Many times students come to inform me about their plans to do Postgraduate education. When I start to ask about the reasons, I end up thinking these guys have the wrong reasons for such path. Given their so difference nature, especially PhD, do yourself a favour and try to understand well their properties. PhD/Research is one of few things that doesn't fit with everyone! For example, during PhD you will work for 4+ years in a very individual style. Many people can't afford such isolated feelings.
Side note: In Egypt, and many other Arabian Countries, there is almost no research (very rare opportunities). If you want to go abroad and come back to them, 95% your PhD will be useless. You may work as Dr who mainly teaches courses with so weak research. Keep this in mind before starting such a trip.
The academic career: Before, during and after the PhD
It is important to understand that Msc/Phd studies are so different from undergrad life. They are also so different from industry. PhD really can be tough. If you don't have strong reasons why do you wanna persuade this road, you may probably end it middle way. Make sure you understand this path. Make sure you know why really really you wanna go through or you will regret!
Recently, I read 2 small books about the academic career. I highly advise with reading them. They will answer much of your questions. Getting these answers the hard way is not recommended at all. Do yourself a favor by reading them before taking PhD or trying to continue in the research career.
1) The Ph.D. Grind by Philip J. Guo
In this book, a Stanford guy describes his 6-years PhD trip. In my opinion, his experience is not the common case (the guy had to find his own way far from the professor supervision & project), but you may face some similar challenges. More importantly, You will recognize a dozen of things about the 'academic business' and its different components. Being aware of the PhD process and the challenges that will face you is a great asset to earn the degree. His PhD is in a software-based research area, so you will find yourself more aware of the context.
The book is available online for free
2) A PhD is Not Enough!: A Guide to Survival in Science by Peter J. Feibelman
Published in 93 by a physicist professor, but still good/important to read. It is a guide on how to prepare yourself for the 'science jungle'. As the title says, just earning a PhD is not enough at all to establish a successful career. Many challenges will face you, and you need to prepare for them, as early as possible. The book highlights some success and failure 'stories' and give attention for several concerns:
- 'before PhD': such as choosing a thesis advisor
- 'during PhD': such as talks, writings, building connections
- 'after PhD': such as 'academia, government labs, private industry' jobs, interviews, fund and establishing a research program (problem vs technique oriented, publishable milestones).
4) My friend highly suggested this book: Tomorrow's Professor: Preparing for Academic Careers in Science and Engineering
More books here
- Preparation is time-consuming. Do it so early. List early which research groups are matching your interest. List important notes like minimum scores, special requirements and application deadlines. Finding groups may be challenging. Search university site, department site, and Google. Investigate recent activity of the group/lab. More than 1 person in your interest field is better.
- Assign enough time for exams. Prepare very well for the exams, or you will have to repeat them. English is mandatory (e.g. TOEFL), GRE depends (e.g. most USA need it). Never depend on one source...nothing like the real exam. Scores take 2-3 weeks to be ready. Sending scores to a university takes 1 week.
- Whatever GPA/Scores, this doesn't mean you can enter top universities...they are just a minimum requirement.
- Statement of Purpose is an important document. Make sure some PhD students check it. Assign enough time for it. Google web examples, customized to your field. Learn Google search tricks for better search results.
- Supervisor and his group are more important than the university. The supervisor may be fresh PhD, some experienced one or very old one. Each one has pros and cons. Use Google scholar for initial input about supervisor citations. List where they submit their work and intersect that with top-tier conferences and papers. My supervisor profile.
- One of the very critical things about the supervisor that students miss is the importance of his personality. The supervisor could make your PhD process hell. Having strong research record is not enough. S/he may push you to work hard by disappointing you a lot. The best thing is emailing his students about this point. Ask them also how they work: Meeting frequency and nature of help. Some supervisors are so involved and some others just pay for you and do little follow up. Decide what works well for you.
- You may email Advisors before admission, BUT do your homework: read their work and talk with them about it. However, they rarely reply, so don't get disappointed. Many email them and they are so busy.
- Supervisors target students with relevant research experience, especially for PhD. If you don't have such experience (e.g. paper accepted in reasonable conference), you may target local research assistant job first. If
- Recommendation letters are the most critical part to pass for top universities.
- You research record really matter when work indicates a quality (e.g. submitted in top-tier conferences). One good paper worth many low-quality ones. If your Msc has 1 paper, avoid others if they will have low quality/value.
- Here is the last and best advice. It is really hard for even best of us to get admitted into top universities. A workaround to receive a good education is to find low ranked universities with strong supervisors. Later, you may apply for post-doc on a top university. Don't waste much of your admission trials (1 trial ~= 150$) on top universities if you don't have a good chance (e.g. strong LORs / Dr there likes your work..etc).