What you should know before starting a doctorate…

A few days ago an interesting article on Graduate schools circulated around the web. The article suggested that Graduate school has many of the features of a cult and that some people staying on to undertake postgraduate studies almost needed to be deprogrammed until they understood that there was value in life outside the Academy. Here (just in case you don’t have the stamina to read a short pithy well-written article) are the first two paragraphs:

Several years ago, the professional career counselor Margaret Newhouse wrote an essay for The Chronicle called “Deprogramming From the Academic Cult.” Newhouse argued that graduate school in the humanities indoctrinates its students into believing that they are failures if they do not remain inside the ivory tower, even if there are no suitable academic jobs for them. Career counselors, she argued, have to find ways to persuade unemployed Ph.D.’s to believe that the outside world is not evil and that they are not apostates if they do something besides teaching and research.

Although I am currently a tenure-track professor of English, I realize that nothing but luck distinguishes me from thousands of other highly-qualified Ph.D.’s in the humanities who will never have full-time academic jobs and, as a result, are symbolically dead to the academy. Even after several years, many former graduate students grapple with feelings of shame and failure that, to outsiders, seem completely irrational.

A little under seven years ago I left a doctorate in Classics that I’d been undertaking at Bristol University. I’d been working on my PhD for three years – time initially very well spent and which produed enormous amounts of reasonably good-quality work. Over the first two and a half years or so I produced around sixty thousand words on models of the mind, mythology, story-telling and identification; I’d taught various undergraduate classes on drama, mythology and Ancient Greek language and I’d produced two papers (on on anachronistic interpretation and one on The Bacchae) which I delivered at national conferences in Nottingham and New York. However, from the end of my second year I started experiencing a slow deterioration in my work, had a number of crises of motivation and started to feel that I was being overwhelmed by the material and sheer amount of commentary and opinion that I needed to get to grips with. I started to feel that I was never going to be able to produce work that I was going to be happy with – that I was never going to find the answers that I was looking for. Then followed a few months of highly self-destructive behaviour when I felt that I was starting to fail, followed by a few months of anti-depressants and then the final realisation that if I was going to complete my work it would take me years of penury and misery and that I was likely to have problems finding any kind of employment afterwards. And then the realisation that I no longer had faith that the work I was producing would have any kind of impact or be taken in any way seriously. And that’s when I decided to quit.

If you believe the narrative that I’ve just told you (and there’s no reason why you should simply swallow it whole – I’ve taken considerable license with it for speed and clarity) then you might well be asking yourself why I went from doing good work to leaving academia completely, and whether I regret it. I ask whether you believe it because I’m not sure that I believe it myself – I find the whole period difficult to interpret and difficult to feel confident about because of the sheer weight of the different interpretations, personal relationships, arguments, tensions and various senses of betrayals that I came – by the end – to associate fully with my time in doctoral work. And here’s where the article about the cultishness of Graduate School comes in again. Because whlie I don’t necessarily believe that it does have cultish tendencies, I do feel programmed by circumstance to forfeit my right to a public opinion about it. Any statement I make about academia – or my experience of academia – that isn’t entirely complimentary must necessarily be seen in the context of my own failure to complete the process. Because I’m not now Doctor Coates, any statement I make that puts any blame on anyone other than my own inadequacies can be dismissed as sour grapes or an inability to accept failure or inadequacy in one field or another.

I’m not going to fight this assumption – I feel comfortable in admitting that whatever else may have led to my ungracious departure from academia, I clearly did not have the necessarily discipline to carry through the work I’d started to its conclusion. I failed. But I’ve seen a lot of other people fall hard off the back of the academic lorry as well, and a good number of them I believe have done so not because they’ve failed the system but because the system has failed them. And they feel similarly confused and conflicted – unable to determine where the failure was their own. Even many of the people I know who have completed their doctorates have experienced the burn of tarmac on their departure from the academy. These people were intellectually able, self-disciplined and strong and fought through the academy with all the discipline and strength they could muster and were still brought low by it. And worse still, these people feel the same anxiety that I do about talking about it – any rejection is in itself an admission of failure. Here’s where the academy’s cultishness emerges most strongly – because it’s an institution where you can only fail yourself and your leaders. They can never fail you.

I want to talk a little about the reality of post-graduate work for people who are considering it because I think you should know what you’re letting yourself in for. Courses which are mostly taught are almost always achievable. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’d recommend a Masters course to almost anyone. On the other hand, Universities often encourage their pupils to stay with them at their University because they get money for students. I would advise you to never do this. It can be very difficult for undergraduate students to adjust to the new roles and status that undertaking a Masters should afford you. It’s particularly difficult if you’re doing those role-changes with people you have been used to being highly deferential towards. And why would you want to work more with them anyway? Unless they really are the world-leading experts in their fields, you should be looking elsewhere for different perspectives, different expertises and different lessons to learn. You’ll learn much more from a new teacher than from the one who has already articulated much of their approach and beliefs and ways of seeing the world through your undergraduate work with them.

Masters aside then, what of the research degree? Here I’m going to be blunt. First things first, please believe that academic departments get money for postgraduate students and that more money means more and (and more stable) jobs for the staff. You must never forget that while all academics have altruistic motives, they also have a vested interest in encouraging you to stay with them. Again consider why they’re suggesting you continue your work, and think particularly hard if they’re advocating you staying with them.

Next think about your skills and expertises and whether or not you actually want to be an academic after you’ve tried to complete your course. Now think about whether or not you’re going to be the person who actually gets the really hard to come by academic job afterwards (this is particularly true in the Humanities). If you don’t want to be a History lecturer and do academic research for the rest of your life, then don’t do a doctorate. If you’re not sure, then get sure before you sign on the dotted line. Academic jobs are not easy to get and they’ll all be looking for certain skills and expertises that are relevant to the teaching of your discipline. If you want to spend years doing research into an incredibly obscure branch of history, then bear in mind that no one may wish to teach courses in that particular obscure branch of history. If you’re going to be revolutionarily cross-disciplinary, then consider – are there any departments in the world who could hire you when you were done? And if not, then don’t do it!

Doctorates don’t count for much outside academia – and in fact they may count against you. If you can’t find a directly relevant area for subsequent professional work, then many employers are likely to look at a 25-30 year old person with three-six years of post-graduate work as being a strange and slightly worrying employment prospect – they’re going to be too smart for their own good, too ivory-towerish, too specialist, out of touch with the way that the “real world” works. If you’re working in an area where there’s a lot of commercial interest (say the way in which people use technology) then you may very well find enormous career opportunities open up before you. This is not likely to happen if you’ve spent six years writing on gender roles in Baudelaire – no matter how ground-breaking the work.

And here’s the other lesson – doctoral work is professional training. You have to think about it like that – you’re being made into a lecturer / professor / teacher / researcher. The aim of doctoral work is not – no matter what anyone tells you – to think up good stuff and write great works and reveal your genius to the world. The aim is to make professional people who can teach undergraduates, deliver papers and – yes – also (subsequently) push the discipline further in one direction or another. You have to approach your post-graduate work in this way. The most successful doctoral students in my experience are the ones that are thorough and careful and take on relatively unambitious projects which don’t stretch the assumptions or structures of the discipline too much. They’re the ones that finish their doctoral work and go on to useful teaching positions (and then may or may not start exploring more widely). It’s definitely not the best and the brightest, the most imaginative thinkers or the people with the great ideas that get through. If they get through it’s because they’re thorough and they’re careful and they’re professional and treat it as it should be treated – as a job of work rather than a calling or an exploration.

Which brings me to drop-out rates. Another thing you won’t be told is how many people don’t complete their doctorates. I’ve heard various figures mentioned, but I believe that around 50% of people who start doctorates don’t get a PhD out of it. This may be humanities only or it may be throughout the academy. An enormous proportion of people simply never finish the things because it’s not quite what they were expecting when they started. And many of these people will feel like failures, will come into the job market late and will find it harder to get ahead in their new chosen career. It’s not clear to me whether it’s harder to get a job with a completed irrelevant doctorate or an incomplete one. It’s not easy with with either.

And then there’s the day-to-day atmosphere of it. When you’re doing research, you work almost exclusively alone – for three to five years. You should spend large periods of that time in a library – ideally (again taking into account that this is a training course and a career) you should use the working hours that you might expect from a job – eight hours a day. You will get paid either nothing or a barely livable wage to do this work (again – more true for humanities students). This is not a glamourous occupation, by any means. And as I’ve said before, there is no glamour in the work itself, a restricted chance that you’ll get a career in academia and a very real possibility that by undertaking this work you’re going to make yourself less employable. The “positive” aspects of the lifestyle (apart from your gradual progress towards getting your doctorate) are limited, but you do get relative freedom to think and explore ideas, you are forced to be self-motivating and self-determined and – when things are going well – you will get self-respect and the respect of some other people (who in my opinion are rather easily impressed). These freedoms, and the self-respect and the respect of others that you get from undertaking a doctorate will stay with you (to an extent) if you go into the badly paid field of academia. If you do not, they will swiftly evaporate.

Which brings me (briefly) to my final point. Do not believe there is no worthwhile life outside academia! It’s difficult sometimes, when you’ve been in the education system for getting on for twenty years to remember that there’s an enormous panoply of jobs outside academia and not all of them are sullied by the feeble crust of crass commercialism. It is more than possible to find enjoyable, ethically-sound, world-improving work outside academia – in fact it’s probably no harder than it is to find similar work inside the Academy. The stereotype (and the assumption of many potential postgraduate students) that study for the sake of study and the stretching and mental gymnastics of intellectual work are somehow naturally superior and elite practices would hold more water with me if such warming-up regularly translated into actual attempts to build or refigure the world in positive ways. If such goals are your intent – consider carefully what effect you are actually likely to have. Is the respect of a narrow and dishevelled set of peers (and a steady stream of undergraduate neophytes) enough to get you through the night? If not, consider that there is good work to be done outside University and that some of it pays rather better and is equally interesting.

If you’re considering a longer research-based degree, please consider carefully what you’re letting yourself in for. Remember the key facts: only fifty percent of people come out of the other end of this process with a doctorate and even then they have to look towards finding (mostly pretty badly-paid) work. Many of them won’t that work despite having proved their discipline, committment and intelligence. Do yourself a favour and make sure that you go in with your eyes open – that you know how unpleasant the work can be, that you know what a risk you’re taking with your time and with your life, that you’re strong enough to deal with the self-doubt and the humiliation and the shame and the anxiety that the work can cause and that you’re totally sure of the career path that you are choosing for yourself, before you agree to continue with your studies. If you don’t do this, then you may very well find yourself in a cult that genuinely believes that everyone else is basically wasting their lives and from which there is no easy or elegant way to escape.

Note added 25th September 2004: Thanks to Phil Young for sending in this link which I hope might be useful to people who enjoyed this article: Beyond the Ivory Tower.

39 replies on “What you should know before starting a doctorate…”

Drop-out Guilt
Tom’s written a huge piece, What you should know before starting a doctorate…, most of which is irrelevant as I’m not starting a doctorate, but the first chunk, about his dropping out of academia before completing, rang some bells. Specifically: Any …

I’m entering my 4th year towards and undergraduate physics degree at RIT in the fall. Ever since my first day of college, I’ve been unable to figure out what I want to do with my life afterwards. I one way I feel that I owe it to myself to move on to graduate school so that I can learn about more advanced subjects like General Relativity and more complicated maths. I’ve done a small amount of summer research in physics and I’m uncertain if pure physics research is something I’d enjoy doing for another 3 or 4 years. Everything is very cloudy and after reading all of the above, I feel more in touch with my goals than before.

I am currently completing a (taught) Masters, and I am seriously considering further study. You’re making a lot of sense to me and you’ve provided me with a perspective that I really haven’t come into contact with until now. This article goes into the slot beside the oneOn the existence of God… that I will recommend that friends consult.
It’s pieces like this that make the web (and the weblog) a life-enhancing tool. Thank you.

Postgraduate work in the UK is a very different beast from its US equivalent, though: in part because doctoral students become the teaching base for undergraduate courses in American colleges, and in part because the doctoral course itself is much more directed than the typical British Ph.D. or DPhil. And there’s the whole money question, as well: most American doctoral students leave with astronomical debts.
I feel very alienated from academia right now, even though I finished my DPhil — once you spend any time away, trying to get back up to speed is very much like chasing that speeding wagon. It’s especially difficult for a couple of reasons: firstly, having moved from the UK to the US, I don’t have the teaching experience that’s a given for American doctoral graduates; secondly, I’ve been advised that taking ‘any old job’ actually works against you, even if I do so in order to gain teaching experience.
One advantage, though, is that almost by accident, I found myself taking web- and writing work during my doctorate, which bumped up my CV. I still look at friends, though, who left university after the BA or a Masters, and get the feeling that I’m five or six years behind them. Gah.

For those of you considering graduate degrees, it’s worth reading in a few other places as well.
Much of the archives of the Invisible Adjunct (which remain, although the author has stopped posting) are devoted to these issues–the comments are full of interesting discussions of the pros and cons (mostly cons) of graduate school.
Dorothea Salo’s “Academia Anonymous” archives are replete with condemnations of academe’s garden path, as well.
And Timothy Burke at Swarthmore has an excellent essay entitled “Should I Go to Grad School” that should be required reading for anyone considering it.
As I’ve said to Dorothea, and to others, however, there are significant differences among academic fields. The 50% attrition rate is not accurate for all fields of study, nor are the dismal placement rates the same for all. A doctorate in Classics is quite different from one in Library Science, which in turn is not at all like one in Engineering or Physics.

Yes. Absolutely – doctoral students in some fields are quite likely to get work, and even in fields which are running short of places, some doctoral students will find no trouble getting work. And there are differences between doctorates in the States and the UK, and between the sciences, social sciences and the humanities in terms of funding, the daily structure of work (you won’t find a science postgrad working in a library every day for three years) and potential employment prospects. And of course if matters who you studied with and where you went as well. This is why I talk about choosing your area of study carefully in order that you will be able to complete your work, and appeal to either academic or commercial organisations on your completion.
I would not want to condemn an academic lifestyle in any way – I think it can be a profoundly satisfying lifestyle, a rewarding lifestyle and a very valuable one. I’m not sure that many students who approach post graduate work are necessarily aware of some of the illusions of the trade either, or of what it’s substantive value is in the world, or have a sufficiently unromantic view of the work they’ll be undertaking. I don’t believe it’s a negative view to advocate that people don’t enter with hopes and dreams that the academy cannot and should not be attempting to fulfil.

I’ve never done postgraduate work and I haven’t been in college for over twenty years, so my comments must be weighted accordingly.
I attended Caltech, where the primary focus is scientific discovery and secondarily commercial applications of technology. There are humanities departments at Caltech but they exist to provide the illusion of balanced education and not because anyone takes their work seriously. Anyone doing graduate humanities work at Caltech has left the tracks.
Within the science disciplines, I found that the emphasis on doing important work was refreshing. Nobody was encouraged to do things which merely pushed a field slightly in a known direction, or which prepared one for teaching. It was assumed that students were interested in doing serious new work, innovation was encouraged, and communication skills things like public speaking and writing were actively taught on the assumption they’d be needed to communicate work in seminars and papers. This emphasis extended down to undergraduates as well who were sometimes invited to coauthor research papers, attend conferences, etc.
From this I conclude that graduate experience varies widely with the chosen field and the institution. It would seem working at a university where the field of interest is emphasized would be most important. As well, the style and target of the ongoing work should be considered; this varies widely.
I would definitely echo a theme from your post, that it is important to know what you want to do before embarking on a graduate course of study. I never had the desire to become a research scientist and headed straight for commercial opportunities upon my departure, despite having tremendously enjoyed and profited from my undergraduate studies. As with almost any endeavor, graduate students who know what they want and are willing to focus on getting it will be the most successful. Again agreeing with you I would say that while it is okay to enter undergraduate study with no idea where you’re going to end up (most of us do), one should not enter post-graduate study the same way.

Doctoral degrees in the sciences are a bit different from the perspective I see here. You do not graduate with a debt; if you aren’t getting paid for your work in grad school, there’s something very fishy about the program.
Successful completion rates are higher: the majority of my cohort in the biology program I was in finished with a degree. All who passed their preliminary exams in the second year made it.
I know of two who took over 12 years to complete their degree, but let’s not dwell on that…
Relatively few end up in academia. Jobs are scarce there (has anybody mentioned that? There are no jobs? Sure.) and, as it turns out, laboratory skills are reasonably marketable elsewhere.
I’m not as discouraging about student prospects after grad school in the sciences as most social sciences people seem to be, but I’m not sanguine, either. You’ve got to be deeply thrilled by extremely esoteric stuff for it to be worthwhile. If you’re thinking about a career and a job and money, you aren’t in the right frame of mind for grad school. Even if there is a little bit more security in a science Ph.D. than some others, it’s still economically insane — I suggest dental school instead. Or a plumbing apprenticeship. Or, as my own dear father recommended to me when I proposed throwing myself into the chasm of academia, refrigerator repair. Refrigeration specialists are always in great demand and make very good money.

My advice to anyone seeking work after postgrad studies would be to fully articulate to any potential employer (or recruitment agency) precisely what you’ve been doing for the past few years, in terms of responsibilities, projects completed, etc. I found most people didn’t really grasp what was required to complete postgraduate research, imagining a typical daytime tv watching student existence (which is of course only partly true). Other responses included “yes, your cv is very good but could you please underline that you know how to use Frontpage”.

Good points all, Tom. You might be interested in a letter I wrote to The Australian a few years ago about the situation there, borne out of similar experiences.
The only point I’d disagree with is your claim that ‘it’s definitely not the best and the brightest, the most imaginative thinkers or the people with the great ideas that get through’. Plenty do, including many people I’ve known. What I’d say is that whether you’re the best, brightest or most imaginative bears no direct relationship to your chances of getting through, although it may play a role. I wouldn’t even weight thoroughness and professionalism as heavily as you do.
What’s most important is your own determination to see it through. Where that determination comes from can vary enormously from person to person – it might come from a belief that you’re making a valuable contribution to your field, or even that you’re the best and brightest or most professional – but once it goes, it’s very, very hard to finish. I came close to dropping out 18 months in, and only a successful stint of fieldwork turned it around for me; if that had gone badly, I’m not sure I’d have made it. And I would have been the same person with the same degree of imagination, thoroughness, or whatever, either way.
I’m not saying that people who don’t finish the damn things aren’t determined, or that they lack stamina; I’m saying that determination to finish the Ph.D. is the most important factor in doing so. If finishing it stops being important to you, for whatever reason, or other (incompatible) goals in your life become more important, then you’ll be far less likely to make it.
Which all seems pretty obvious, really. The most important message for those contemplating the Ph.D. path is (as you say here, more or less) that the motivation you feel at the outset might not always be there when you need it, and that you owe it to yourself to consider (and to find out) the implications for your life and career if you don’t finish. And, for that matter, if you do.

Thank you for this post, Tom; it is thought-provoking. You make your starting point your own experience, as I’m sure we all do, but this, as you acknowledge, raises problems. I’ve just finishing a B. A. and am contemplating further study, aware of its various connotations. I suppose the personal value of academic work depends very much on the corporate value of academic work; I think that many students, myself included, work hard for personal success, and a desire to discover and write well for personal glory, while veiling it thinly in the desire to add to the reservoir of academic knowledge constituted by the entire system.
It seems to me that your Ph. D. may have been this conflict in action; I work in an area with similar stigma as Classics, and while my concern for adding to corporate knowledge is genuine, if I decide that my personal work will not be at a standard high enough to really add to contemporary debates, then the chances are that, however successful I was being, I would chuck it in.
I’m not sure what I’m trying to say, but I know that in today’s world there is a danger of reducing university qualifications to an economic question. Yes, everything in life has its economic importance, but knowledge for knowledge’s sake is the founding principle of scientific, and academic, inquiry.

I don’t know if “cult” is the right word. I’m currently entering my 3rd year of management school doctorate at a UK university. I went in knowing it’d be the toughest project I’ve taken up, and that has proven to be the case, for many of the reasons Tom so eloquently described. I appreciated Phil Agre’s piece for undergraduates considering grad school in the U.S. Still, I opted for the UK instead of the US because in the UK there was less coursework and I wanted to work with social scientists, who started to populate British management schools during the Thatcherite era. (This is a bit of tangent, but by cutting social science funding and seeing to it that the business schools didn’t go empty-handed, Thatcher booted the British management education deep into the left field. The sociologists simply moved with the jobs… I’m curious to see what will happen to British-run companies over the next decade as managers brought up on Bruno Latour take over at the helm). Contrary to what Tom says, I don’t think you can know the reality in advance. The whole point of graduate studies is that you make up those realities as you go. In the absence of formal prescriptions for doing the work, the personal relationships between those involved really start to matter. Hence the number one issue for a grad student in my position is the healthiness of the relationship with one’s supervising professor. I’m a “departmental” PhD student, not part of a formal programme, so supervisors are really the only ones that provide external structure to my work. Being social scientists, the interventions they make are often so subtle it’s not at all what I as a student think is required to do away with the ambiguity that’s keeping me up at night. It’s precisely this ambiguity that can do you in: not being able to explain to people what you’re spending your time on because it’s not clear to yourselfñand living with that diminished self-image for years! Tom says it’s a lonely job. He’s right. But to overcome the ambiguity, to weave those fragile storylines, requires good conversation, and good conversation requires relationships with people who care about you, who are able to contribute to your work, and whose reactions make that work feel like it actually matters. I can’t overemphasize the importance of having that person around. If I had to make a guess, I’d say had those people been around Tom in his grad school years, today we’d be reading the blog of Dr. Coates (as if it mattered!)

I went through a similar realisation on doctoral work. I did a taught masters in history at birmingham and loved it. Then started a PHD there.
Did a year or so of research while working at the uni in IT to fund it. I eventually came to the conclusion that it wasn’t going to be worth it. I realised that if I ever got the PHD, I would most likely be overqualified and unemployed.
Your right, it does take a while to work out what a PHD actually is and how hard they can be. I thought I wanted to be an academic. But realised that I didn’t like ivory towers and the mentalities they breed. I also saw people who had been working on their PHDs for years and didn’t seem to be getting anywhere.
The internet happened and I jumped out of doctoral research into online and have never looked back. Best thing I ever did. I still enjoy research and have a couple of little ‘for fun’ projects.
Your absolutely right – think very carefully before you take the plunge and sign up for years of doctoral research…

I often think about entering law school, a field which I do not necessarily enjoy, however, a degree in law would easily afford me the time and money to do independent work elsewhere. For instance, many very well known authors have done the following: Baudelaire, Kafka, etc. Anyhow, I simply feel that such a pursuit of knowledge may be satisfied outside the academic sphere. Additionally, my primary pursuit, not of knowledge per se but of creation, would, I feel, suffer horribly in a strict academic setting, thus I am considering the path of law, for it is one I feel I can accomplish, yet afterwards, or even during, I can focus on the areas which I am interested in i.e. poetry, philosophy, art history, music, and then harness this knowledge and apply it towrads a project which will satisfy that “will to power” or that will to creation. In closing however, I feel it is necessary to state that it is possible to take a selected field further without being in the field of academia (although once you do make a contribution, your name will be dragged into that sphere), your pursuit of knowledge is easily attainable without this masochistic sense of college education.

Oh but the freedom that comes with studying a PhD! You want to study abroad – possible; cities across the world have universities. You want to take out a month to go and work for an NGO – possible; research is lonely, but the benefit is no one will miss you if you go for 30 days. You want to spend six months learning about information theory / web design / supply side-logistics – possible, now is the time to broaden your intellectual horizons- and as part of your day job.
(This is probably most applicable if you’re in the sciences, where you should be getting paid).
I tell friends doing PhDs “Don’t hurry to finish!” You have an autonomy in organising your life that you might not get again; and you can use that autonomy to equip yourself with skills and experiences that are invaluable whether you finish the thesis or not.
Not that i’m saying it’s for everyone – there are certainly more important things in life than academia, but i got a lot from it…

How refreshing to read about a British rather than an American PhD.
I went into my PhD with completely naive and unrealistic expectations of what I was going to get at the end. Like many students I was just so utterly impressed that I was being allowed to do one. I was definitely seduced by the ivory tower.
Having said that, I’m in my final year now and whilst I accept there’s a high probability it might not help my career, I don’t regret it for one moment. It’s trained me to think, research and write. I’ll carry those skills with me for the rest of my life.

I was more or less suicidal when I finished my (scientific) PhD. Had lost all motivation along the way, the prospects were grim as hell, I didn’t know who I was anymore.
At that point I stumbled upon a finance textbook – the last thing I thought I would be interested in. Started studying just for curiosity, and realised there was a whole real world out there where you could use your brain but keeping in touch with reality. I went for an interview with a bank, got the job, stayed on, got promoted, found another job – the sort of thing normal people do.
Now I’m way happier than I ever was in academia – why the hell did I feel I needed to discover the universe. The world’s full of interesting things and there’s plenty of rewarding ways to apply your intelligence besides pure research.

do I need a doctor?
Although I’ve just handed in my Masters’ dissertation (and am awaiting white smoke), I’ve decided I want to go on a do a PhD. I met with my (now ex) supervisor yesterday who gave me some background information on PhD…

Links for 15th of July
Global Rich List – you’re on it To PhD or not to PhD? at “She’s only Two Cats Mad on the Spinster Eccentricity Index” on Fahrenheit 9/11 on Machiavellian Monkeys, social intelligence and cortex s…

This is a really useful discussion. I actually find what Andrew said most inspiring. I just finished my PhD from Columbia, and I’ve also got a finance book on my desk. Problem is, I’m not a science PhD, I’m from the humanities. At the same time, though, I do have the discipline — and when I was in college I definitely had the grades — so I’m still hopeful. Academia certainly hasn’t been 100 percent fulfilling for me. I have to say there were periods of the experience that I absolutely loved. But it was the tedious intellectual politics that I couldn’t stand, all the petty ego business.
If you’re out there and you’re thinking about the PhD, do it for the process — not for the outcome. The professional gains will be miniscule, at least financially speaking. And the opportunity cost will be great. But if you like research and you can find a department willing to cover your costs, I would say that it could be worth it, even if in the end you abandon the cause. When I was in grad school, I felt like I wouldn’t have been doing what I was doing anyway, even if I had all the money in the world, just because I loved ideas and the control over my time that academia allowed me. Am I happy now? Yes and no. Having finished my studies, I now feel like I basically took a really long vacation and am only now beginning to get my bearings. But I also feel like I pursued what I thought was fun. It wasn’t law or anything like that, which I think would have been a total waste of time….
Definitely think through your options before doing anything. This obviously doesn’t just apply to academia, though. It also applies to relationships, familly, work, etc.

I’ve just sent in an application for a PhD scholarship today! It’s multi-disciplinary within the arts and cultural studies – just the kind of thing that might not help my career. However I’ve been working in the media for 6 years (I did my MA part-time)and hate it with a passion. A 12000 bursary untaxed is really not that much less than my current taxed wages. And I get (hopefully) the privelege of working autonomously, on somethign I really care abour rather than slaving in the vile media jobs market. The career prospects that I have now in media terrify me, so I pray that UEL accept my eosoteric proposal and that I am able to find some other form of work in the future.

I am reading English at Oxford and considering whether I should go on to do a Ph.D, or even if I finish one, what would be the ‘value’ of any such endeavour. I don’t suppose I want to be a teacher…and yet a certain degree of conditioning makes one think of academia as the best option, irrespective the evidence pointing to the contrary. I am still very confused. But your blog made me think. Thanks very much Tom. Good luck to you.

As an accepted PhD at a (good) American University PhD program in Communication, I think some departments (such as Comm.) may go against non-inter-disciplinary departments and the hellish experiences I hear of.
The opportunities for teaching, research (which, many undergrad’s need to realize is a symbiotic relationship that can apply to many outside, professional worlds), travel, publishing, fulfillment of intellectual curiosity, speaking, consulting for business/politics/media etc. organizations in the “real world”, side projects/interests abound. Yes, you do have to put in your time doing publishing within your own academic field, but, the opportunities for influence in other ways are vast.
I am a Communication (political and media specifically) theorist and practitioner who loves the field, but I also get out, write for political institutions, major media organizations, do speechwriting on the side; I even get out and perform stand-up comedy and improv as a hobby when I have a chance.
This, as opposed to being a (Lord forbid) lawyer, slaving away 80 hours as a ‘glorified secretary’ at a law firm, making or (or Lord forbid)advertising widgets for some company, or, as in the media example above, working in a job where you get paid about the same and having not a whole lot to show for at the end of it.
I do agree however that the politics of academia can be a little draining, but this will apply to whichever organization you go into, for no other reason but that there are humans inhabiting it.
There are other framings of the PhD process, the main question that perhaps should be asked is what kind of opportunities does the “field” you are going into afford? Think about the way the world is going, where academic and professional fields are, and make an educated decision.
I did, and it afforded me well.
p.s. As an aside, for anyone thinking about law school (in the US) remember that the US dumps new 44,000 lawyers into our nation every year, that the majority of lawyers hate their jobs, and that the majority of lawyers quit.

I have a finished my PhD degree in Chinese history at the University of Hong Kong. I am a Canadian citizen who completed both my BA and MA in my home province of Ontario.
I definitely share the experience of Ghian. However, I regret to hear the opinions of our British colleagues who have raised negative viewpoints about pursuing a doctorate (especially in humanities). While the job prospect in academia is unstable, I don’t believe having a PhD in the resume would work against anyone in the non-academic workforce. Employers of the 21st Century requires analytical and transferable skills. They are, in fact, focussing more on candidates who have a creative mindset than a technical one.
I still have a positive opinion of my doctoral study even though, like Ghian, I have my personal frustrations with my supervisor and academic department (I lived of from my own savings for over 2 years and had seriously contemplated quitting my program after completing 35% of my dissertation). Nevertheless, I do not have any regret of doing it simplily because I have acquired additional skills that well prepare my future career. For instance, I would have ignore the importance of gramatical usage and sentence structure have I not started my program several years ago. I would also not have exposed to other parts of the world and the existence of other tribes and languages if I did not pursue my program.
Like other respondents in this discussion group, I would highly recommend newcomers to have indepth thoughts about doing a PhD. In the process, you will loose your friends, be worrying about your financial woes and, consequently, friction with your supervisior, but the future pay-off is great.
Don’t be fooled by the discouraging opinions on job prospects. While it is highly unlikely that anyone would obtain tenured academic positions, a PhD is still a great tool for an ideal non-academic career.

I thank everyone for their comments, they are very interesting. I am starting on my MS degree this spring, 2006. I am looking for information relative to my achieving (or want to) a PhD in my future. I am wanting to achieve whatever is necessary to teach at the university level. Electronics is my field. I hope that the MS will get me in the door and then I will see about progressing further. Thanks for all the comments, Cwise

Just cant make up my mind if Dr Public Health is worth it. Anyone out there struggling with same anxiety? I heard that there are no much jobs available after this Doctoral Program, yet I want to go into it despite my good friends and colleauges’ disapproval…

A very interesting discussion. Allow me to add my two cents.
So far I have seen only those people complaining about the “ivory towers” and low chances of finding jobs in the academy etc. if they themselves couldn’t complete the doctorate and dropped out. Maybe the problem is not with the system, after all…
A few general comments:
1. All my collegues who succeeded in finishing their PhDs eventually found rewarding university jobs.
2. The salary is low??? The starting salary for a tenure truck assistant professorship is around 50K. It is low??? I would be happy with this kind of salary for the rest of my life.
3. English PhD sucks. Sorry guys, but it does. What it does not, is provide you with an adequate postgraduate experience relevant to your future profession. In other words, it does not make you a professor, it makes you a “scholar”. Who needs scholars who can’t teach broad subjects and can only be isolated “brilliant minds” with no social skills?
4. I have compared the number of advertised academic jobs in humanities on H-net website with the number of jobs on the HVAC website. Guess who wins. (Us!)
5. No one in the academy actually thinks that there is no life outside the “ivory tower”. I have discussed this matter dozens of times with my collegues and they all confirm that in case they don’t succeed in becoming university professors they are ready to be teachers or lawyers or museum workers or even librarians.
6. From the posts agreeing with the author I gathered that the main problem was that at some stage they have all decided that academic career isn’t their cup of tea. Maybe this was the root of the problem.
It is very fashionable today to blame everything on the “system”. Maybe we should take control in our own hands and stop being the “disempowered” and lost “constructions” that post-modern sociologists are so eager to see in us (so they could get funding for their research)?
This is about all I wanted to say.

Thanks for your comment. I”d take issue with a few of your conclusions, but not necessarily your facts, except in one place. The whole point of this article was to encourage people to take responsibility for themselves and make an honest decision, not something that seemed comfortable or simple.

Just on the side note.
Show me this university:
“2. The salary is low??? The starting salary for a tenure truck assistant professorship is around 50K. It is low??? I would be happy with this kind of salary for the rest of my life.”
May be in really expensive areas like California or in big State universities. However more relistic starting salary would be 35-40k USD a year in a smaller school.
Know it from personal experience – i have declined 2 offers so far because they were too low – i’d rather work as postdoc for the same money.

I have 4 days to decide whether to take an offer of a TA for a PhD program in geography. I’ve worked in IT for 8 years and need to do something else with my life – desperately. This has been enlightening — and also very scary! I don’t know if I want to be a professor – maybe yes, maybe no. My god, what to do.

What a great thread. I started my PhD 20 years ago and have simply failed to finish – this fact has plagued me ever since.
I’m now researching an article on what happens to people who don’t finish – how it affects their lives, career prospects, how they feel about it; and I need case studies to interview…so, anyone who reads this message and wishes to talk to me about it, please email me:

hello, i am an agnostic, i am a seventeen year old girl, and yet I LOVE YOU! i dont know why; i cant stop reading your blog. also, i went to one of the pixie gigs of their 2004 tour. mwaha hahaha. i have to leave you now (with much reluctance) and get into some plato (i have an exam tomorrow).

I think it matters greatly *when* you do a PhD. I wouldn’t advise anyone to go straight into it from undergraduate studies, without having been in the “real world”. I tried that at 23 and after a year, couldn’t see the point of it. After 4 years in university, without ever having experienced working at a full-time job, and not having traveled widely, it seemed a waste of time.
After working at a high-pressure (political) job for a decade, I’m back in academia. Now I have a greater appreciation for the luxury of organizing my experiences, for reading and reflection–things you don’t get to do much when you’re in the rat race. There are trade-offs, of course: a drastic cut in income, the slow pace of things, giving up that promotion you were in line for, etc. And obviously, not everyone can do this because we tend to have more responsibilities in our early to mid thirties (I am lucky that my partner earns enough for both of us). It’s a non-traditional route that has its costs. I’m happy so far, though, discovering that there is also life outside of the “real world”, that studying the most obscure things that interest us
may actually be more rewarding than earning money and slaving away at a job we don’t really care about.

I have quite an opposite experience from what you’re telling us here – after completing my undergraduate studies, I was employed for several years, and felt I could not advance far enough because of lack of academic degrees.
PhD is NOT just for the academia – in every big company you can think of, directors of various departments are holders of a PhD. They may not fully use it, but it sure helped them get those positions (and 200k a year salary). If you don’t want a management position, there is plenty of research positions in the industry. And for those you don’t qualify if you don’t have a PhD.
10 years later – you get tired of working so much? You get a teaching position at some university. You simply don’t have that freedom of choice without a PhD.
Many, many other reasons to get a PhD. But I’m sure many people who don’t feel like wisely investing several years of time and effort will like your article.

I completed my PhD not having any idea what it was all about. I now find that every single thing in that article is absolutely true. There are few jobs for newly qualified PhD’s because of the British RAE. I am disillusioned and depressed. I have spent 7 years training for a job that doesn’t exist and if it did, it doesn’t pay as much as a standard clerical job for someone with 7 years experience – what a crock

Sorry, a bit late on this post but only just come across it so some thoughts.
As someone who completed their doctorate two years ago and has since changed tack completely to become a web developer there has been a lot in your post and the comments since that have rung true with my own experiences.
PhD’s are lonely, depressing places. If someone asked me if they should do one I would probably say don’t. However, given the choice again I would still do mine. I have a long list of negative experiences from my doctorate studies – some to do with individuals, some to do with the system and some my own making. But these have definitely helped to shape who I am today.
I disagree that a PhD is professional training for an academic job. I personally undertook my PhD with the naive assumption that I would have a strong chance of getting an academic post afterwards. It never materialised. But I gained a range of skills that have translated well into my new career path. The intense study of a particular subject area over several years has honed an analytical and deconstructive mind. Presenting my work at seminars and conferences has established good communication skills and a confidence in public speaking. Typing several score thousand words has given me a ruthless efficiency with computers, although never quite got the hang of grammar. But these are details. What I am trying to say is that despite the negatives – and I guarantee to any prospective doctoral candidate that there will be negatives – I have gained a lot from the time I spent working on my PhD.
Deciding to move away from the subject matter I studied for my doctorate last year was a big decision to make but I have no regrets and think there are a range of skills and experiences from my PhD that I can bring to anything I put my hand to.
PS I agree with Jane – the RAE systems is killing the British University system

I have a somewhat different situation- im applying for an already fully funded phd in arts management, looking at the impact of community arts initiatives in the uk. The parameters of the research have already been layed out, and i wouldnt have to worry as much over academic initiative- there is a distinct need for this research to be done and the phd candidate would be answering this need. This area of research is really au fait at the moment- like kenny states people want to work more creatively these days, in terms of business and government legislation as well as in academia… But what about the future? three years down the line things may be quite different (especially in terms of changing government strategies and priorities), and im concerned about the numerous alarming stories of the negative psychological impact of phd study. i think the terms of this phd are somewhat different, and perhaps more professionally promising than say, an obscure ancient history phd, and definitely fascinating, but it would still mean three years with mainly books for company! any phds have any advice? the other thing is that it would mean 8 years straight of university education (ive gone straight from undergrad to postgrad, altho have done lots of commercial/professional work in the bits between studies).

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