4 Reasons You Shouldn’t Go For That Doctorate
One of the first questions you will be asked after completing your Master’s Degree is: are you going for the doctorate? Even in your own mind, it may seem the next logical step in your education. Investing the time, energy, and money into a graduate program is proof that your interest in the subject you studied is no passing fancy. Why not go on to get the gold seal of approval in scholarship: the PhD?
Obtaining a Bachelor’s is necessary for upward mobility, and a Master’s will take you up a few more levels. The Doctorate, however, is unnecessary for advancement in most fields or for advanced work in most subjects. For many, it has become instead an outlet for conscious and unconscious desires that have little to do with scholarship. They pursue it to feel like they’ve achieved something or because they mistake having intense interest in a subject with specializing in a very small sub-section of it.
The truth is you don’t need a PhD to do the things you’d like to. If you want to teach (even at the college level), a Master’s is sufficient. If you want to write a book on a subject in history, science, or art, then you should establish and maintain a relationship with the academic community at the university you graduated from; and exercise your rights as an alumnus to use the resources of the latter.
Expert knowledge and opinion is no longer the monopoly of the academy. The web makes peer-reviewed articles accessible to all. Major public libraries have become such rich sources of books, archives, and other research materials that many academics use them. There is also the sheer volume of books published regularly on subjects of every kind, which makes working as an independent scholar much easier.
You should harbor no romantic illusions about the general aim of the PhD program: it is to turn you into a professional researcher. Your particular interest in a subject is secondary to the long, laborious process of writing up a one-hundred thousand word dissertation on it, and then defending it.
Let’s say you’re prepared to go through such a crucible. There are other, more concrete, reasons why you should not follow up your Master’s with a Doctorate.
Getting a PhD is expensive. The average cost at a public university in 2007-2008 reached $23,200. Most universities offer doctoral candidates a stipend and a chance to earn money by teaching. You will also have the opportunity to apply for grants and fellowships. However, it is likely that you will still have to take out a loan. The costs of the program can add up quickly. In addition to tuition, there is usually a mandatory health services fee, food, accommodation (including utilities), books, supplies, and the need to travel from time to time to attend academic conferences.
If you are already dealing with the debt from your undergraduate and graduate degrees, you may want to consider whether you want to go into further debt with a degree program that could take 6 or 7 years to complete.
A great deal of your time as a PhD student will be spent doing the grunt work that your supervisor doesn’t want to. You may think playing the role of the apprentice a reasonable requirement to getting your degree. Unlike traditional apprenticeships, however, you will not be assigned tasks meant to educate you. You will instead be made to do the most mind-numbing chores without any acknowledgment, nor even a compensating opportunity to get involved with more interesting projects.
You will also have to maintain a constant guard against the poaching of your ideas. It too often happens in academia that dissertation supervisors use the research of their students without giving them credit. Because you are not published and have little influence in the department and no voice in the field, you will be forced to make a fuss to stop this from happening. Doing so will make you unpopular and may lead to a permanent rupture with your supervisor and a serious setback for your career.
Do not be fooled by the popular image of wise, old, kindly professors walking around campus. Politics in academia are as tough and brutal as they are elsewhere. You will be compelled to ingratiate yourself to the right people if you want to complete the degree and get recommendations for post-doctoral work.
If your intent in doing the PhD is to get a job as a member of faculty at a university, you need to know the cold truth: this is not likely to happen. The number of individuals in PhD programs far surpasses the number of jobs available. Between 2005 and 2009 America produced over 100,000 new doctoral graduates. In that same time, only 16,000 new faculty jobs were created. The recession of 2008 worsened this gap, as many professors who intended to retire stayed on.
Even if the numbers were better, it is still tough to secure a tenure-track academic job. Most universities have turned to part-time adjunct professors to teach their undergrads. As a new PhD, you will most likely be hired into this role, which requires you to put in long hours for very little pay, no health benefits, and none of the perks of being a full-time academic—time off for research, creating your own courses, advancing towards tenure. You will essentially be forced to work in a dead-end job that can in no way be considered a return on the investment you’ve made.
There is some question as to what you would really get out of a PhD. If you’ve done a Master’s, then you’ve successfully grasped the tenants of research and analysis. Writing a doctoral is only a kind of extended practicum in putting these tools to work. There is no reason that you cannot apply your intellectual acquirements to projects that you choose without becoming a member of faculty. Given the conditions described above, you are not likely to attain such a position anyway.
Doing a PhD is not the only way of enriching your mind and improving your ability as a thinker and writer. And having one does not mean you actually possess these attributes. The tremendous sacrifices required to obtain a doctorate are disproportionate to the rewards you can expect from it. The best way to make your final decision is to weigh carefully the conditions of your current life as a Master’s degree holder—the opportunities it provides you, the money it has cost you, etc.—against those of what it will take to get the PhD.
About Christopher Reid Chris was born in Washington, D.C. and lives in Britain. He works as a blogger, essayist, and novelist. His first book, Tea with Maureen, has just been published.