General Education

Thinking About Getting a PhD? Ask Yourself These 7 Questions

Thinking About Getting a PhD? Ask Yourself These 7 Questions
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Dan Edmonds February 8, 2019

The opportunity cost of a Ph.D. program is substantial, and the pay-off (both financial awards and professional satisfaction) may fall well short of what you’d expect for the effort. Here are a few of the basic questions everyone should answer before starting a Ph.D. program.

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The opportunity cost of a Ph.D. program is substantial, and the pay-off (both financial awards and professional satisfaction) may fall well short of what you’d expect for the effort. Here are a few of the basic questions everyone should answer before starting a Ph.D. program.

1. What is the Required Investment?

The average time to complete a Ph.D. is around eight years. It’s rare that your stipend — the money provided by the institution for you to live on while you complete your degree — will be guaranteed past four to five years. And that stipend itself often allows for a barely subsistence-level standard of living.

The effort to complete a Ph.D. is vast, and you will often find that the guidance you receive along the way can be insufficient. You may largely be left to your own devices to navigate the often byzantine world of academia and figure out how to build a CV that might lead you to a career when you complete your degree.

Make sure that you are prepared for the investment—time, effort, and opportunity cost — required to pursue a Ph.D.

2. What Does Success Look Like for You?

To a large extent, this depends on how you define success. Is success the completion of the Ph.D.? Only about 50 percent of students complete their degrees. Is success getting a job in academia? The news isn’t spectacular on that front, either.

The simple fact is that the job market for Ph.D.s is weak, and has been getting steadily weaker for decades. Universities are shifting an ever-increasing proportion of their teaching load to graduate students and adjunct professors (non-benefited, temporary faculty).

Departments are being cut, distribution requirements reworked, and faculty teaching loads increased, all to the end of requiring fewer tenured professors, particularly in the humanities and social sciences.

Departments are increasingly looked at in terms of their profitability, a lens through which more theoretical departments or departments whose applicability to the job market is less immediately obvious, will invariably suffer. This makes future prospects for academic work in those fields bleak.

It’s important that you go into a Ph.D. program with a clear notion of the job market for graduates with your degree. Weigh those job prospects carefully against your desire for the degree, and ask yourself whether you’ll be content with putting the time and effort into a Ph.D. that may ultimately not lead you to gainful, long-term employment.

If you define success in terms of personal accomplishment — the work you’ll be doing, what you’ll learn, the connections you’ll make — there is a great appeal to many Ph.D. candidates to spending several years being paid to study what they love, even if they fail to obtain a tenure-track (or similar) job on graduation. If you can afford to spend several years following your intellectual passion, there’s a great deal to be said about doing so in the context of a Ph.D. program.

Note: I spent six years in a Ph.D. program in Comparative Literature, didn’t complete my dissertation, and don’t regret the decision one bit. But I also spent those years developing other job skills and professional talents which allowed for a seamless transition into the professional world when I decided academia wasn’t a route I wanted to follow.

3. What Are Your Research Interests?

Ph.D. programs are all about match-making: there must be a good match between the prospective student and the department. Before you even begin your search, you need to know the sub-field within your discipline you want to specialize in.

This is important for two interrelated reasons: firstly, one of the most important pieces of the Ph.D. application is the statement of purpose. In your statement of purpose, you will need to clearly and thoroughly articulate your research interests and how these relate to your future career.

Secondly, many departments make admissions decisions at least in part based on how well your research interests fit with those of their faculty. Failure to articulate a clear vision of your research interests will probably result in a failure to find a faculty champion, which in turn will greatly reduce your chances of admission.

You should use your research interests as one of the principal methods to determine which Ph.D. programs to apply to. Find departments that are known to be strong in the sub-field you want to study. Do research to determine which professors are doing the most interesting work in your field, where those professors are currently working, and the general reputation of the departments that employ those professors. This process should allow you to make a list of schools that are a strong fit for your research interests, which means that they are the schools most likely to accept you, assuming you meet their academic criteria.

4. How Closely Will I Work With Professors?

A big part of success in academia boils down to getting your work heard at conferences and published (first in journals and later as books).

Having a faculty mentor can help you in the process in a number of ways. A good mentor will offer advice on what conferences to send papers to, will help you to revise those papers for conference acceptance and eventual publication, will connect you to other scholars interested in the same research area, and may even give you a chance to help with her research (which can lead to author credits on a more established scholar’s work).

Get a sense from the departments you apply to on how common this kind of faculty mentoring is, what kind of guidance the department offers to help you learn to navigate the world of academia, and whether you’ll have the opportunity to work with more established scholars on their research.

Finally, especially in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) fields, you should get a sense of what extent you’ll be expected to do your own original work as part of your degree, and to what extent you’ll be expected to put your efforts towards furthering the research of an established professor. This varies from program to program, and will impact your application to a given program (especially how you frame your statement of purpose).

5. How Does Funding Work at Each Program?

Determine what kind of funding you can expect from each program. Are all students fully funded, or is funding competitive for some students? How many years is the funding guaranteed? What is expected in return for your funding? Are you allowed to work while you’re in the program?

Here’s a more in-depth discussion about graduate school funding.

6. What Do Outcomes Look Like for Each Program?

Outcome data is extremely important, especially for degrees that have limited utility outside of academia. You may want to ask questions such as:

  • How many years does it take the average student to complete a Ph.D.?
  • What percent of students actually complete the degree?
  • What percent of students end up employed in tenure track jobs or full-time research jobs, and at what universities and companies?

7. What Jobs Outside of Academia Can This Degree Help Me Get?

The academic job market is rough right now. Look into what jobs your degree can help you get outside of academia. Ask departments about non-academic placement for their grads. Have an exit plan in case academia doesn’t work out, and try to find a department that can help you find a good job outside of academia.


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