On choosing to do PhD

This week I gave a talk at the career event of my former student society for mathematics and computer science students, ‘Christiaan Huygens’ (CH). All the speakers were asked to talk about their work, and the choices they made to get there. As it wasn’t always my goal to do a PhD, I thought it would be good for the students to hear about the doubts that I had. And now, for the purpose of sharing N=1 experiences, I’d like to share these thoughts with a wider audience.

One of the courses I followed during my masters was Pattern Recognition (IN4085, for the readers from TU Delft). I was immediately sold — it seemed magical that reading licence plates, recognizing faces, or predicting a patient’s diagnosis, were all based on the same underlying principles. I followed all the courses I could find on related topics, and did my graduation project on a pattern recognition topic (here is proof).

I was convinced that my job had to do something with pattern recognition. But, I also wanted to somehow apply all the “soft” skills that I had developed during my student union time. As many of my classmates were choosing consultancy jobs, I was excited to find out that there was something similar there to match both my interests: a data analysis consultancy job at a large company in Amsterdam. Note that this was 2010, and nobody was hiring “data scientists” yet, at least in the Netherlands.

Everything was going really well with that company. I had visited them for a day to find out more about their projects and meet the team I’d be working with. I really loved the new environment, and I was convinced I would be hired after an interview. Shortly afterwards, an opportunity to do a PhD in Delft came up. That was also an environment that I loved, but it was entirely different from the job in Amsterdam. It was safe and familiar. After all, I thought that during my MSc project I had already figured out what research was about (cough cough). Fueled by the belief that you should always do new and challenging things, I felt that choosing for a PhD would be seen as an inferior choice.

But, doubts also started to creep in. I could not define them fully at the time, but now I am quite sure the doubts were: (i) I wasn’t sure I would be challenged enough by the technical challenges of the job in Amsterdam and (ii) I thought I would be challenged too much socially — always looking professional, always interacting with people — things that I definitely enjoy, but perhaps not every day, and not coupled with a long commute.

Perhaps my biggest problem was that at the company, it would be part of my job to oversell things — make things seem more impressive than they are to clients, and come up with convincing arguments on the spot. This ability was considered very valuable among my classmates, and I imagine quite sought after by companies. I of course felt honored by the company’s belief I had this ability, because it wasn’t something that came to me naturally. So while I was excited and challenged by the prospect of developing this ability, it also felt like I would be betraying myself a little bit.

One of the things that helped me in my decision is a conversation I had with an alumnus, who just finished his PhD and was switching to an industry job. The advice was to compare concrete opportunities (rather than PhD vs not PhD) and to consider the people I would work with, the daily tasks I would have to do, whether I could be myself, and how the position would fit in with the rest of my life. This cleared things up for me, and once I had accepted the PhD position, it felt like a huge weight off my shoulders.

I didn’t regret my decision for a second afterwards. I had a great time during my PhD because of the people that I worked with, not only inside the lab, but also other researchers that I met at conferences. I discovered I was very wrong about knowing what research is about! There are new, exciting and challenging things in my job every day, but challenging in a way that is meaningful to me. I also had quite a lot of freedom, both in the ideas I pursued and in managing how I spent my time. I was always in the office during regular work hours, but I appreciated being able to take days off, taking a holiday after a conference, or working at home if I wasn’t having the best day. I felt that I was being valued for my ideas, rather than for showing up and doing the job that was assigned to me. And isn’t being valued one of the most important components for job satisfaction?

That is not to say that you should always choose a PhD when in a similar situation. There are huge differences in PhD positions as well: not all researchers are nice people, and not all projects offer the same freedom that I had. I hope that the strategy that helped me — considering concrete opportunities, and staying true to yourself — should help you with the answer.

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