Top 10 Misunderstandings about PhD Programs

As a first generation student, I was unfamiliar with what the type of experience I need to get into graduate programs. I notice that the students I teach often have the same misconceptions I had about PhD programs. Here I compile the top 10 misunderstandings students have about PhD programs. 

  1. I’ll never get into a PhD program. This depends. Some research programs look at other experiences you might bring to the department. For example, you may have average grades, but you have extensive research working in Spanish speaking communities. This may be a key skill that PhD advisor needs for a project they’re working on for the next few years.

  2. I need a masters to apply to a PhD program. You can apply directly to PhD programs. The main reason you might want a Master is to get mor research experience. If you want to apply directly, take time to get research experience. This might mean you’ll have to figure out how to get into a lab and make time for that lab. If you have 1-2 years of lab experience, apply directly to PhD programs. I’ve met several undergraduate students who would have had a good chance getting into PhD programs straight from undergraduate, but apply to a masters thinking they will somehow be better prepared. Skip the masters apply directly. An unknown secret (you won’t find it on most program websites) of most PhD programs is that you can petition in your second year for a masters degree.

  3. PhD degrees are the pinnacle of academia / a PhD will lead to the best paid jobs. Well, although this is the furthest you can go in terms of research, there are other degrees you can receive that pay more. For example, a a student with a masters in social worker (MSW) who is licencies will get paid more or equivalently to a PhD in that same field. An engineer with a bachelors degree will often make more than some faculty members at top universities. If you don’t land a tenure track job, then may end up making less than public school teachers. As a tenure track faculty we do have the benefit of flexibility. We can schedule our own time and time off during winter and summer brakes.

  4. Good Grades and a good GRE score will get me into a PhD program. While good grades are important to be considered for a PhD and some programs do have a cutoff for the GRE scores, most PhD programsheavily weigh your experience with research. You may have a 4.0 and score in the 90th percentile in the GRE, but you’ll have almost no chance of getting into a PhD a program without research experience.

  5. PhD programs cost too much. Do not attend a PhD program if you do not have a funding package that covers your tuition and living (or at least provides 4 years of funding). Often PhD programs offers some form of funding for students. This include funding through teaching assistant positions, fellowships, and grants.

  6. I want to become a professor but not do research. I have bad news for you here. A PhD emphasizes research. You might decide to pursue a PhD and then apply to a small teaching focused college, but you will need to do research while you complete your PhD.

  7. A PhD is like Undergrad. Although a PhD program requires classes that you complete in the first 2 years, the similarities often end there. You will work with a faculty member who will be your PhD advisor. This person will mentor you and they hold the most power in decided when you’re ready to move on to the next stage of your PhD. Picking a good mentor or learning to work with a bad mentor will determine what experience you have in a PhD program.

  8. I don’t wan to do research, I want to have a real impact in people’s lives. My initial strategy was to get the PhD and then work for a non-profit or a company. I wanted to avoid presentations, but soon realized I love teaching. I have more impact on people’s lives with my teaching than I could have had in other career tracks. In addition, there are some research tracks that focus on helping people. This includes such topics as understanding how a parasite is spreading disease, implementing a program to support community members bids to improve their community, or help understand the experience of women in the tech industry.

  9. I can’t do research, I’m bad at statistics. Do you what you have to do to pass these classes at the undergraduate level. At the graduate level they usually start you from the start (all be it at a faster pace). Also, keep in mind that there are qualitative approaches to research that require less number crunching. Such approaches are often used tacross fields (including technical fields such as human factors).

  10. All Ph.D. Programs in X are the same. Nope! Your experience attending the social psychology program at Stanford will differ drastically from students attending the program at UC Santa Cruz or CUNY. Social psychology programs, like the one UC Santa Cruz, emphasize social justice issues. Other programs not so much. Read between the lines. Do the websites emphasize certain theories? Approaches? Politics?