Successfully completing a PhD is one of the hardest things a person can take on. Despite this, every year, tens of thousand of people across the globe embark on doctoral study. Given that achieving a PhD is so difficult and involves many years of study during which almost everything else in their lives takes second place, why do they do it?
A variety of very different motivations come into play for the doctoral student, and these are both backwards and forwards focussed relating, as they do, both to previous life experience and also to future life plans.
Motivations for doing a PhD fall largely into one or more of the following categories.
1) Directly work-related: a student may be undertaking a project related to improving the performance of their employer’s organisation, which may be in the private, public or voluntary sector.
2) Up-skilling: a student (or their sponsor) may be interested in doctoral education as a way of enhancing their high-level skills and capabilities and making themselves more employable. In the UK, this is likely to the primary motivation for a student pursuing a professional doctorate.
3) Career change: a student may want to change the direction of their career, and quite possibly want to become an academic.
4) Hobby: a student may be investigating a topic in which they have had a long-term interest and which they would like to pursue in a more structured way with access to high quality advice and the resources that can be found in a university. Most commonly, these students will undertake doctoral study in the arts, humanities and social sciences.
5) Personal or self-development: a student may view learning as a means of self-development, as learning for its own sake. They may simply be a lifelong learner and are are pursuing a PhD because that is the next, natural, route for them to take and the topic, while of interest to them, is not the primary motivation. Rather, the act of studying is its own motivator. Again, they are likely to pursue study in the arts, humanities and social sciences.
If you as a potential doctoral student (or student thining about pursuing another type of research degree) understand exactly why you want to study for a PhD and keep that at the forefront of your mind while you’re doing it, this self-awareness can help you to be successful. Additionally, if your research degree supervisors or doctoral thesis committee know why you’re doing it, this knowledge can also help them to get the best out of you as a research student and support you more effectively.
Self-knowledge is powerful. Make it work for you.