It’s been 3 years since I submitted my dissertation. I finally feel ready to write this article. More objectivity and all that.
This article is to help you determine whether a PhD is the right choice for you. My experience is in the humanities, but I think there’s more overlap with the sciences than people sometimes think; you can be the judge.
The quick answer to whether you should do a PhD or not: You’ll get amazing skills that employers value, gain a sense of accomplishment that will last a lifetime, but only do a PhD if you understand precisely what it is and the post-PhD career realities.
I’ll expand on all this, but let’s start with the positives.
A PhD helps you learn how to learn
Beyond your specific subject matter, getting a PhD will mean that you know how to find things out.
It sounds simple, but that’s actually a hugely valuable skill.
If you embark on a PhD, you’ll spend around a year working on a literature review so that you have a sense of the field. In doing so, you’ll learn how to build yourself a reading list, how to assess the credibility of authors and their arguments/approaches, and how to gain a sense of debates raging in the field.
(That’s before you even participate in those debates, another valuable skill: the ability to contribute to knowledge.)
These might sound like extremely academic skills, but they translate directly to broader knowledge work. Armed with this skill-set, you can drop into countless business settings and immediately add value simply because you can learn fast.
Employers crave that ability, and a PhD gives it to you in spades. It’s why many PhDs end up in consultant roles. Boston Consulting Group even has a PhD hiring track.
A PhD means you can communicate complexity
Absorbing an abundance of complex information and interrogating it over the course of a multi-year, book-length dissertation develops your communication skills.
The ‘big book PhD’ method is a brutal, trial-by-fire approach but it seems to work. Maintaining a coherent argument over hundreds of pages, marshalling relevant evidence, all while signalling your authority as a researcher is not easy.
A successfully defended PhD requires all these things and if you can write in a style that can hold the reader’s interest (please at least try!), so much the better.
In our knowledge economy, being able to synthesise complex ideas and communicate them in a clear and compelling manner is another sought-after skill.
Knowledge acquisition and communication skills are valuable, career-enhancing abilities. If you develop the self-awareness to articulate them to employers, you will have no trouble finding a rewarding job inside or outside academia.
These are compelling reasons to consider getting a doctorate, but there are other factors to consider. Now we’ll turn to some reasons why you might not want to get a PhD.
Academia is an unforgiving and challenging career path.
Write your dissertation. And teach. And publish. And stay healthy. And pay attention to your family. And have a social life.
And some people think grad students have a chill life. Or maybe you think you are ‘opting out’ of the rat race by hanging around the Ivory Tower.
Even when you finish the PhD, you’ll (most likely) be entering your 30s with no savings, pension, or job certainty. You’ll also have little choice over where you live.
There’s no getting over how stressful all this is.
I remember crying because I wanted to run a half-marathon to celebrate my 30th birthday and buying a decent pair of running shoes felt like an indulgent, extravagant expense.
A pair of shoes. I was nearly 30. Ouch.
Of course, I don’t work in academia now, so things might be changing, but, for goodness sake, check on the state of the industry you are entering! It’s not all Dead Poets Society.
Academia is just as much a greasy pole as any career path. And probably more stressful. Don’t delude yourself that it’s different from the rest of the world.
The PhD candidate has an odd status as part-student, part-colleague. It can sometimes lead you to feel a false sense of security; running conferences, leading seminars, and marking papers isn’t a guaranteed path to a job.
Don’t do a PhD merely to validate your love of a topic.
If you want to do a PhD because you loved your undergrad/Master’s degree and your subject fascinates you, there are other ways to build your interest into your life.
- You are still allowed to attend conferences
- You are still allowed to read books/articles
- You are still allowed to write
- You are still allowed to join writing groups and talk to smart people about complex ideas
In fact, I would suggest that even those committed to a career in academia should take a year out to validate that choice, see how the real world works, and observe that you can still have an intellectual life outside academia.
A little time away from the Ivory Tower allows you to earn a bit of money and take that first step towards being an independent researcher: How do you cope without a full academic support system behind you? (Hint: that’s what doing a PhD often feels like.)
Don’t go straight through the system: undergrad, Master’s, PhD. If that describes you, even though I’m certain you’re super-smart for being able to do it, it’s not the smart choice (unless people are literally throwing funding at you).
Try something else before you commit. Experience a different possibility. Don’t ‘default’ to what is actually a hard path, even if a non-academic career appears a bit daunting to you right now.
It is worth stating a fact: There are excellent career options for smart people like you.
Understand your Post-PhD career options
Because of all the uncertainties around academic careers and, as it felt back in 2015, around the very structure of Higher Education itself, I decided academia wasn’t for me.
Once I made this choice, I had to spend a lot of time in my own head deprogramming myself from academic culture and going through the process of translating my skills and experiences into ‘market-friendly’ terms.
All-in-all I’d say that deprogramming/rebuilding took around two years. After that process I could confidently meet people and explain what value I could offer them and their organisations; I could apply for jobs rather than beg for them.
Two years is a horrifically long time, but I’m being honest. It involved doing crappy freelance writing gigs, going to business networking events and talking awkwardly to people, and, over time, learning how not to sound so awkward and apologetic about my background and skill set.
Especially after years of doing a PhD I irrationally felt that ‘Surely these people can tell that I’m smart.’ Nope. This was both a painful, humbling, and necessary realisation. People don’t care how smart you are, they care how much you can help them.
My advice: don’t take two years to get yourself ready to get a job as I did.
If you do choose to do the PhD, I’d strongly suggest you immediately accept there’s a very real risk that you won’t ever be an academic (either because you can’t be or won’t want to be), and learn how to talk about yourself and your skills to a non-academic audience.
This is true even for ‘alt-ac’ career paths: You still need to learn how to talk about your skills in the abstract, not just the specifics of your topic of study.
How? Break out of your academic bubble and talk to people. Try to understand the problems they are working on. Just because they aren’t writing a dissertation on it doesn’t make it uninteresting.
It’s not all about jobs/careers/money
This article has focused a lot on employability, and I think that’s justified. Too many people think they are ‘opting out of the rat race’ when they pursue graduate education.
The reality is that we all have to consider a 40+ year working life now. That means making choices that set us up for a fulfilling career. Or careers. (Over 40 years you’re probably going to shift around a bit.)
So, on the one hand, put your PhD in the context of this long working life you’ll have; you can’t hide forever / there aren’t enough academic jobs for everyone who does a PhD / you might not want to be an academic forever.
On the other hand, you have a long working life ahead of you. Taking a few years to study something you love while gaining some lifelong, career-boosting skills is no bad thing.
Just go into the PhD with your eyes wide open. It’s not careerist to think about your long-term future. It’s sensible.
Three years after my own PhD, the scars of writing the dissertation have healed. For the rest of my life, no one can take away what I’ve learned and achieved.
I am, and always will be, a credentialed Cold War historian. I spent weeks in the Library of Congress, rummaged through boxes at the Hoover Institute, froze at the Ford Presidential Library, and watched countless hours of SALT II ratification debate footage (complete with cheesy 1970s ads, which I never skipped).
Those memories are mine forever. And if you do a PhD, you’ll experience similar moments.
So, should you get a PhD?
A PhD is a colossal undertaking.
It’s an indescribable bundle of reading, writing, learning, hardship, stress, fear, panic, love, inspiration, accomplishment, failure, satisfaction, and hope, all at once, all separately, all the time.
If you are going to slay that dragon, do so with a full understanding of what you’re committing to. Take the time to think deeply about this major life decision:
- Understand the career path and the realities of academic jobs in your specific field. Do your homework: If all tenured professors in your sub-field are 35-year-old high-flyers, what does that mean for your job prospects? What are the funding prospects?
- Talk to people who know you well and how you might handle such a vast undertaking. You’re going to be working very hard, for not much money, for several years, with an uncertain outcome: is that something you can handle?
- Talk to people who *don’t* know you and who you can ask ‘dumb questions’ without feeling that you’re undermining your status. i.e. what do you want to ask your supervisor but feel that you’re supposed to know already?
I’m more than happy to schedule a half-hour chat with you (for free, obviously) to be that neutral party. Just send me a message via the contact page, and we’ll set up a Skype meeting.
I hope this has been a useful article. It’s worth stating that everyone’s PhD journey is different. This article is a summary of my own observations and experiences over the years, having left academia, built a freelance business, and now working as a content strategist.
You can listen to the presentation this post is based on over at the University of St Andrews’ Soundcloud page.
If you want to read more about my PhD journey and beyond, check out the blog page.
Found this post useful? Get more articles like this in my newsletter. When you subscribe you’ll get a free 36-page eBook on the best writing tools!