Why are you here?
Maybe you were undeterred by the sister post to this one, Don’t Get a PhD. Perhaps you’ve just been admitted to the “PhD program of your dreams” and are bright eyed and bushy tailed ready to start a path of knowledge unfettered by the dismal academic job market that lies ahead of you. Perhaps even you’re entering a STEM field where you believe the woes of Arts and Humanities degrees do not apply to you. At any rate. You’re reading this article for some good reasons to get a PhD.
I’ve interviewed over one hundred graduate students, and reached candidacy myself. What follows are some of the brighter sides of obtaining a PhD, sourced from the lived experience of many students across different career stages and disciplines.
A tenure-holding mentor once told me, “Enjoy the PhD, it will be the period of highest autonomy that you have in your career. After this it’s all downhill with board meetings, and bureaucratic bullshit.” The essence here is correct albeit a bit strongly put. The particular professor that said this has tenure, a six-figure salary, benefits, etc. but has fallen for the Golden Calf of Postmodernism and this jadedness likely arises out of the sense of directionless that naturally grows out of worshiping a false idol of knowledge.
You will have the opportunity for unparalleled focus on whatever your research question is. You only have to appease your committee in terms of which directions your research takes, but ultimately you are in the driver’s seat for major decisions. The autonomy can be overwhelming at times, and I theorize that this is why PhDs have such a high drop-rate before candidacy. If you have a strong orientation towards something you would like to research, and are a self-starter, there are few places that are better to do it than a PhD program.
PhD holders are typically above average intelligence, but this only paints part of the picture. There are plenty of individuals with genius-level IQs that are incapable of obtaining a PhD. Only part of the PhD is composed of high-intelligence mental sprints. The largest determiner of PhD success is the level of intellectual grit. Nobody obtains a PhD without possessing extraordinary grit. Those who have recently obtained a PhD can outwork virtually any of their peers in terms of duration and efficiency – the above-average intelligence is just icing on the cake.
How is this grit developed? Two examples I can give:
Most “fully funded” PhDs live at or below the poverty line. This isn’t such a huge hassle during undergrad because all of your peers are poor as shit too. During graduate study though, you will see friends buying houses, new cars, not having to check their bank account balance before buying groceries, etc. and this will make your financial situation feel worse by comparison. Standard of living is established through relativity once basic human needs are covered.
To undertake this vow of poverty voluntarily, while doing work that is more intellectually challenging than most of your peers that are earning average salaries shows superhuman commitment to seeing something through to completion.
Resilience to Criticism
You will make a bold claim for your research question. You will attempt to capture intellectual ground that is yet-unclaimed by anyone. To plant your metaphorical flag on the moon and claim it in your name. Almost everybody will tear you down in this pursuit in one way or another, some because it is their job, and others out of unknown reasons.
Your advisor and committee will constantly try to poke holes in your research. Not out of spite, but out of a drive to make your dissertation more robust. To ensure that it has no weaknesses, and to bring your attention to walls that are worn thin.
Many of those outside of the PhD, particularly anti-intellectuals, a group that seems to have grown exponentially since the last presidential election, will distrust you by nature. Some of my personal favorite questions and comments I’ve gotten over the years:
- “You’re not exactly curing cancer…”
- “Why is studying that important, shouldn’t you do something that helps people?”
- “All art is subjective anyways!”
- “[insert favorite EDM musician] didn’t need a degree, and their music is genius.”
This criticism will either get to you, and you’ll bail out of the program, or you’ll learn to separate the valid criticism from the invalid criticism, a skill that will serve you well in any profession, in any discipline.
Yes, the academic job market is shit. Due to the high rate of graduating PhDs compared to the very few positions opening up in academia you have a few delightfully dystopian phenomena happening such as the following:
- Community colleges now feel entitled to fill their professor jobs with PhDs from elite institutions
- PhD holders are starting to need a Post Doc to be competitive – colleges benefit from this because a Post Doc will work their ass off in hopes of obtaining a “real position”. In turn, the college hosting them gets very high quality work for significantly less pay than they would give to an adjunct professor.
Despite this, overall career prospects for the PhD (particularly outside of academia) are better than their non-PhD peers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (US) – Education matters : Career Outlook: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics:
- The unemployment rate for PhDs is 1.7% – the rate of those with a Bachelor’s degree is almost double that. Getting a professional degree (Psy.D., J.D., M.D., etc.) only knocks that figure down by 0.2%
- Median earnings for a PhD are $84,396, compared to $59,124 for those with a Bachelor’s degree.
Whatever you end up doing with that fancy PhD – it’s pretty unlikely that you’ll be unemployed, and highly unlikely that you’re not going to make a decent salary.
What You Make It
At the end of the day – the PhD is a variable degree. Different institutions have wide-ranging ideas about what the focus of your research can potentially be on. In order to be competitive in the job market, you should be publishing, exhibiting your work, or whatever the equivalent of those things are in your discipline. For mine, in music for example, having pieces performed/on display was the fundamental currency of the degree.
There is a lot of potential free time during the PhD – you can squander it or use it wisely. Some ideas for maximizing your potential here:
- You’re being paid breadcrumbs for your teaching assistantships so don’t work a minute past the time that you’re contracted for. Do a good job.
- If you work on your degree alone, you’re doing it wrong. Have a side hustle. It will make you more attractive to non-ac employers after you graduate. Don’t blab about it to colleagues or professors.
- Don’t work on the weekends. No emails, no research, no writing, nothing! Spend the time with family and friends. Go do fun things. Get out in nature. Grad students that work all weekend become dimensionless automatons that are only capable of talking about work at social functions.
- Work regular hours during the weekdays. You probably won’t have classes all day – if you do, seriously consider switching institutions. Decide when you are going to write, when you are going to research, etc. Stick to your schedule. Be humble. Don’t expect to get more than 3 hours of high-order intellectual work done per day – most workers are only able to manage 2!
- Focus. When working work. When not working, don’t work. A big pitfall I’ve learned of while interviewing graduate students is that they delude themselves into thinking that they can work all day every day. They end up running at 20% capacity when working. Sure they can do this for 10 hours, but I’d rather go at 100% for three hours.
- Get into conferences – or whatever your tangible academic currency is. Put meaningful lines on the C.V. Only go to the prestigious conferences. Avoid graduate conferences – they are fun for socializing, but are mostly fluff that are irrelevant on the C.V. Aim high, and be focused.
I hope that this, and Don’t Get a PhD are helpful, especially if you’re about to sign onto a new university – that April deadline is approaching quickly!