This is a guest post from Hongyu Zhang. Mr. Zhang is a doctoral candidate in the department of geography at McGill University. He holds an MSc in geography from Western University and a BES in geomatics from the University of Waterloo. Before joining the Platial Analysis Lab, he was an engineering support specialist at Geotab. His research interests are behavioural geography, GIS, and privacy.
Fast-tracking (direct admission to a PhD program from an undergraduate degree or transferring from a master’s degree) is becoming more and more popular. On paper, it sounds attractive to earn a PhD degree earlier in life; however, only those on the inside understand the challenges associated with completing a PhD program and only those who have made it to the other side appreciate what it really means for career progression. For those considering applying to a graduate program earlier in their academic career, I’d like to offer some thoughts based on my and other colleagues’ experiences on why it’s important to be cautious when choosing a fast-tracking option.
A PhD program is a long journey
Uncertainty is part of thesis research and this can be a fascinating or disappointing aspect depending on one’s perspective –it’s important to remember research takes time and there will definitely be challenges, which may prolong the process or even kill the chance of getting desired results. Without taking this level of commitment into consideration, some students may struggle and consider withdrawing from a fast-track doctoral program. Sometimes, “back-tracking” (transferring registration into the same program for a master’s degree) is possible, and often the best option. However, as students typically do not (or are often not encouraged to) give up easily, the choice to back-track often results in feelings of failure and more time spent than would have been the case by choosing a straight-up master’s degree from the outset.
Missing the opportunity to explore other fields
While some graduate programs have strict prerequisites, others (e.g., geography) do not and are open to students from diverse backgrounds. Therefore, undertaking a master’s program before committing to a PhD provides students with a chance to explore a different field of research. Remember that a PhD is a very specialized degree and should be in an area you are planning to spend a lot of time thinking about. The number of researchers who are probing similar investigations can often be counted on two hands. Given that many students contemplating a fast-tracked PhD are in their early 20s and have just finished an undergraduate degree, with little to no practical insight into graduate school, it might just be a little early to find the right research niche. Exploring a broader discipline can often help with making a more informed choice.
A PhD does not guarantee a higher income
There are many well-paying jobs out in the world that do not require a PhD. It should also be noted that many PhDs are poorly paid and have insecure jobs (e.g., sessional lecturers). Although it has been discussed previously (see Dave’s column back in 2010), the primary goal of a PhD program is training future professors and research stars. What has not been baked into many PhD programs is the education for and exposure to non-academic career choices. A career centre on campus is auxiliary and only provides limited resources, often with nothing tailored to people in specialized fields. It is clear that a makeover of PhD programs is required, but it is difficult for professors who only have academic experience to promote this change. Therefore, under the current setup, the majority of PhD students will experience limited exposure to their future career options during their residency.
There are many reasons to be wary of a fast-track PhD, with a stand-alone master’s being an attractive alternative. However, for the type of person with a very clear career goal (and one that requires a PhD degree) who knows what they want to do in the next 10 years, the fast-track option may save some time – I just worry that it is becoming the preferred route for everyone and see this restrictive choice as a regressive step. If you are a student still early in your undergraduate program and you want to be proactive, consider participating in a thesis course or becoming a research assistant to get first-hand experience.