Do you really think it's all worth it?


I'd just like to ask a couple of questions really and gauge opinions on whether you think academia is worth it, after doing a PhD. I'm really struggling at the moment (aren't we all at some point) and just a bit worried that I'll be doing very much the same after/if I ever get to the end of my PhD. I suppose I need to bear in mind that all worthwhile careers are challenging and stretch you, but I don't know if I can continue to work as furiously as I am now after my PhD. Will a post-doc be PhD version 2? Do you think that it's all worth it in the end?
I'm probably going to end up attempting to get into academia because I have absolutely no idea what to do with my life, or what kind of careers I could attempt to do. I could try and work in the NHS but I haven't used my clinical skills ever since I graduated, so that's probably a no-no. With this in mind, I consider myself restricted to academia. I'm not lazy but I'm going to want some 'me' time, so what do you think? It can never obviously be 9 til 5, but do you, in your personal opinion, think academia is a good move and/or are you hoping to work in a university or for a research organisation? Apologies if this has been asked before.


I've thought a great deal about this in recent months, and I still find myself to-ing and fro-ing on a regular basis. There are moments when I love what I do; the challenge, the constant flux of new ideas, the freedom, the great people in my department and diversity of the work. But then there are times when it feels like a never-ending struggle, and I look at the people around me - no job security, stuck as lab managers because they've become too senior for postdocs but didn't try to be professors, lucky if a post comes up which doesn't mean uprooting 500 miles away.... and for those who are/aimed to be professors, the hours are demanding, more so than I'd like because work really isn't all I want in life.

I think that to succeed in academia you've got to work damn hard, and you've got to really want it. In all honesty, I just don't think I want it enough. I also don't think I've actually got the intellect or work habits to be anything more than a pretty mediocre researcher, feeling incompetent gets you down after a while. I did contemplate industry but that's not a major option in my discipline, and I get the impression in can be a bit of a soul-destroying conveyor belt version of science anyway.

I've applied for an MSc that would train me for a specific NHS post, and I've got an interview next month. I still break out in a sweat at the thought of committing to that alternative plan, I worry that I'll miss the cut and thrust of research, that I'll be bored in the nhs work/bad at it, that I'm not aiming high enough and just leaving academia because I have so little faith in my abilities (I sometimes wish I could just sit down and bluntly ask my supervisor if I'm competent, I really have no idea).

I want a proper work/life balance, more than really going for it in academia would probably afford me. But most of all I'd love to be in a job where I want to put in the extra hours, I know people who feel that way about their work in academia and I want to find that passion in my own life, I think if you feel that way, it is worth it.

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I'm so confused by what to do. I think I did my MSc and PhD because i thought that was what was expected of me. no one actually said it, but I felt this wierd imaginary pressure of - you need to do better, get more qualified etc. when I don't think its made me happy. In one way i would like to give research a go, I very much like working on my own in my own little room at my own pace. However, there are hardly any jobs out there and the whole 'its on your brain 24/7' thing is starting to grate. I would like a job where I could close the office door and not have to think about it again until 9am. But is that just a waste of my qualifications??? I'm also having a lot of dreams about babies (nightmares really) and this scares me a lot I hear the big tick tock of the clock. I don't want a kid but feel it is expected of me to do that in the next 5 years, so my mind is maternity allowance and getting work experience etc etc argh!


Hi Walminski

At this stage of my PhD - couple of horrific months left to go, and so totally over it all, yet not wanting to leave uni, I'd have to say no, I don't think it's worth it. I might say differently when I finally graduate in May next year, but at the moment, nope.

We're in different areas and there might be more jobs for you, so it could very well be worth it for you. You teach as well, so that's more realistic for getting a career. I would like to work as a researcher in my field in the social sciences, and in the last year, I've seen exactly 2 low paid jobs advertised, in a city I don't want to live in. And that's it. I have financial commitments and am older, so can't up and move easily and take a job with low pay anymore, so that limits me. I'm doing my PhD to try and get a career change, and there just aren't any jobs. I turned down a lucrative promotion in the civil service because of this thesis, it's cost me time, money, relationships - you know the story - and so no, it's not worth it. At the end I'll be a Dr, which will mean very little to anyone apart from me and won't help me get a job.

Sorry to be so negative - although I'm not feeling particularly negative at the moment, this is just reality. Your story is different to mine - you're younger, you teach, you can take opportunities that I can't. So, could be well worth it for you.


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As much as it gets me down sometimes (and you can all smugly remind me of this when I'm threatening to quit again) I don't think I will ever, ever regret doing the PhD. Even if I don't pass my mid-point review next month and am left with nothing. Even if I never get a job in academia (very likely). For me, research *isn't* just a job, it's about trying to contribute something to a body of knowledge, however small that might be. It involves pushing yourself to the absolute limit, but that appeals to me. Leaving the office at 5pm and not thinking about work would be nice, yes but I think eventually I would start to question why I was bothering to go to work. Even if I had a 'normal' job I would want it to be something (CHEESE ALERT) that made a difference in some way.
I think it's easy to forget how lucky we are sometimes too. (Like I said, remind me of this when I'm complaining later). There are lots and lots of very intelligent people in the world who are stuck in dead-end jobs and would kill for the chance to read books and write and think for a living.
I don't mean to come across all evangelical here...:$

Edit: I also think my age might have something to do with this. I don't have a family to supportand I have plenty of time before I need to start thinking about starting one. That makes it a lot easier.

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Would just like to point out that the only job that has come up in my area (that I would be qualified and experienced enough for) in the last 3 months offers the salary of £21k - its based in London. £21k! After tax, NI, student loan repayments and living/commuting to london I would be worse off than being on my stipend. I would also be worse off than doing a minimum wage shop job. :-s


From a postdoc perspective, I look back fondly at my PhD years already as I found it less stressful, and with horror at the workload and pressure put on young lecturers in the social sciences. It's certainly not the cushy number, that the general public thinks it is. But I did ask that question myself: the answer I got was that you have to really enjoy teaching and research and accept that you are going to spend a hefty amount of time doing admin (much more I have to say than I ever realised lecturers did administratively - even as an ex-civil servant that really has been an eye-opener). If you ticked that box OK, then what they reckoned was that it wasn't for the sensitive as there you're pretty much continually being evaluated as an individual and as part of your dept, be it through peer review, teaching observations and evaluations, the RAE/REF and NSS, and you have to be able to accept that a lot of often hurtful criticism is going to come your way. On the other hand you get paid to read books and teach your subject, which is pretty good. It is definitely a long hours culture but they are flexible, and despite the constant targets and evaluation you're micro-managed much less on a day-to-day basis than in other jobs.
Other thoughts: all my experiences have been in Russell Group unis - I don't know whether it's less stressful in other parts of the sector even if teaching loads are higher. There might be less pressure to be top ten in everything. That said, it's probably easier to teach the standard Russell Group AAB type student - you have a much less mixed student body. Or are the high-achievers more demanding. No idea just speculation.
Thought 2: the next 5-10 years are going to be bad - whoever wins the election, the cuts are going to be painful and mean lots of job losses. No-one can really say where it's going to hit hardest but there's universities in financial trouble at all ends of the sector. Just read - it doesn't make pretty reading and there are lots more rumours circulating. I heard today that Bristol is looking at cutting 400 jobs after being caught out financially to stock market exposure. So it's not exactly secure employment. Who'd have thought a university like Sussex would decide that research and research-led teaching in English social history before 1700, and the history of continental Europe before 1900 was unnecessary for example. I always thought the French Revolution for example was rather crucial to know about.
So actually my decision to keep applying for academic jobs after knowing all that and having accepted a lectureship a few weeks ago to start in September, suggests that I'm insane. But I love my research and I really like teaching, so even all the bad sides don't put me off. The one thing I would say though is that the older members of staff, who often walked into jobs in the 1960s/70s with just a BA or MA and have had quite an easy time of it over the years are not the ones you need to talk to - talk to the people appointed in the last three years or so. They'll have much more useful feedback in my opinion.
Sorry for the essay but it was quite cathartic, as I have been thinking a LOT about this.

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Hi Wal, I hope it will be worth it. I can't think of anyhting else I'd like to do, I love my research and I love teaching, which I have been doing for about 5 years now, I started way before the PhD. I'm quite lucky because I am both creative and academic, I had a good creative career before this, so art schools seem to like me for teaching artists and designers theory and essay writing - I love doing it too. Also, there are a good number of jobs coming up in my PhD subject, although I would need to be published for them, I am not yet, that's my next big quest. So at the moment I defo think it's worth it. I know this is going to be hard. It's hard now and I don't get paid enough to cover my bills, but I stll love it.

I've tried lots of different jobs, the film industry is even worse for instability and the no fixed address factor; office work - I had a recruitment mananger's post for an NHS subsiduary - made me feel as if the better part of my soul was carreering down river on a whte water raft, even though money, prospects and the doing good element were all there; plain rdinary teaching is not enough of an intellectual stretch for me and museum work made me feel like an I'd been archived. So it has to be this, even though I know it will be hard. Apart from the money, I am very, very happy with what I am doing. So I will keep my fingers crossed.


I suppose none of us really know whether it's worth it until we get 'there', wherever 'there' is. For me, I love what I'm doing and if I could carve out a career doing this then I can't think of anything else I would want more. I have had stressful moments in my PhD and been overwhelmed at times, but I have never ever regretted doing it or thought once about quitting, it simply hasn't crossed my mind. I am aware that it might not be possible to follow this career as it's so competitive to get funding etc, and I do have a plan B (to train as a clinical psychologist- which is also horribly competitive), but after a number of false starts at other subjects/careers I really feel like I've found my thing now. I think also I feel so grateful to have got this far- having dropped out of uni several times due to bipolar disorder and spent 5 years in and out of mental hospitals I know what I want out of life now (spending the rest of my life on a locked mental ward isn't on my to-do list!) and I'm determined as hell to get there one way or another. So I am hoping it will be worth it. On another note, there are several post-docs on the same team as me, and whilst they work hard they pretty much stick to 9-5 or 9-6 without too much hassle...I guess to some extent you can do enough to get by or you can throw yourself at it big time....Best, KB


Thank you very much for your input on this everyone. Despite the downsides of doing my PhD so far, I don't regret it. I think that it's an ultimate achievement and something to be really proud of. Of course, I'll never be rich doing what I do but I'm really not bothered. It's an end to a means and not a means to an end. Not to moan or offend anyone, but I just don't want to feel like a student forever, so I'm really hoping that whatever I do afterwards [pretentiousness alert] will not involve me feeling this way - it's been nearly 9 years now. I recently did a journal paper peer review and that felt really good because it was a massive study and there was little me, listening to A-ha :$ , scratching my chin, furrowing my brow, eating a cheese string and making comments on the paper - acting like an expert (almost).
One of the things I take particular issue with, doing my PhD, is the utter isolation of the process. Every day spent in front of a computer monitor trying to write something, but with no-one to yabber away with, no mates to have a laugh with. Even with the previous jobs I've done, particularly when doing my degrees, there's always been that. So, I suppose I'm a bit concerned that doing a post-doc and then research in academia will mean more of the same. I'd like to have a bit of fun and a laugh at the same time as working - I don't think I'll be able to act like Dr Spock. And I love teaching as well, especially when I get to implement my Powerpoint special effects.
So, god willing, I'm going to try and develop my career in academia, suck it and see. As long as there's time for me and my life, in the evenings and maybe sometimes at the weekends, I think I'll get by and have fun. My career is important to me, but I think there's just so much more I want than my pencil case, satchel bag, butty box and flash drive.:-)


Thinking about the competition element, this article
from last month's scientific american mind has some interesting figures regarding the way that academia has changed, in particular the extensive period scientists now have to spend in so-called "training" posts before they can hope to even fight for a permenant job. Nowadays all the work is propped up by highly qualified but lowly paid postdocs on temporary contracts, great for the flexibility of science, terrible for the scientists themselves.


I've spent a long time reading about things like this on the THE website and unfortunately, I think it's the way it's heading for research in HE in the UK - more so than it is now. It really annoys me because we're all worth so much more than just getting by on temporary research contracts (having trained for years), never knowing from 6 months to the next whether we'll actually still be employed. And, if you own a car, have a family or hope to get a mortgage, you can't hope to get by based on such uncertainty. It's going the same way for Allied Health Professional jobs in the NHS. With podiatrists for instance, there are fewer and fewer permanent employment contracts and more and more temporary, fixed-term contracts.


I haven't started my PhD yet, so there's no saying how my views will change once I do. But right now my feelings about it are similar to what keep_calm says. I'm going to quit a 'good', well paid job in finance to do research, which plenty of people think is a crazy thing to do, but the main reason is that I want to have a more interesting life than slogging away day after day in an office helping make more money for people who have far too much already. I want to feel I'm doing something useful, so the idea of 'contributing to the body of human knowledge' resonates with me too, and as my PhD research will have potential medical/pharmaceutical applications, I can aspire to do some good in that area too. I'm also excited about doing it because I love the subject (always have done, as long as I can remember), whereas finance bores me to tears, and I only really took the job because I felt it was expected that I'd grab the highest-paid and most prestigious position I could. Whereas I should have chosen the path that interested me most and would make me happy.

I know I might not get (or even want by that time!) a permanent research post in academia. In that case I'll do something else. I think the PhD is useful research in its own right, so worth doing anyway, plus I really want to do it!

I have also never come across these mythical 9-5 jobs where you can go home and forget about work after your hours are done. It's not like that. In my industry at least we all opt out of the working-time regulations (it's just expected) so there's no concept of overtime pay or time in lieu, and I don't think I've ever left at 5pm - it's rarely before 7, has been as late as 2am on one memorable occasion, and on the frequent occasions when I leave at around 8pm, there are still plenty of people working and showing no sign of going home. I'm quite often in at weekends too, and this is normal and expected. You don't go home and forget about work either, it's always on my mind, and since the business is global, it's not unusual to get a call from someone in New York or Tokyo/Hong Kong at some unreasonable hour, and have to log on remotely to help with something. I've lost pretty much all my friends because when I'm not at work I'm too exhausted and stressed and upset to be sociable and just want to crawl into bed and have a cry and be left alone. My relationship with my partner has been hit badly too. Also the job security is awful, and promotions and opportunities are incredibly competitive and difficult to get, especially if you don't like playing the corporate politics games. So I feel that if I'm going to be working these hours anyway, I'd rather it was doing something I care about and consider important, because at the moment it feels like just endless drudgery for no purpose at all, and I hate myself for wasting the best years of my life like this instead of making the most of them. Having a 'real job' is not all that.


er - sorry for the super-long rant, please feel free to ignore :(

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@ephiny - my hubby does enjoy a nice little 9-5 job (well 8-4) where he leaves the office at 4:10 everyday and leaves all his work problems back in the office, and because of flexi, if he does work until later, he gets to add it all up and put it towards a nice few days off per month. Ah the civil service -I think that is where i will be looking if the academic route fails me.