Should you join a PhD Program?


Often, I get emails from juniors (final year undergrads mostly) asking about Computational Materials Science or about joining a PhD program in India. And I am always happy to share my thoughts because when I was making a decision during my final year of bachelors program at NIFFT, I was confused too and did not have anyone with whom I could discuss this!

Between a job and a PhD program, choose a job

The first question most folks have is whether it is better to focus on securing a PhD admit and not appear for interviews during the placement season - to which I highly recommend - get a job or at least try to if you can. Of course, here I am assuming that you have some interest in pursuing a career in the industry and are confused between academia and industry.

I spent three years working after my final year and I believe it helped streamline my life as a grad student.

I worked at KPMG in risk consulting, which taught me a lot about managing my work, working with deadlines, scheduling reviews, making trackers etc. Then, when I started my own business, I started managing even more stuff - setting deadlines, planning goals and objectives, communication with clients etc.

If you get good at managing your career like this, you will do well as a grad student. My experience here at IISc has taught me that a lot of time is spent doing exactly these things - planning your research, scheduling experiments, communication in the form of learning from peers and writing papers.

Of course, you don’t need to learn this at your workplace and then switch to a PhD program. Perhaps your thesis advisor or peers or research group will teach you this. Or maybe you are already good at this stuff.

If you are really, really sure that you want to dive into academia, don’t think about this. 1 But if you have the slightest inclination to work for a good company where you will surely learn skills otherwise useful in life, I would suggest that you go get that job.

Also, there is this thing that if you directly join a PhD program and you see your friends “living the corporate life”, you don’t want the parasitic thought of imagining how it’d be if you joined the industry instead ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

PhD in India vs. PhD outside India

Well, I cannot tell you the which of these is better because I have no experience of how it is to be a part of a PhD program outside India. I can tell you my side fo he story which may help you make up your mind.

I had planned to apply for PhD programs outside India but then I decided against it for the following reasons:

First, it’s bloody expensive! The tests are just the start - GRE and TOEFL (~ ₹30k) + application fees at maybe 10 institutes (~ ₹50k) + Test Score Fees for these places (~ ₹20k).

Second, if you are applying after a B.Tech, then its really difficult to get an admit to a good place if you don’t have amazing internships (and thus recommendations), research paper authorships, stellar grades and what not! Don’t get me wrong, I feel that the admission process to most of the PhD programs outside India is really good (mostly) but it’s just that I did not feel I would land an amazing institute or advisor in any top schools outside India with my profile. Add this to the significant financial investment required upfront, I did not want to take a risk! So I decided to focus on getting into the best option available in India.

Also, I had realised it was easier for me (logistically) to get into IISc (or worst case, any IIT) because all I had to do was clear GATE, and ace the interview and join! No additional costs and uncertainty of applying abroad, and hence I applied at IISc. Better to get into the best option in India instead of settling for a (possibly) decent option outside.

If you are thinking of applying abroad, and can manage the costs and application requirements, do apply and let me know how it went. Thee are lot of resources available online to help you make a choice. Check out online forums, answers on Quora and talk to your seniors and friends to help you make a decision.

But I want to start up!

Someone had asked me my thoughts on applying for a PhD program considering the chances that you can use the outcome of your research to launch into the startup space. This actually seems to be a good idea. Your PhD thesis should ideally result in an innovative product idea or patented process that you can sell and make a fortune and retire early maybe. But the catch is, given that PhD is a long haul, you never know how things will turn out to be while you complete your PhD.

The best bet is to take up research in areas with industry applications or maybe in what are current industry favourites for buzz words (like AI, machine learning, photovoltaics, nanotechnology, batteries etc.)

Also, If you want to start a company or a business now, I’d say just go ahead and do it. Don’t do a PhD with the hope of maybe starting a company later. I think that is not the right way to think about a PhD program - which is a nice segue to what I wish to conclude this post.

The right reasons to do a PhD

I think the best reason to do a PhD is because you want to join the academia or research industry. In both these cases, a PhD is mandatory. If you have decided you want to teach students at university level or wish to work in a research lab, you’ll definitely need a PhD. In any other case, you should spend some time thinking whether you really want to commit to a long PhD program.

Maybe you don’t know if this is the right choice. If so, go get a job. If you hate the job, you can easily quit and join a PhD program if you feel like doing so.

But if you are absolutely sure that you must join a PhD program, I believe that it is more important to choose a good advisor and a good lab over a popular school. If you are hard pressed for the choice of a research area and advisor, get into the best possible university. This will probably give you a better lot of advisors and research areas to choose from.

Caveats and some generic Gyaan

You may have heard hindsight is 20/20. It is very easy for me to write this today and let you know how things turned out to be perfect for me. But that is because I may be biased and could just be remembering the bits that spin this story. And therefore, I am leaving you with some things to read up and think through

  1. In fact, I’d say get into a PhD program when you are sure (even if only in some part) that you really want to give it a serious try