Edit: Also check out the sister-post “Get a PhD“
I’ve spent the past five years interviewing 100+ graduate students in different fields, at different institutions from lower-tier research all the way to Ivy League – mostly in the arts and humanities. The information here is highly applicable to those in the arts and humanities, and somewhat applicable to those in STEM, but less so.
It won’t help you much on the job market
There are three common career paths that PhDs take after finishing their degree.
The academic job market is horrendous right now, and it has been for some time. It’s not uncommon for PhDs to apply for 50 positions and not even get a phone interview. Not only has this held true in my research of those who completed their degrees at middling universities, but seems to also affect those who hold PhDs from Ivy League institutions. If Ivy PhDs are having difficulty obtaining academic positions, any PhD holder from a lesser institution is almost certainly SOL.
Industry folk fall into one of two camps (with infinite shades of grey in between) – anti or pro intellectuals.
Employers in this camp look at the PhD with a high level of skepticism. Upon looking at a PhD-containing resume, they will assume that the candidate did nothing of worth for 5-8 years of their life. They will assume that the candidate has no “Real-World Experience” (as if graduate school takes place in some kind of virtual fantasy simulation) and will toss the resume before the first round of interviews
This is likely the best option for new PhDs.
This varies highly by field, but it’s likely that you worked your ass off during graduate school. In this rigorous environment you undoubtedly acquired some kind of skill set while working to solve a research problem or problems. If you can step back from your research problem, and objectively identify what skills you have developed, there is a high probability that these skills form the requirements of some kind of high level industry job. If you worked diligently in grad school you’re probably highly qualified for a number of these jobs, but even with a very pro-intellectual employer you will have to make the case that your work in graduate school equipped you with the necessary skills for the job. After completing such a draining and rigorous process it can be difficult to have to qualify yourself to an academic outsider.
The third most common “employment” after PhD is a Post Doc which leads us to our next section:
By pursuing a postdoc you become sort of a “scab”, someone that breaks the picket line. A PhD is the highest academic degree. If you go straight through school the youngest you can finish a PhD is in your late twenties. At this time most average people start a family, or enter a middle stage in their career. The PhD is just entering the working world and is already “behind” in this regard – even with a “full funding” package there will not be enough money to buy a house, have a child, etc. I have known many graduate students that have done one or both of these things but they have either been on their parents’ payroll, or have a spouse that is bringing in a significant paycheck.
Many of those I have interviewed opt to “double down” on a bad PhD decision and go on to do a PostDoc. Of course they will have marginally increased odds of obtaining an academic job on the market, but they will certainly be into their thirties at that point. By championing this as a valid path, we only diminish the significance of obtaining a PhD. Not to mention the great personal cost of almost certainly having to relocate for the PostDoc and then again for the job afterwards.
Job scarcity attracts wolves
The market has been bad for some time now. There is speculation as to when things started to go south, but commonly people identify the 2008 recession as the first major turning point. This means that anyone employed in academia over the last ten or so years overcame this horrendous job market. You may think that this would ensure that only the most intelligent and well-researched obtained roles but this would be incorrect.
The most brilliant researchers are often tentatively conscious, i.e. they don’t tend to boast about an uncertain discovery until they’ve gathered sufficient evidence, they are not showmen. Unfortunately this does not woo academic departments and typically the most narcissistic, and ego-centric academics have prevailed in the last ten years of the academic job hunt. The result of this phenomenon is a highly increased concentration of sociopaths, egomaniacs, and drama-charged individuals in academic jobs.
Understand that I am not suggesting that all academic hires made over the past ten years are sociopaths. What I am saying, is that an unusually high percentage of these hires are sociopaths, especially when compared to comparable non-academic positions.
It will kill your passion
I love pizza. I eat it at least a few times every month. If someone told me that I would have to eat it every day, and that my advancement depended on it, I would probably begin to develop a distaste for pizza.
I have found a good workaround for this that I intend to cover in a future post, but it has been difficult to maintain ironic distance from my own work at various points.
The malaise is most clearly visible in a number of arts students that I have interviewed over the years. I see a number of artists that over-intellectualize their art to the point of it becoming systematic and dead. Some professors in the field are so out of touch with their artistic inspiration that they are more like dead husks that are going through the motions when they sit down to “create”. It tears me up to see this happening but most that are prone to this phenomenon are ready to sacrifice everything at the altar of an academic career, including their divine sense of creativity and intuition.
Undoubtedly there will be pushback to this article, or at least to the ideas contained within it. Maybe you have experienced this during your own graduate study already. Those that already hold academic positions will be confused as to why you are having a difficult time with the job hunt – doubly so if they obtained their position before 2008.
Some will offer unhelpful advice based on their own anecdotal experience as academics that have obtained a position. This inherently muddles their “wisdom” with a survivorship bias, and it should be taken with a grain of salt. In a rare candid confession, one senior level tenured academic I interviewed about the job situation compared it to “playing the lottery”. I think he was correct in a lot of ways. Studying how professors obtained teaching positions is only slightly less foolish than studying how lottery winners were successful at picking numbers. This is especially relevant now that the arts and humanities have long done away with standards of work in favor of an amoebic, directionless nihilism that is the product of the postmodernist influence.
Few outside of academia will understand
You’re not going to get much support outside of academia. It will be difficult to explain to those outside of the system what you are doing, and why it is important. If it’s in the humanities or the arts, a good deal of the time there will be some level of suspicion that what you are working on isn’t important at all because “art is subjective”. You’ll need to either get good at giving an elevator pitch to non academics about what you are working on and why its important (something you should work on anyways), or give these conversations a wide birth. At any rate, you can’t expect the same support and admiration as those going through medical school despite the similar difficulty level.
You are not special
You’ve read this far and you probably think, “Yes, I see what you’re saying, but I am different, I can beat the odds, I will show them that they are wrong because I’m special!” The fact is, you are special, if you’re smart enough to get into a PhD program, you likely are more industrious than most of your peers and have an IQ at 130 or above. Being special doesn’t mean that you can defeat a broken system. Conversely, those that beat a broken system are either lucky, or have become toxic enough to thrive in the polluted waters – and this is on top of having their shit together and earning the degree.
So please, I’m writing this in Spring, not as hazing for new PhDs, but for those with offers to strongly consider what has been laid out here. This information has been sourced very widely over a long period of time. Consider why you are going. Academia is primarily a game for the rich. If you have a trust fund, or money to throw at the degree, then absolutely do it. If you have hopes of creating a career for yourself, do anything else, the time wouldn’t necessarily be better spent, but it’s a much easier path.