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If I simply want to gain expertise in a very specialised area of scientific research that is in its infancy, and not necessarily go on to do further research, is a PhD the way to go?

Is a PhD solely a door to a career of research?

There is currently little known about the phenomenon I'm interested in and even less research, so there is no explicit education in the area.

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Whether a Ph.D. is good or bad for your career depends on a lot of things, like your country, your subject area, and your non-academical abilities and interests. In science and engineering a Ph.D. can open up the path to research and development, and any Ph.D. can be helpful to instill trust in clients, e.g. as a lawyer or broker. On the other hand doing a Ph.D. can be seen as procrastinating, i.e. people believe that you rather stay in academia then get a "real job". This is probably a problem in parts of humanities, or if your previous education or your Ph.D. took significantly more time then necessary. On the other other hand this won"t be a problem if your future employee is related to your studies, e.g. when working for a publishing company.

The fact that you are not sure whether you want to stay in academia is not important, since doing a Ph.D. serves to find out whether you actually like research or not. So succesfully doing a Ph.D. and then leaving, even if a Postdoc position is on offer is quite common and nothing to be frowned upon.

  • Good answer! I would add that when you are facing a big decision, it is important to weigh the alternatives. Especially in this case -- have you identified alternative routes to getting the expertise you seek? Also, don't neglect to look at the financial aspects of the various options. – aparente001 Jul 25 '15 at 18:42
  • Unfortunately I've spent a great deal of time researching possible avenues of education in the area. As I said, it's a new phenomenon and there isn't even much research in the area, let alone some kind of course one could take. And it's certainly not the type of thing one can learn via practical experience. A PhD thus far appears the best option that I have. This is why I ask- I'm trying to determine exactly what a PhD 'does' (someone changed the title of my post) is it focused learning of a particular area, or is it purely an induction of sorts into research, learning by default...? – Confusedderpina Jul 27 '15 at 8:01
  • @Confusedderpina you can think of a PhD as a degree in doing research. You become very specialised in a particular topic, but you are not necessarily stuck with that for the rest of your life. Regarding the day to day stuff, it is mostly doing research, with some time set aside for courses and/or teaching. – Davidmh Jul 27 '15 at 11:56
  • Some questions that might help you weigh your alternatives: If you do a PhD, who will be your advisor? How can this advisor help you? What coursework would help you build a foundation for your work in the specialised area? What universities might be good choices for you to enroll in? Would you want to work as a teaching assistant? How would you finance your studies? Would it be possible for you to make progress in this specialised area without enrolling in a PhD program? – aparente001 Jul 28 '15 at 3:38
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I found this on another thread and thought it may be helpful to anyone experiencing a similar question about a PhD. It helped me a lot. ---

"The main point of a PhD is to learn how to be a scientist. Involved in this is to focus on the work that needs to be done but also to pick up the necessary skill to solve the problem."

"During my own PhD, I spent a fair amount learning tools that were only of marginal use in my own work. I am now very happy I did because as now a long-time faculty member, I have come to realize that the time I had as a PhD student to immerse in topics, is hard if not impossible to recreate after the PhD. I therefore advise PhD students to use their time wisely since the tools they learn during their PhD make up the core of their future toolbox. Contacts with other researchers and research directions is a similar issue in my mind."

answered Dec 21 '14 at 21:59 Peter Jansson

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Why do you want to gain expertise in the topic? If it is due to sheer curiosity, then probably it is called "research" after all :-)

Whether you will still be curios and interested after a few years down the line, and whether you will want (or be able) to make a living out of it are different issues altogether.

Another issue is about the PhD admissions --- in my field, most professors I know are happy to admit you if you possess great curiosity, and excellent command for the subject even if you are uncertain what you plan to do in the future. However, I heard a minority to express the attitude that students who do not go into academia is a waste of their time.

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