So You Think You Want to Get a Ph.D.?

[The following editorial was written for my college’s student paper, The Thoma; the target audience includes those undergraduate students who think a Ph.D. is just like any other professional credential, who might balk at the amount of work required, and who think it will automatically lead to a university post. Special thanks to Allison Montello, Public Editor of The Thoma, for inviting me to contribute this piece.]

So, you think you want to get a Ph.D.?

No, you don’t. Trust me.

Although I loved grad school, most of the people who tell me they want to get a Ph.D. don’t know how much work it requires or how much risk it involves. Here’s a little about what it is like.

After completing my bachelor’s degree I decided to go for a Ph.D. I applied to a grad school where I could get my master’s and was accepted. There I took three courses a semester, and each course required 75 to 150 pages of reading each week (and the assignments were always from difficult books). Most courses required a number of writing assignments throughout the semester, and almost always a 20 to 30 page research paper at the end. I had to do this for four semesters, and also had to pass four comprehensive exams—each of which lasted 3 to 4 hours, and which were based on a long list of books (the typical exam study guide had 20 or 30 books on it).

So, after this two year program, I applied to seven doctoral programs, was accepted into two, but only one offered me a scholarship—so I went to Syracuse University. This required two more years of coursework, involving the same sort of work as the master’s courses. By the end of coursework I also had to pass two exams demonstrating competency in German and French—I had to show that I was capable of reading scholarship in these languages. During the third year I studied for my four doctoral exams. This time the exams were 8 hours long and for each I basically had to type up a 15 to 20 page paper during the exam. And this time the reading lists for the exams had 30 or 40 books each on them—which is why it took a whole year to prepare.

By now I was five years past undergrad—two years for a master’s degree, two years for doctoral coursework, and a year for doctoral exams. Now I had to write a proposal for my dissertation—I had to say in 30 or 50 pages what my final thesis would be about. I took several months to research for and write this proposal, and then it had to be defended before a faculty committee for about an hour and a half—this is called a “prospectus defense.” Once I passed the prospectus defense I had to write my dissertation. It’s a book length project; mine was a little over 300 pages, and it took me about a year and a half. Once complete, this has to be defended before another faculty committee—this is called the “dissertation defense.”

Along the way you can face difficulties such as losing the opportunity to have children. It’s difficult to complete a Ph.D., and having a baby can end it or delay it for years. Many have to make a choice between their degree or their desire for children, or choose both but end up finding themselves “held back” while their colleagues advance ahead of them in the competition. Sadly, given the fact that the burden of child rearing falls primarily on women in our society, women often bear the brunt of the responsibility for this.

So I was in graduate school for approximately 7 years—and I finished quicker than most of my friends. Unfortunately, the job market is absolutely terrible for people with Ph.D.’s in the humanities (English, history, religion, philosophy, etc.). I was on the job market for about three years (like most people, I started applying for jobs before I was finished with my Ph.D., in anticipation of completing it). I probably applied for 50 or 70 jobs across those three years, and only got 3 or 4 interviews—and only one job offer. I love my job and couldn’t be happier, but many of my friends were not as lucky. The problem is that more Ph.D.’s are produced than there are jobs. In my field, religious studies, there are usually 2,000 or 2,500 people looking for jobs each year, and only 300 or so job openings. Note: that means something like only 15 to 20% of people get a job in each year’s cycle, and 80% or more walk away without a full-time job, only to re-enter the job market the next year. Statistics show that in some fields, like English, apparently 40% to 50% of people never get a full-time faculty job, and end up leaving the field altogether.

Of course, if you do get a job, you have to be willing to move to wherever. My friends from Syracuse University now work in Ohio, Arkansas, the Carolinas, or in other countries—not because they were looking for jobs in those regions but because the choice was between those jobs or unemployment. Some end up having to take temporary 1-year positions—moving their whole family to, say, Kentucky for a single school year—and then found themselves unemployed again at the end of that year.

So, you think you want to get a Ph.D.? Are you willing to go to school for the next 7 to 10 years? Are you willing to accumulate thousands of dollars of student loan debt? Are you willing to give up having a family? Are you ready to read 400 to 600 books and write 1,000 to 2,000 pages worth of essays? And, at the end of it, are you willing to face the possibility of having to move to North Dakota or be unemployed?

As I hope is clear, getting a Ph.D. is not at all like getting a simple professional credential—it’s a major life choice. You might be up for the challenge—I honestly did love grad school—but you should know something about the challenges you’ll face. A professor at my undergrad offered me great advice that I didn’t take but probably should have: “Don’t pursue a Ph.D. unless you can’t imagine yourself doing anything else.”

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6 Responses to So You Think You Want to Get a Ph.D.?

  1. Great post. Thanks for saying it. Congratulations on the landing of an academic post. I didn’t go to the effort you did, and I have obviously no position.

    “Don’t pursue a Ph.D. unless you can’t imagine yourself doing anything else.” The only person that can justify doing a PhD in today’s market is someone with independent wealth. I don’t think anyone who doesn’t have extensive investments or family wealth should consider it, unless they have a full-ride scholarship that for all intents and purposes is like having a low-paying job. To go into debt to do a PhD is a very ill-advised move, particularly for those who live in countries where one cannot file for bankruptcy for student loan debt.

  2. Philip L. Tite says:

    Thanks for this post, Craig. Nicely done. As a follow up to Peter’s comment, I think he’s in part correct that only the financially well off can afford graduate school these days. But I’d extend that to even the Master and undergraduate levels. When the economy tanked in 2008, for example, I watched students from even well off families struggling to pay the school bills and I wondered about people like me who worked our way through school with very little resources. Can someone from a lower to lower middle class family pursue an education, let alone a doctorate? It seems to me like higher education is increasingly becoming, once again, the domain of the wealthy. Your post also raises the question whether higher education (including the PhD) is primarily “job training” or rather is designed to produced critical thinkers. In other words, I think something is broken in our educational systems.

  3. Matt Sheedy says:

    Great post indeed. While I take this to be a cautionary note for those thinking about taking the plunge–and one that I wish that I had been given so as to be better prepared to go down this road–what seems to be missing here is the political end, as alluded to in the other comments. Perhaps that’s not the point given the intended audience here, but it begs the question as to how we confront the technocracy, “job training” shift within the University, a point clearly argued in Bill Readings The University in Ruins. Add to that the failure of the humanities in general to make their value clear to the general public (which is never an easy task nor a one way street) and it’s no wonder that the neo-liberal axe is cutting us off at the knees!

  4. Mike O'Grady says:

    Net Worth Analysis:

    Student debt from undergrad + PHD = $100,000
    Plus, it takes up 11 years of your life.
    Net worth of a PHD at age 30 (-$100,000)
    If you get a well paying job or academic post immediately & pay off $100,000 over the next 10 years you will be worth $0 when you are 40 – then you manage to save $10,000 per year & earn 5%; when you are 50 you have a whopping $110,000

    If you got a job at McDonald’s for $10 an hour at age 19 and saved only $80 (10%) every 2 week pay check (at 5% interest) you would have $30,000 & at age 40 you would have $77,000, and at 50 it would be $154,000

    So, you would break even with the burger flipper around age 56 or so.

    Don’t get me wrong, neither of these are 100% accurate, and neither are financially impressive, but you get the point. You better love learning, thinking & teaching, cuz the money is in burgers!

  5. Even if you "can't imagine" yourself doing something else . . . says:

    . . . start doing so anyway. Seriously. There are many careers that will stimulate your mind and/or let you indulge in your passion for literature/history/art/whatever on the side.

    The problem with saying you should only do a PhD if you “can’t imagine doing anything else” is this: many of the people contemplating doing a PhD have never *done* anything but school. If you’re a 22-year-old college senior who has enjoyed all the intellectual and social aspects of your undergraduate education, then of *course* it can be difficult to imagine doing anything other than continuing that education.

    But the truth is, even if you “can’t imagine” anything else at 22-years-old, you’re damn well going to wish you had tried once you’ve put in a decade of your life into getting a PhD and come out the other end with crippling debt and the only jobs you have shots at are those you were qualified for before you got your PhD.

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