all studied at UBC in vancouver for grad school. Honestly they were 100% correct. In the ideal world, you want to have shining reviews from people in the field for whoever you want to work with. If there’s criticism or hesitation, then it could be for good reason.
  • Andreas was the first person to respond to my emails and was proactive at defining funding opportunities from the get go. It was a match made in heaven! Haha.
  • Talk with grad students — set up meetings to get a feeling for the vibes of the supervisor and within the lab or research group you will be joining. If the other students don't seem cool, you might get a sense that you're heading into a less-than-friendly environment. On the other hand if the people you chat with seem great, then that could be a good sign!
  • Make sure your supervisor isn't planning to retire soon. Give yourself a 7-year window... seriously.
  • Make sure your supervisor doesn't have any (immediate) plans to move to another university. This is less in your control and sometimes out of the control of your prospective supervisor, but unless you're willing to move with your supervisor, know that profs do move from place to place occasionally and that can affect your situation.

Constructing a committee

  • Just noting that likely you will have a group of people who will be part of your grad committee. This can be good to have a diversity of people who can speak to different aspects of your work. This will grow later, but it is good to keep in mind.

If you do a phD you should be funded.

  • Never accept a PhD position without funding (or at least a pretty good plan about how you will be funded). You should at least have 4 years funded if you’re going for a program in the US or Canada and the 3 - 3.5 years full funding for Europe. As a grad student you will be working as a researcher and likely you will have to do other teaching and supplemental work to stay afloat.
  • Some programs require grad students to find their own funding which, unless it is the most amazing program in the world and everyone is so super cool etc etc, then I wouldn’t go this route. I have some friends at programs who do make this work, and are generally fulfilled by winning grants etc, but it is A LOT of work to do grant writing, it is difficult to win grants, and it can be tough to have your research directions be dictated by your funding streams if that's not what you're keen on.
  • If you choose a good supervisor, they will make sure to only accept you if they have funding available or at least figure out ways to duct-tape funding streams together to support you.

It’s helpful to know what you’re getting into

  • A PhD can be a long process. A lot of my friends in the social sciences in the US and Canada were PhD students between 5 (at the fastest) and 7 years. And after some become professors at universities on a tenure track, and some are doing a hybrid academic/consulting thing.
  • The North American system is much longer — you are a grad student for the first 2-3ish years until you pass what are known as “comprehensive exams” which qualify you as a PhD Candidate. Only after your candidacy do you get to really focus 100% on research outside of coursework.
  • In Europe, the system is much shorter, more condensed, and more project focused. Essentially you are hired as a researcher. Usually this means no classes and (if well funded) then no teaching. You are there to do the research, pump out research papers, and wrap up within 3-3.5 years.
  • I was recently offered a position from a prof/Uni in Germany and the deal is that you start in the E13 salary bracket (https://academicpositions.be/career-advice/phd-postdoc-and-professor-salaries-in-germany) . Depending on how much of your time is deemed to be "student time" usually is is about 65%, this puts you at around 30-40k euros/year pre-tax. Note that while german taxes are higher, cost of living is generally lower for groceries and rent, and you get mega benefits like free-ish (~300 euros a year as part of your student fees) public transit, as a student and medical coverage. Oh and there's no tuition fees.

    • Also note that usually the way it goes is that you are X% student, meaning that X% of your time as a researcher is considered time to be writing and "being a student" so your salary reflects that. As written in the blog post linked above:

      For example, the salary range for a 100% PhD student is €3,438.27-€4,962.10 while the range for a 67% PhD student is €2,303.65-€3,324.61.

    • The % depends on what you agree on with your prospective supervisor and research lab depending on what funding that have available to you.
  • Both systems have their advantages and disadvantages, and we can talk about those in person.
  • In Canada where I did a master's, I went fully funded. What this means however is that:

    • you still pay uni tuition - at the time it was around ~7-8K a year as an international student http://www.calendar.ubc.ca/vancouver/index.cfm?tree=14,266,773,1450#18012 — so you have to subtract that out of your scholarship stipend that is offered.
    • When I started, my based scholarship then was about 25K/year — obviously you're not swimming in riches so you supplement your stipend as a teaching assistant and graduate research positions. Usually these roles make up for the amount that is "lost" to tuition and gives you a little bit extra. I think in the end I was coming close to ~30-32K a year. I had a good, simple life, but definitely had to be very frugal. More or less everyone else in your cohort will have similar situations, so you learn to live this way.
    • In addition there are other funding opportunities and scholarships that do pop up here and there, but I'd consider those extra and nice-to-haves. E.g. I did web development for an institute on campus as a research assistantship that was really mellow + nice people — thanks CIRs!!).
    • I will note that during grad school I was awarded with a Mozilla fellowship which was 60kUSD (eq. ~85K CAD in 2015, more money than i'd ever made in my life) and it funded me basically an extra year of grad school to push my research an extra field season as well as do open science advocacy work. This was one of the best opportunities I could've ever imagined.
  • The point is, being "fully funded" means you generally will be living quite modestly while you are working towards your degree.
  • The university and department will likely support you to travel for 1 conference a year as a grad student. This is super nice and really important for meeting others in your field. Depending on your domain, you will likely have the "1" conference a year that is important — e.g. for me it was the ICUC urban climate conference and my year it was in Toulouse, France :)

Which domain do you fit in to?

  • Finding the domain of interest is not always as you might expect. For me, since I started in Geography I knew how interesting it was from early on, but a lot of my cohort never considered it until they found their advisors in the Geography department. The same can be for any other field. Sometimes the person you’re super interested to work with happens to be hired to a specific department somewhere outside of what you might associate with their work. For example Shannon Matters is a media theorist but is based at the New School’s Anthropology department. My grad school roommate’s supervisor was a hydrologist and statistician but in a Geography department.

Entry barriers

  • Standardized tests: Honestly, I hate standardized tests. I think they are part of a problematic economy and do not test for a lot other than being able to speak to some arbitrary "standard" that does not indicate anything about what kind of researcher and creative person you are. I've taken the GRE and hated it and honestly did poorly (this was nearly 10 years ago I guess). However the reality is that some programs in North America require this. Research early on whether or not any standardized tests are required, prepare for those tests if necessary, and get those barriers out of the way. Even if you don't do super well, at least you can apply and pass any of the university requirements that might have barred you from entry. Discuss with your prospective supervisor about your scores if they are a concern. Usually they are not super important (unless you're going for a medical program or law or something — I know nothing of those worlds) EXCEPT for potential eligibility for scholarships.
  • There are some standardized tests that you cannot avoid in some cases like the TOEFL for english proficiency. This is something that's a bit harder to get around. So make sure to get those out of the way if you can!

Location matters

  • This is just to note that location will shape your experience wherever you go and that quality of life does matter. I loved living in Vancouver and that was a massive benefit of being in grad school there as opposed to somewhere like London, Boston, or LA. Feeling like you fit in to a place is something I wouldn't ignore.

Hopefully these are helpful starting points.