I know this board isn't meant to answer deep personal questions, so I try to keep this rather general as it is kind of related to this and this.

I pursued the goal of getting a PhD / doing research for a long time. Mostly for personal (/ego) reasons.

Now, as I am about to finish my master's degree, it becomes more and more clear, that I am probably not qualified for a doctorate. I prolonged the time on both of my degrees. My grades are average at best and I rarely enjoyed sitting in lectures. I am particularly bad at writing anything scientifically like my thesis, papers or even emails (which leads to massive procrastination and delay on this tasks). Researching on theoretical topics is often difficult for me as I tend to skim most of the papers. And, to be honest, I enjoy practical tasks like creating, implementing or improving algorithms, the most.

Soon I have to decide if I find myself an industry job or a PhD program. But should I even pursue a PhD with this kind of flaws?

  • 1
    I find this a very strange question. If you're clearly not qualified to do PhD studies, you won't be accepted in the first place, so the question shouldn't arise. Besides, if you know you're not going to like doing PhD studies, why even apply? There's an off chance you'll hate every single industry job even more than you hate doing a PhD, but that's very unlikely.
    – Allure
    Commented May 24, 2018 at 8:53
  • It seems, that the advertisement industry which has the obligation to sell a phd-title to the ordinary student has failed in your case. Healing the shopping resistance can be done with a talk with your supervisor, watching advertisement from your university and imagine yourself what the benefits of a phd are. Commented May 24, 2018 at 9:21

3 Answers 3


Nothing has said that you're not qualified to be a researcher—getting good grades and being a good researcher are not entirely correlated, and having the skills for one is not necessarily a guarantee of success for the other.

What your comments suggest, though, is that you would likely not enjoy the process of getting a PhD. Given how long it takes to get a PhD, that's an awfully long time to spend being miserable.

So ask yourself:

What is it that I enjoy about research? Is it enough to justify all the drawbacks it would bring?

If you can't justify getting a PhD to yourself, don't make yourself miserable by forcing yourself to do something you don't want.

  • Thank you for your reply. What concerns me more than my grades is my limited ability to read and write scienfitically. I am not sure if I can learn this skill.
    – user93176
    Commented May 23, 2018 at 19:47
  • 3
    No one is innately born with those skills. They are learned over time. But jobs in industry certainly don't require the same level of writing as academic jobs do. So it might be a matter of "swallowing one's medicine" to get through the degree if a non-academic research career is what you want.
    – aeismail
    Commented May 23, 2018 at 20:22
  • @Hendrik that is a skill you normally learn DURING your PhD!
    – famargar
    Commented May 24, 2018 at 12:41

Whether or not to enroll in a PhD program is a decision only you can make. You can lay it at our feet, and some people may even feel tempted to point out that this or that thing you've written appears to point, logically, toward one or the other choice. But let's suppose some respected stranger, or even someone you respect and are personally acquainted with, provides a bit of steering in one direction or another. Are you ready to give up your free will to another person, and abdicate your ability to decide?

What we can do is mention some possible avenues you could use to collect more information to help you in your decision making process. For example:

  • It is possible to do "career exploration" in both industry jobs and in academia. You arrange a shadow for a day, in which you follow someone around as they go about their typical activities.

  • It is often possible to try out working in industry over the summer, or by taking a semester off school. This would allow you to get your feet wet and find out more about what working in industry is like, in practice.

  • It's also possible to study one or two semesters of a PhD program and then reevaluate. In other words, you wouldn't be signing a contract that would obligate you to keep going if you're no longer interested.

You like writing programs, it sounds like. Well, there are PhDs that use the student's coding skills to great advantage. Perhaps you like working on applications. This can become a thesis if you immerse yourself in the field of application.

Note that the first step to working on improving one's study skills is to realize where one's weak areas lie. Regardless of which direction you decide to go -- the realization you came to, and wrote about here, can spur you toward making progress with those shortcomings. Becoming a better technical reader and writer would stand you in good stead in both environments.

  • Thank you for pointing out shadowing. I was able to work in several companies as a software developer while being at university and enjoyed it most of the time. I am quite confident that I could find a job in the industry if I wanted, because of this. Academia on the other hand fascinated me since childhood, but I can not say I ever got much hands-on experience other than my thesis and a few research oriented courses.
    – user93176
    Commented May 24, 2018 at 6:21

I wanted to write a comment - but it just becomes too long, so I'll use an answer instead.

I think there are an awful lot of cultural ifs and buts in this, so adding your location would help. I can look at it from a UK/EU angle and this might be quite different for other regions on this planet.

When I was in the UK, we had people come "back" to university at a later date for their PhD. One guy worked at a company doing programming/numerical modelling, another was in some way involved with railways I think. This was in an engineering department at the university.

The term would be "mature student", which exists also for undergraduate and postgraduate degrees and is not particularly uncommon in the UK. In fact, the classical route for many people in the UK is BSc (first or 2.1) and then a PhD IF they carry on to obtain a PhD. The Masters is something people either get later in life or people from outside the UK obtain within the UK before continuing with a PhD. Part of the reason being, that you'd have to self-fund a masters in the UK... (Incidentally, a UK Masters is 1 year, while in the rest of the EU it is 2 ...)

On the other hand, I think it is rarer for people in the rest of the European Union to return to academia later and the Masters before a PhD/Doctorat is pretty much standard. There are people who return to academia post retirement as they find they now have the money and time to pursue their interests and some people do return to academia later, to, in a way, "make up for previous mistakes" (e.g. not caring enough about school, etc.). So it does happen, though I don't think normally at the PhD level.

If you are in the UK or a country where it is not uncommon to return to academia later, it may be an idea to go into a "research & development" group at a company after your Masters degree. While the work there is very different from academic work and generally more applied, it will give you an idea whether you enjoy "this kind" of work. If you do, you can consider returning to academia - maybe even with the support of you employer - and possibly work on an industry funded PhD which is generally more applied than the research council funded fundamental work. Some countries/universities also allow "staple theses" (the UK does not I think), which basically require you to only add an introduction and effectively bind a number of papers together. (Whether this is good or bad is a different discussion...)

Implementing and improving algorithms is are "tasks" that can definitely be appreciated in research. If you are good at doing this, then I'm sure groups that work on algorithms will appreciate the work - as will companies with in house code development. Short of trying, you will never know whether you can obtain and whether you enjoy obtaining a PhD. The type of supervisor will incidentally be also very important in this respect.

And be warned that your area of expertise may very well change during the PhD (at least in the UK). The guy who was programming? He ended up doing some experimental combustion work... - And I somehow arrived in chemistry and programming despite coming from (applied) mathematics...