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Should you do a doctorate?

The right choice for your career will be one that has been made in a well-informed way. In order to prepare yourself to make a good decision, you should work to:

  • Develop self-knowledge
  • Learn as much as you can about the job(s) and career-path(s) that you are considering
  • Define your personal and professional goal(s) - skills you would like to develop, opportunities or experiences you would like to have, challenges you would like to rise to, etc...)

If you do decide to do a doctorate, it is very important to get off to a good start. There are some tools below, and lectures that can help with this. 

A useful tool is asking yourself the following "Five W" questions: 

Who? What? When? Where? Why?


You can acquire self-knowledge by reflecting on your personality (identifying your qualities, faults, interests), by doing a skills assessment (identifying what you do well), and by exploring what your priorities are (your wishes, expectations and motivations for your career).

Doctoral research - what's it like?

The first thing to do when considering doing a doctorate is to speak to researchers working in your discipline, and to ask them lots of questions. Ask them, for example, what a doctoral researcher's typical day is like, what tasks they do, what structure a typical academic year has, what happens at conferences, etc... The most crucial people to speak to, of course, are your prospective supervisor and the doctoral researchers already working in the department that you would like to join. However, you may be wondering whether you’d like to do a doctorate before you know what topic you’d like to do it on. 

Every doctorate is different, so it would be impossible to describe the work of a doctoral researcher in full here. There are, however, some things that all doctorates have in common, that we can list as follows:

Tasks and responsibilities

  • Project management: a doctoral researcher is responsible for outlining the project, setting and/or meeting deadlines, giving regular progress reports, and sometimes even managing a budget or members of the team (technicians, research assistants). 
  • Collaboration: all doctorates are collaborative projects – at the very least, you collaborate with your supervisor, but often you also collaborate with others (research colleagues, industrial or public sector partners, co-authors for articles). 
  • Doing a literature review and keeping up-to-date with developments in your field: all original research requires thorough and wide-ranging knowledge of what has already been done in that field. A doctoral researcher will inevitably spend a lot of their time reading.
  • Data collection: through reading, archival research, measurement-taking, setting up experiments, or carrying out surveys. Some doctoral researchers have a research assistant collecting data for them. 
  • Data analysis and interpretation: the data needs to be synthesized, analysed and interpreted in order to draw out conclusions.  
  • Presenting your results: communication is an important part of research, and it takes place both in written form (articles, reports, write-ups) and in spoken form (conferences, seminars, presenting to your team or your panel of examiners) 
  • Writing up and defending your thesis: all doctorates result in a final written document, which is presented to a panel of experts who read it. This is followed by an oral examination (a viva) in which the doctoral researcher discusses their work with the panel of experts.  

Skills developed by doctoral researchers

A number of studies show that all doctoral researchers, no matter what their discipline, develop a common skill-set. Adoc Talent Management carried out a study in 2011 and summed up this skill-set in the following diagram: 

Compétences ATM.jpg


A hybrid status - student and staff member

Officially, doctoral researchers have a hybrid status. On the one hand, they must enroll as a student in their university. As a student, they are entitled to doctoral training equivalent to 180 ECTS, they develop their knowledge, and they are entitled to a number of benefits linked to their student status (such as discounted tickets for cultural events). On the other hand, much of the work that they do makes them fully-fledged members of the university staff, and means that the doctoral experience is very much like a job (getting a salary, paying tax, working in a team, working to productivity targets, skills development, etc...). 

Your stories

Doing a doctorate is a long-term project, and one with high-points and also inevitable low-points, some of which will be short-lived and some of which will be more protracted. Send us your stories to [email protected]. We will post some extracts, like the ones below.

In December 2013 we did a call-out for stories of PhD holders working outside of academia. Here are three examples of career-paths that might inspire you:

Susana …

Doctorate (2006-2012): Design, manufacturing and development of industrial products – Universitat Politecnica de Valencia (UPV, Spain).

Academic experience:

Industrial Design Teacher - Ecole Technique supérieure de Design industriel

Principal Investigator: “Conception et dĂ©veloppement de nouveaux produits Ă  partir de matières premières naturelles de l'Amazonie”, in collaboration with the National Institute of Amazonian Research ( INPA, Brazil). 

Professional experience outside of academia:

Design Management: QuiqueToledano Studio (Catarroja, Spain, 2008); Design Department Valentina Ceramica (Castellon, Spain, 2005-2007); Atelier Nomi (Lisbon, Portugal, 2001-2005).

Urban furniture design: natural stone products for the Town Hall in Vicosa (Cavalor et Centro Portugues de Design, 2008).

Founding and managing a company: PEDRA d’Ouro – designing natural stone products (2005).

Publications: Picnic, A Paisagem a Pedra (Ediçoes Colibri, 2008).


Antonio …

Doctorate (2000-2003): Pharmaceutical chemistry, Universidad de Navarra (Spain) – supervised by Dr Antonio Monge Vega (IUPAC), collaboration with the Laboratoires Servier (France). Application: Treating obesity.

Post-Doc (2004): research on new fungicides to kill Botrytis cinerea.

Professional experience:

Manager, Chemical Analysis Department - GrupoLechePascual (Spain, 2004-2010): nutritional study: studies on the stability, longevity, validation of the analytical determinations of off-flavours, isoflavonoids, organic acids, sugars for orange juice, milk and soya milk.

Biomedical sciences researcher – Universidad de Cordoba (Spain, 2010 until present-day): pharmacological treatment of prostate cancer – collaboration with IPSEN (EE.UU). Exploring/seeking out funding for clinical and preclinical projects on autism.


Luca …

Experience in and outside of academia: ten years of experience in academia and in large technological development companies.

Main skills developed: mathematical modeling, developing software to analyse engineering data.

Network supervisor GNSS: analysing satellite data (using PERL, SGELL, FORTRAN).

France Telecom R&D and Universidade do Porto collaborator: developing probability models (using MATLAB and C).


As part of a study funded by the FNRS and delivered by Focus Research in 2004-2005, we asked the following question to doctoral researchers working in a wide range of disciplines:

"If you had to go back to the beginning and start all over again, would you do a doctorate? If so, or if not, then why?"

Positive statements:

“Immersion in the world of science; personal and social benefits.”                                                                                             Female, aged 25, Belgian, doctoral researcher in Science/Chemistry.

“Developing self-confidence, becoming more skilled at public speaking. Boosting and perfecting my English and my knowledge of informatics. Developing critical thinking.” 
Female, aged 27, Belgian, doctoral researcher in Medicine.

"Doing a doctorate is unusual and challenging; research requires high-level thinking."
Female, aged 31, Belgian, doctoral researcher in History. 

“Developing intellectual rigour; learning a lot intellectually, and learning a lot about people; project management skills, intellectual development." 
Female, aged 29, French, doctoral researcher in Political Science.

“When you’re doing a doctorate you’re completely in charge of it, your own interests and knowledge shape the project and you shape the direction that it takes. You get great personal satisfaction out of it." 
Male, aged 29, Belgian, doctoral researcher in Medicine. 

"Doing a doctorate gives you the chance to develop real expertise in a particular area, and gives you the chance to stay intellectually active." 
Male, aged 32, Belgian, doctoral researcher in Psychology.

Negative statements

"Doing a doctorate takes an enormous amount of energy and perseverance for very little return. It is always called into question, it isn’t always valued appropriately, and the culture in research can be a bit destructive.”
Female, aged 30, Belgian, doctoral researcher in Political Science.

"With just a Masters degree, you can get a good job. Doing a doctorate can be very complicated; the government is giving more funding for doctorates, so lots of people are doing them, but there are still very few jobs to apply for when you finish. This needs to be tackled." 
Male, aged 33, Belgian, doctoral researcher in Medicine. 

"From an intellectual point of view, doing a doctorate is very challenging; it’s difficut to maintain a good work-life balance; it’s difficult to prioritise your family life; short-term goals aren’t enough to keep up your motivation levels; your financial status is precarious (no permanent contracts)." 
Male, aged 25, Belgian, doctoral researcher in Applied Science.

Mixed statements

"Yes, because it’s a great personal achievement, and no, because there’s not a lot of value-added in terms of employability."
Male, aged 27, Belgian, doctoral researcher in Human and Social Sciences. 

"I've had intellectual satisfaction and the sense that I’ve succeeded at a challenge, but I've had personal problems because of the quantity of work."
Female, aged 27, Belgian, doctoral researcher in Literature. 


Getting off to a good start with your doctorate - Advice and Reading List

Very clearly structured and helps you to take into account everything important when you're starting your doctorate. 

  • "Pars en thèse" - A Doctoral Handbook produced by the UniversitĂ© de Liège (ULg)

A clear and comprehensive handbook - an essential document for new doctoral researchers in Liège, but there is also general information that would be useful to new doctoral researchers in any university.

  • Check-list for supervisors and doctoral reserachers

Lists questions to discuss and resolve when a doctoral researcher and their supervisor begin to work together - produced by the ULg (Conseil du doctorat).


Find information about doing a doctorate in one of the universities in the Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles :

Doing a doctorate at the UniversitĂ© libre de Bruxelles (ULB)

Doing a doctorate at the UniversitĂ© de Louvain (UCL)

Doing a doctorate at the Université de Liège (ULg)

Doing a doctorate at the UniversitĂ© de Namur (UNamur)

Doing a doctorate at the Université de Mons (UMons)

Doing a doctorate at the UniversitĂ© Saint-Louis (UStLouis)



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