So you’re thinking about that PhD program…WHY?

I’ve not taught a course for a few years now, but I still have students contact me for letters of recommendation and advice about applying to PhD programs, internships, etc. My obvious first question to anyone interested in applying to a graduate program is: WHY? Why do you want to spend the next 5 years (+) working toward a degree that is shown by research to have diminishing financial returns?

I’m always surprised that some former students want to apply but haven’t really figured out why. I don’t write letters for these students. Applying to a PhD program because it’s a bad job market isn’t a legit reason either in my book.

There are the obvious questions: What do you want to to with that PhD? What’s your goal?

More than these questions, I challenge anyone considering PhD to think about a four questions:

(1) If you wish to pursue research, are you happy studying one very narrow topic? By that I mean, are you passionate enough to work on the same single question day in and day out for most of your career? The question may occasionally change, but the passion to commit to one topic for long periods doesn’t.

(2) Do you like working alone? The pursuit of a PhD is an inherently lonely process, as is the life of a researcher. Even if you work in groups and share your ideas regularly at conferences–the act of research, writing, and publishing is a singular exercise that usually means working on your own. It is especially important to have support networks in the early days of a PhD candidate’s life.

(3) Do you realize that having a PhD, especially the life of an academic, is not about sitting around thinking about big ideas all day? Academia and other outfits that hire PhDs are inherently political entities like any other job. Getting published, for instance, is a business just like Wall St is a business and often it’s just as much about who you know as the quality of your work. Blind peer review may give the discipline some integrity–but really at the end of the day we all know the game. You have to do good work, and do good networking.

(4) Have you thought about your work options both inside and outside of academia? This is a really important one, I think most applicants don’t fully consider. I know I didn’t. I thought all I would do/want to do would be to stay in academia. After a few years as a post doc, however, I realized that academia wasn’t for me. I think the bottom-line is to try to get a good understanding of just what it is people with PhD’s in your profession do in their day-to-day work.

I opted out of academia–for what the American Political Science Association (APSA) calls the “non-academic professional” route–aka the Blacklisted social science PhD–you know–(w/a whispering voice) that chick who chose to work as a consultant rather than to pursue the golden path of academia. I love teaching, but I also love working in international development. I love working on projects, where I can see real outcomes associated with the research work I do. Last year I took part in a panel  at APSA on non-academic professionals where I realized a few things.  Notably, there are a lot of us working PhDs out there, and having a PhD does yield a particular advantage in many professions. For instance, I find in my own work it helps to have the analytical skills acquired through my PhD program. These skills help in both asking important problem-solving questions that arise in many of the countries where I end up working, as well as in the day-to-day data analysis work. If I were going to go back and do everything again, would I do the PhD?  Absolutely.

At the same time, however, the tasks associated with most non-academic jobs–at least in the social sciences–can just as easily be done with a MA degree.   While it’s hard to weigh the costs and be benefits of going into a PhD program, it’s important to try.

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