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I've been pondering people's motivations to pursue a PhD

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I've been pondering people's motivations to pursue a PhD

When I meet another person pursuing their PhD, I am almost always tempted to ask them, “So, what brings you here?” This might actually interest me more than their research topic. I exaggerate, but it’s something I think about quite a lot. This interest in other people’s motivations might stem from my own preoccupation with why I am pursuing a PhD. The answer to this depends on how my research is going.

Not my advisers, of course… 

I decided to do my PhD when I realized that I could not wait the indefinite number of years required to become an expert in public health. Building expertise through experience in public health is tricky because the field is so broad. In my short career, I had already worked as a community health researcher, a program assistant, and an analyst in two unrelated fields. The Master’s in Public Health degree I held was multifaceted enough to allow this. This was a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, you need a job, and a generalist degree allows you to secure one much easier. On the other hand, you need deeper technical knowledge and a stable trajectory to build expertise in a field. And since we all need jobs, the market largely dictates where we end up. In African public health, donor interests and political whims sway policy and dictate whether your sub-field is hot or not.

If you are like me and prefer to delve deep into your area of interest, jumping from one random job (however interesting it may be) to another can be seriously stressful. And, honestly, I’d already realized during my Master’s that I am attracted to practice a topic that had a heavy research component to it. The broad coursework was interesting, but the most enjoyable part of my Master’s in Public Health was the thesis year. I finally got to choose a topic I liked, and conducted research that contributed some knowledge to the world. I published and I was hooked. I knew that I loved research and wanted to do more of it. As my early career trajectory oscillated somewhat uncontrollably between unrelated public health fields, from infectious disease epidemiology to health market analysis, I knew that I needed to pause. I needed to go back to the basics, shut out the noise, and find my happy niche in the minefield that is public health. Something I wouldn’t mind dedicating years of training to, fighting for opportunities, and innovating.

I’m not sure what works for others: do it to be called “Doctor!”

Apparently, you shouldn’t do a PhD to get out of a bad job, find one simply to be called “Doctor” or to impress your friends/colleagues/family. In South Africa, I would venture to say, you should also not do it simply because the government is eyeing your demographic group for some sweet, sweet funding. All of these things are real motivations for people to pursue a PhD, however. Do you fall for any of them? And do you think it affects how you work at all? Because sometimes I wonder if the reasons for doing a PhD really matter in the grand scheme of things. If you are putting in the work, do your motivations really make a difference? A completed PhD dissertation, done for the right or wrong reasons, is a completed PhD dissertation. Right?

A PhD is balanced with so many other demands in our lives. If you are me, these include young children, a rising cost of living, and the constant pull of exciting opportunities “out there.” And, then I have to wonder if my personal motivation, the intrinsic pull towards knowledge, is going to be enough?

Mamothena Mothupi (@mamothena) is in her third year of studies at the University of the Western Cape School of Public Health. This story was published on January 19, 2018, on SAYAS Blog (available here), and has been republished here with permission.

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Published on: Jun 10, 2019


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