Finishing a PhD … and starting a Masters degree?

This post is by Anna Wilkinson. Anna is a Research Fellow at Cancer Council Victoria, Melbourne, Australia. Anna has an extensive clinical background having previously worked as a nurse in diverse settings, including in rural and remote Australia and in the UK. This clinical work provided a foundation for further training in public health and Anna completed a PhD at the Burnet Institute and Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. Anna’s PhD focussed on better understanding HIV epidemiology, using quantitative analysis of large sentinel surveillance datasets. Her research interests focus on undertaking innovative epidemiological and public health research with particular interests in biostatistics, maximising the use of data and translating evidence into practice. Views expressed in this post are her own. Anna can be found on twitter as @AnnaLWil

In 2012 I was working in an independent medical research institute. Senior colleagues thought I was capable of a PhD. That level of academic achievement was somewhat mythical to me (my father never finished primary school), but it was an irresistible idea. I could spend hours with data and be called Dr. at the end –  sign me up!

As it turned out, I could do it. I submitted a PhD by publication in the final university business hours of 2015.

Image by @marvin_ronsdorfon Unsplash

Twelve months after submission, a somewhat messy year and protracted examination, my PhD was conferred and I had accepted a great job opportunity. I was delighted to graduate and felt, as many do, enormous relief and pride. A PhD is a pinnacle, the highest degree. I was formally and rigorously educated, exhausted, and poor. On graduation day (a hairdryer hot Melbourne December day) I celebrated with my considerably neglected partner. We had marvellous pizza and a cold drink and I thought of the immortal line from Shrek: “that’ll do donkey, that’ll do”.

My postdoctoral job is entirely focussed on data analysis and although I am many things, nurse, a doctor, probably an epidemiologist, and now a Research Fellow, I am not a statistician. The gaps in my knowledge started to come into focus and I found myself thinking about career doors that were not open to me. In the six months following my graduation I realised that my PhD did not deliver something I needed because I never asked it to.

Many people are lifelong learners and career shapeshifters. They trot down the side of the PhD mountain, shake it off, and head on up the path in front of them with ease, even if the path is tangential. But I found it upsetting to think that I was dissatisfied with my qualifications when the opportunity cost – and actual cost – of my PhD seemed very high.  I chastised myself for not thinking through my PhD better, being wasteful, indulgent and even cowardly. I burnt a lot of energy for the first half of 2017: kicking myself, cursing myself, talking myself in and out of things.

Facing up to the fact that I needed (probably more like wanted) to do more education as opposed to consolidating a postdoc career, felt like failure. I fell into some kind of a postdoctoral hole.

A friend recently blogged about parsing thoughts with the first screening question being, “Is it true?”. There two more but one is enough self-reflection for me. None of my thoughts about my education and career to date were true. Pretzeling myself into someone I did not want to be, to save face, was tiring.  A colleague, friend and straight up nice human once told me, a PhD never gets taken away from you. I needed to stop trying to take my PhD away from myself. It was marvellous achievement and wanting to reactivate my student number did not diminish its value.

When I floated the idea of doing a Masters to gain formal training in statistics with a select few of my friends and family I got a pause, followed by, “what?”.  I quietly began browsing university handbooks ‘just to see’ what was on offer. Perusing through courses, checking entry requirements and sizing up prerequisites was confronting. The first subject of a Masters in Biostatistics is Maths Background for Biostatistics. That sounds bad, especially for someone who did not complete high school maths. Compounding the terror, I had tried to do this subject during my PhD and did not get past week two. The voices of doubt were very loud at this point, a choir really, a gospel choir.

I have started my fourth degree, a Masters in Biostatistics, because I wanted to: 231 days after receiving my PhD and after approximately seven months of internal warfare and nausea. Pulling up out of the emotional hole and facing a fear of maths aside, it was a difficult choice. I work full time work and was facing a part-time load and full fees. Financial and personal resources have a higher value now, I guess an age effect. But I love statistics and I don’t want to boxed into one field nor be standing on the tectonic plates of grant funding.

I want to do much better analysis and work in collaborative teams on hard problems.  Finally, there is ongoing furore about the reproducibility of research, fraudulent research and the use p-values. One commentator offered an argument I do agree with. Part of the solution is training researchers in statistics and data analysis, and I would like to be part of that solution (an argument for more focus on coursework and training in statistics in Australian PhDs is for another time).

Thanks for sharing your story Anna! How about you? Might you need to do ‘extra’ learning after your PhD to enable you to get the job you want (or consolidate the job you have)? How do you feel about it?

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9 thoughts on “Finishing a PhD … and starting a Masters degree?

  1. Dorothea says:

    I can see why one would do another MA after the PhD. My mother did. And while I don’t know if I’ll get another degree when done with my PhD, I’m already looking into more schooling/qualifications for teaching a language as a foreign language, so that I can apply to teach both language, literature and comparative literature… When the competition is so intense or the work so demanding, it’s probably true that the learning never stops (it probably never stops anyway)

  2. Naomi Cogger says:

    A PhD is just one (albeit very high) point on learning journey. Since finishing I have ventured from epidemiology and data analysis into social sciences, risk assessment and teaching and learning. For me this has meant reading, going to workshops and week long courses and taking university courses rather than enrolling in a degree. With the courses I am lucky working in a university and we are allowed to enroll in a courses at no cost to us.

  3. Marlena says:

    This resonates with me so very much. I’ve literally just submitted my amended hopefully final draft thesis. And yet, following a discussion about my statistical analysis with one of my supervisors, I feel like I just don’t know enough about stats. I’ve just started a research job and i feel like a fraud because my grasp on statistics isn’t adequate. So the thought of doing further studies specifically on this area is appealing. I just need to think about how to break the”good news” to my neglected partner 🙄

  4. Steve Cohen says:

    I completed my PhD last August in HE policy. I can’t find FT work in Perth in that field. I have a small baby to take care of, so I reverted back to my previous career as a family lawyer.
    I am thinking seriously about doing an LLM in Family and Children Law. I think it will help cover some gaps in my knowledge and current experience because I’ve been out of the law for 6 years.
    Although I’m a bit embarrassed to go back to uni to be honest.

    • Anna Wilkinson says:

      Hi Steve,

      The feeling of embarrassment was quite real for me; the stigma of being a ‘perpetual student’, the feeling you muffed your PhD, being ribbed because you need to go back to study to ‘get a real job’. I can only say try to find your own way to resolve these thoughts as they’ll only delay what is most likely a good choice. I found this post hard to write as I felt pretty ridiculous starting a Masters again and I am not a ‘sharer’; hopefully we have some electronic solidarity and you can pursue your choice.


  5. Junny says:

    I have been working throughout my PhD. It was an exhausting journey, and discourages me from studying while working again. Because it is needed for my current work, to consolidate my skills in auditing, I am going to take professional certification in quality systems audit which will take only 1 month to complete and lay ahead tangible work opportunities. Subsequently I will spend time learning about data analytics. I have a B.Ed, an M.Ed and soon a PhD in education, all of which did not seem to have as much influence on employment nor pay scale as vocational or professional qualifications be it in Australia, or Singapore (where I live now). Onward looking, I have more appetite and motivation to take up what some scholars may perceive as “lower” ranked learning, but is actually more rewarding financially and professionally.

  6. Eleanor McPhee says:

    I can relate! My PhD was awarded in 2014 (thesis on an aspect of music education) and now I’m doing my Masters of Teaching (music). Getting sick of trying to explain to people why my PhD doesn’t qualify me to teach high school and I therefore need the MTeach!

  7. Laney says:

    This post could not have come at a better time for me.
    After having worked my way through an undergraduate degree, two Masters and now being at the end of my PhD, I am having to seriously consider my options. One of the strongest contenders (actually, the only one that I feel any passion about) is completely re-training and taking on a new undergraduate degree.
    Having constantly gotten feedback that my PhD would be pretty much useless in gaining better employment than I already have, the pull of a new field is a strong one. I have not been a full-time student since my undergraduate degree days – but the suggestion of the ‘perpetual student’ is still such a powerful one I have not voiced my plans to more than a handful of people. I will deal with the shame if I get to cross that bridge!

  8. Catherine Lockley says:

    I love teaching. Always have. BUT I found myself unable to complete my education degree in the late 1990’s (family health issues). I taught privately for 2 decades (singing/piano/drama), but then the science bug hit. Undergrad science degree and now Masters in Sci-comm. I “want” to do PhD, just because I have so many research answers that tickle at me, but I’m tired. I’m terrified of doing the PhD and still being no further in my career desires. I missed the ‘proper-adult-job-meme’. Did everyone else get it? 🙂

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