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What *is* a Ph.D.?

August 16, 2008

[Reposted from IFOV.]

I’m going to start by flipping this question on its head and say what a Ph.D. is NOT. A Ph.D. is not for everyone. That fact is not a statement about anyone’s intellectual capabilities, it is a statement about personality/disposition and life priorities. Having been deeply embedded in academia for the last 15 years (until very recently), first as a Ph.D. student and then as a faculty member/advisor, I’ve had the opportunity to observe a lot of people pursue doctorates in the geological/planetary sciences. During that time, I’ve come to realize that a significant number of people don’t completely understand what a Ph.D. in this field entails, and/or what kind of career/lifestyle they are being trained for. As a result, there are people who get into a Ph.D. program and end up unhappy. At that point, it’s very hard to decide to quit because of fear of feeling like or being perceived as a failure, and feelings of commitment to a project, advisor, parents, and self. So it’s important to know what a Ph.D. program is going to be like, what most schools/advisors think they are training students for/to do, and what the ultimate career objective is (these may differ in different fields). I haven’t seen much/any discussion on this topic (maybe I haven’t looked hard enough), but I think that there are aspects of it that may factor into other issues, such as why women leave academia, although this isn’t a gender-specific issue. In thinking about what I wanted to say here, I realized that there are many dimensions to this topic, too many for a single post. I hope then, that this will be the first in a series on what *is* a Ph.D. Although I expect that if my writings have any utility, it will mainly be for people considering grad school, I hope that in sharing some of my observations and thoughts, I can encourage others to ask questions or share their experiences and offer advice too. With that, let’s begin with today’s item:

1. A Ph.D. is a major commitment of time and mental energy. Don’t enter a Ph.D. program after college because you don’t know what else to do. For one thing, 5 or more years of crappy pay and eating cheap carbs isn’t nearly enough to make it worth it.

One of the things I’ve observed is that some people enter Ph.D. programs because they liked their major well enough, and just didn’t know what other options are available. This may be because their college advisors have not considered whether or not the student is personally suited to graduate school and did not encourage or present alternatives, or ask what the student’s true long-term career interests are (to the degree that the student knows). It may also occur because the student is feeling swept along at the end of college and hasn’t stopped to think about what kind of career and lifestyle they want, investigated other pathways/jobs in (or out of) their field of interest, or asked enough questions to understand what grad school life is like and the path it’s setting them on. If you’re a good student and enjoy what you’re doing, grad school may seem like the path of least resistance; “school” is something you’ve been doing for a quite a while now, and it seems like a known quantity, versus heading out into the job world. But it’s not the same kind of school, and it’s important to know that.

So, if you’re a college student (or even if you’re not) thinking about grad school, what should you do? Well, I’ve already said what I think may be some of the reasons why students not suited to Ph.D. programs end up in them, so you can probably predict some of what I’ll say.

If you’re thinking of getting a Ph.D., ask yourself why (what is your career objective, and do you need a Ph.D. to achieve it), and how excited you are about it. BE HONEST WITH YOURSELF. There’s nobody here but you and the computer. Is it because you love this field so much that you absolutely must spend every day of the rest of your life working in it at a high level? Is it because you’re not sure what your other options are and you think a Ph.D. sounds like a good idea, even if you’re not sure it’s what you want? If it’s the former, great. But keep reading. If it’s the latter, good for you for recognizing it. Everyone considering a Ph.D. should take the time to find out what other pathways to a career in your field are out there, especially if you aren’t sure if you’re up to the time and commitment of a Ph.D. There are many alternatives to the academic path, and they don’t all require a Ph.D. Talk to campus career counselors, do research online, call local professionals, and make contact with alumni from your department to find out whether what you want to do requires an advanced degree or not. Even if you think you might need a Ph.D., but you’re still not 100% sure you want to get one, try to find an internship while you’re still in school, or find an entry-level position after graduation that will give you exposure to the real-world work environment in your field. You might find that there are jobs in your field that you didn’t realize existed (and don’t require a Ph.D.). And taking a little time off between college and grad school can be a great thing (for one thing, you almost certainly won’t want to take time off after grad school – you’ll be too busy finding a postdoc or job). Trust me, the faculty reading Ph.D. applications will almost always show preference for an applicant who has taken the time to figure out that this *is* what they want, versus someone who’s fresh out of school and doesn’t seem to know where they’re going or why. Most advisors have been given funding to do certain research, and they want a student who’s going to be focused and productive; maturity and a true goal (not the one you drummed up for your essay, but a real, honest-to-goodness career goal) count. A lot.

Maybe you’ve given these things some thought, and think a Ph.D. might be for you. If so, it’s useful to consider the practicalities of what kind of work is expected in a Ph.D. program as well as what you’re going to be trained for and whether those things suit your personality and lifestyle. We’ll leave that for next time.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. kelsi permalink*
    December 7, 2008 6:12 pm

    I am glad this was posted, as a graduate student at the moment, I think it is hard to accept while you are in school that not getting your PhD is not failing. Even if you tell yourself that fact, it is good to be reminded! 🙂 I just passed my qualifying exams (for us that means we get our masters, but we are one of those “you get your masters along the way” schools) and I have to say that my attitude did change after that. I know that I worked really hard, and now I know more about what it will mean for the next 3-4 years while I get my PhD. I think the hardest part for me was figuring out if it was just a really steep learning curve, or if I grad school really wasn’t for me. And of course that is something everyone has to figure out given their situation…

    So for those still in grad school and still trying to decide if the PhD is right for you, perhaps it is one of those things that your attitude will change about as you proceed, or at some point something else will present itself as more important or interesting.

  2. Heather permalink
    September 5, 2008 11:21 am

    I thought about the PhD route. I started out looking at grad schools, but found that for the field I was most interested in, seismology, there were few places on the East Coast and I only got into one provisionally. I decided to stay at the university I got my BS at, with hopes to do well in a physics master’s program then maybe move on or find something I liked.

    I finally finished my MS degree with a thesis. The thesis was one of the reasons why I decided that there was no way I wanted to deal with a dissertation. The jobs I took during and after finishing my degree were more based on getting my foot in the door by who I knew, not what I knew. I realize that this is not true for every one.

    I enjoy what I do, though it really does not have much of a correlation to my BS degree and only remotely to my MS (surprisingly through my thesis). I wish that I actually ‘did’ science now, but where I work, the people who ‘do’ science have the PhD.

    I do not want to go back for the PhD. I am continuing my education still, but only for another Master’s. The time and emotional commitment, I don’t have for a PhD. My 5 month daughter is much more important. I don’t view my master’s as failures. I do sometimes wish I had tried for the MS in Seismology, but I don’t think I would be where I am today.

  3. September 3, 2008 11:54 am

    Interesting post. I became the first Masters with thesis in my astronomy department. I had decided that a PhD wasn’t for me. It was way too much work for a small return in terms of finding a good and happy career.
    I finished with my MS and found a job in astronomy. I have worked in astronomy for 12 years.

    I have to repeat what Susan K wrote: “Leaving after a Master’s was viewed somewhat as a failure”. I was the first person who went to the faculty and said “I want to END with a Master’s. I don’t want to the PhD, but I want the experience of a thesis.”
    In the past, if you failed the qualifier, you got a MS and was sent on your merry way while they worked with the serious students. I forced a change in the department.

    I also encourage people to consider a MS instead of PhD. But to not take it as a failure. It is hard work and just because you don’t do a full PhD thesis, you still are doing work at the graduate level and are experienced for the astronomy work force.

  4. Gretchen permalink
    August 21, 2008 10:52 am

    This would’ve been very useful for me before I went for a PhD. I, luckily, entered a Master’s only program and therefore knew that I wanted to get a PhD, although still wasn’t totally clued in. It has worked out and I’m doing what I want now, but there were definitely a few bumps along the way (mostly having to do with trying to balance work/life).

  5. Susan K permalink
    August 18, 2008 2:29 pm

    I went to grad school because I wanted to learn more – about an special area in geology (planetary geology) that I didn’t have any exposure to as an undergrad. That is a good reason to go to grad school, but not a good reason to get a PhD.

    I entered a PhD program – one where you get your Master’s “along the way”. Maybe I thought I wanted to teach – but of course no one ever told e the reality of the numbers – if you are in a program where advisors turn out even only 1 PhD a year, but doesn’t himself retire, um, where are the teaching jobs coming from?

    So for people like me, who enjoyed school and still wanted to learn more, I think maybe the message should be “get a Masters”. THAT is a portable degree – far more useful than a PhD in non-academic disciplines. But of course, at my school, leaving after a Masters was viewed somewhat as a failure. Even if you planned that from the start (because I don’t think they ACCEPTED you for just that).

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