I often get asked by students if I would recommend taking a PhD. In this blog post, I will lay out my philosophy for choosing the right PhD position. I hope that by following my advice, you will make a better-educated decision about starting a PhD career.

I spent quite a lot of time wondering about the PhD question. The first time I asked myself this question was after finishing my university degree in 2013. Back then, I decided against a PhD and took an industry-job in Norway. Two years into that job, I asked myself the PhD question again – and this time I ended up quitting my job and taking a PhD at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology on the topic of UAV icing. Going back to academia is a choice I have (so far) not regretted and that has given me plenty of awesome career opportunities.

In total, I applied for more than 20 PhD positions in various fields, ranging from wind energy, fluid dynamics, glaciology, to environmental sciences. I went through about 10 job interviews. Most of these resulted in job offers which I turned down for various reasons. I was talking to a lot of friends and colleagues who took PhDs and I noticed that it pays off to be picky about a PhD.

Based on these experiences, I have come up with my own answer to the question if taking a PhD might be a good idea or not. In my view, the question can be broken down into two separate parts. The first is more general about your personal suitability for a PhD. The second is if a specific PhD position is a right fit for you.

The first question is strongly depending on your goals, your career ambitions, and your personality. In some fields, a PhD degree is a key requirement for a successful career (e.g. in chemistry or biology). In other fields, a PhD may be valued much less. From a pure career-point-of-view, most PhDs probably yield a low “return of investment” (The Economist: Why doing a PhD is often a waste of time). In most cases, if you are interested in having a steep carrier (outside academia), a PhD might not be the best choice.

There is another reason for choosing a PhD: freedom. PhD candidates are typically given a lot of freedom in what they work on and how they do the work. After working for more than two years in the industry, I realized that I value flexibility and freedom of work very highly. I like to be able to choose my own working hours, the location where I work, and (to a degree) what I work on. For me, this is a very important element in my work-life-balance and having this freedom gives me great satisfaction and happiness. For others, this freedom (especially when paired with poor supervision) can be a cause for great anxiety and suffering.

The second question relates to the issue if a particular PhD position is right for you. This is a very important question because it will determine your work environment for the next 3-5 years. The “ideal” PhD position should satisfy the following three conditions:

  1. The ideal PhD is on a topic that you feel enthusiastic about.
  2. The ideal PhD has a supervisor that you feel confident about.
  3. The ideal PhD is on a topic that has relevance.  

First and foremost, the topic of your PhD should be something that you believe in and that you can feel enthusiastic about. After all, it is going to be the topic that you will dedicate several years of your life to. You should be realistic about this – when I say “enthusiastic” I don’t mean that you need to be absolutely in love with your topic – but it should engage your curiosity and be a cause that you can support.

The second most important thing is the right choice for the supervisor. A PhD supervision may be compared to marriage – both have in common that finding the right partner is one of the most critical factors for success. So be picky! Find somebody who shares the same idea about supervision. You need to identify the things that are important to you and communicate your expectations clearly during the job interview. Do everything you can to find out more about your potential supervisor. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. The purpose of an interview is for both sides to get to know each other. A good question in a PhD interview is to ask what they think makes a PhD candidate successful. Be open and honest about your expectations. Also, try to arrange your interview so that you can go for lunch with other PhD candidates in the same department. Ask them about their experiences, especially with your potential supervisor.

The third and last element an ideal PhD topic should have is relevance. Relevance means that there is a good amount of interest in the scientific community or in the industry in the results from the PhD topic. A relevant topic will make it much easier to get funding for your ideas and draw larger audiences to your results. It will also make you feel that your work matters a lot more, which can be a great source of motivation (you will need that!).

In summary, the decision to take a PhD is a difficult one. I hope these thoughts will help you make the right decision. A PhD can be one of the most fun things you can do in your career.