The pros and cons of doing a PhD in Brazil

I finished my PhD in 2016. It was the longest 4 years of my life but at the same time, the years passed in a blink of an eye. It was a lot of hard work that sometimes I couldn’t stop and ponder what it really meant to have a PhD. Many students enter a PhD program with little or no idea of what a PhD entails, and when we propose the right questions, it becomes more than just having a degree. I confess there was a time when I wondered if it was the right path for me, but I kept on going and finished. Now, one year later after my PhD defense, I have started asking myself, was it worth it? Would I do it again?

I said before, I wondered if it was the best path for me during my PhD. After all, it is a lot of time you dedicate to something specifically, so doubts will come up along the way. I hold a bachelors degree in biomedical sciences and by the time I finished college, my paths were going to work in a clinical lab or make a specialisation. I never had imagined I’d end up in academia. But when I saw the opportunity, it opened one more door of options in my career, one with a great salary and many possibilities. It sounded so appealing that I went for it. Also, I have always enjoyed studying so it was a big plus for me.

I asked a group of friends, all early career researchers, about what they thought was the positive and negative points about having a PhD, the pros and cons of doing a PhD and I don’t even need to say we could talk about it for hours! But here’s some of my considerations for the Pros and Cons of doing a PhD in Brazil.

  • It is a big investment of time and money

This is true. We all know graduate students work intensive hours. In this blog post, I talk about the struggles and how long hours of work can affect PhD students. Some PhDs can work a range of 80h/week. Doing a PhD is not a job from 9-5 and weekends off. Of course, there will be times of little work and when that does happen it is important for you to enjoy it and take care of yourself. But most often than not, you will be required to work at home preparing a paper or a presentation or hit the lab in the weekends if you have cells growing on a plate or rodents to be treated.

  • Lack of recognition in your work

I believe this can happen in a lot of different kinds of jobs as well. You can’t expect everyone to recognise the work you do and the efforts you go to to get the job done. But in research, our work more often than not is invisible work. Your parents won’t understand exactly what you do, the scientific community won’t praise your work as you would like them to. Papers won’t be published on your first try and you might feel this is an isolation from outside world. I felt very isolated in my field of research many times. It is great having a community of researchers or academics at hand and finding your peers. Twitter has been a great source of that for me! I wish I had found out sooner Twitter was an outlet for scientists in the way it is! Another con of doing a PhD in Brazil is that we don’t hear much about science communication. Our universities and our PhD fellows rarely talk about spreading the research online, like through blogging for example. Our idea of spreading our research is publishing our papers in international journals in our field. When I found out about this amazing new world, I felt as if we were losing so much and being left behind in a great party!

  • Uncertainty after PhD defense

We talk a lot about alternative careers. Especially because academia isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and academia can’t absorb every PhD in the job market. In Brazil, around 0.5% of the job market is made up of PhD graduates and academia can’t accommodate all of them. The years of hard work and dedication suddenly won’t pay off and what’s next? That’s when a search for alternative academic careers come into the light and you may find out new ways of living and that there is life after academia.

  • Specialisation that limits

I think it happens more often in countries that don’t value a professional with a PhD. In Brazil, if you have a PhD you will be seen as an academic only and your limitations to work in other alternative careers is huge. I have been suffering as I look for a job outside academia because I have a PhD and therefore, the old minds in the market think I am only valuable in a classroom. This for me is the most difficult point of having a PhD in a country like Brazil. Here, pharmaceutical industries rarely hire researchers (I think it is also because most research is conducted outside of industry this mostly involves implementation of products). Universities don’t have a professional, like a career coach, to help PhDs ending the post-graduate program to find a position in the outside world. You are left to your own luck and the only path you hear is academia, academia, academia. Here in Brazil, I am a highly qualified professional with little experience in other fields. I may be a highly qualified professional, but not everyone wants to pay the price of my title.

  • Money

There are many reasons for me choosing to do a PhD. For me, it was one more option to follow when the other options I had weren’t what I was looking for and the fact that my income would be greater than what my previous career offered. It is still true, but I am not so naïve anymore. We can’t help but wonder about the financial gain after finishing a PhD, right? During my PhD, I received a scholarship since I had to work full time but some people pay for their education so it can be expensive with student loans. This wasn’t true in my case, but the scholars paid less than an average job in clinical lab analysis. The financial gain after the PhD, compared to your colleagues that didn’t enter the PhD program, can be frustrating. I know if I went into industry after I finished my PhD I’d have a greater income than in academia and it would be a fast return on my investment. Not so much in academia. In Brazil, the Universities that have the best salaries are public universities and to be adjunct to those is an extremely hard process. The private universities don’t always hire a professional as qualified, therefore expensive, as a PhD so the gain can be slow. According to this study from 2016 in UK, there are fields – like humanities – for which holding a PhD degree will not bring many financial benefits. I believe Brazil follows the same line, some careers get more back than others.

I know that’s a lot of things to process. But don’t be discouraged just yet! (Don’t they say let’s hear the bad news first?) The good news is that there are a lot of positive aspects as well!

  • Open your horizons

When you join the PhD world you are a little naïve about how this entirely new world works. A PhD will open your horizons, be sure of that. You will read new literature, you will learn about things you never imagined existed. You will deepen your knowledge about the theme in which you are working, yes. But it is much more than that! You will travel – always, always go to conferences as much as possible! Or go study abroad if you have the chance.  You will meet different people, work with different cultures and your life will never be the same. I always say to my students when they first join the lab: you will learn a lot. You will learn a lot about the subject of study but especially, you will learn a lot about yourself. And to be honest, when they are finishing, they come to me and say “you were right!” I saw different cities in Brazil, I went to different countries during my PhD and that, for me, is the most rewarding aspect of doing a PhD. Don’t just sit in front of your computer reading the literature on everything. Do see with your own eyes.

  • You are a professional learner

I asked a few months ago on Twitter if PhDs are professional learners and the amount of answers I got saying yes was incredible. Yes, we are professional learners! What does it mean? We will learn, more than anything, how to learn alone. How to research by ourselves. How to reinvent ourselves and a situation. Even if after the PhD you end up not working in academia and leave to pursue a totally different career, you will always carry with you the work ethic you learned and the skills acquired to learn by yourself. My PhD helped me improve my English skills and here I am writing for you all. I am not employed in academia now, but my PhD gave me the resources to find a job and how to present myself.  A PhD more than anything gave me freedom and independence.

  • Independence or flexibility

Connected to the topic above, you will gain independence in doing research. Or teaching. Or being a self-employed PhD. It will give you the independence you need to keep working no matter which career you pursue. Doing a PhD can give you flexibility to explore science communication, or teaching, working on another parallel project, or exploring your life the way other jobs don’t allow. It all depends on each individual – each PhD project is unique – but for me, my PhD gave me the flexibility to do my research on my own time, giving me time to study photography, to study other languages. I worked on several projects side by side with my own research project and I traveled a lot too. It is all about doing the best you can with the time you have (like I said in the beginning, enjoy the calm moments when they come!)

  • To study one subject in depth

I know I just said specialisation is a thing that can be in your way when pursuing a job outside your field or outside academia. But it can be a good thing as well. When you have time to study a subject deeply, you have time to read books properly, to learn how to write properly, and meet incredible people from your field who can help you along the way. I have a bachelors degree in biomedical sciences and my PhD project involved a lot of chemistry. Chemistry was not my strong suit but I learned a lot of it – including math! – so I could do my own research well. So, while I had deepened my knowledge of one single subject, I couldn’t avoid learning more because we can’t do a PhD without collaborative research.

Now, one year on from my PhD defense, I started asking myself, was it worth it? Would I do it again? You may find it surprising, but yes! I’d do everything all over again if I had to. Even if now I am struggling to find my place under the sun, I don’t regret doing my PhD. Knowing all I know now, I certainly would prioritise another aspect – I’d learn about science communication, I’d do more networking, I’d worry less about the results that don’t work out and enjoy every opportunity to learn a new technique – but I’d do it all over again. The friends I made, the places I went, everything I learned about myself that I wouldn’t have learned otherwise. It was the longest 4 years of my life so far, but also the most fun 4 years.

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