To PhD or Not to PhD…

Just fyi, this is from my perspective, so it’s most relevant to a PhD in the social sciences. Some of it will be relevant for the humanities and hard sciences, but not all. Keep in mind that I jumped ship from the humanities to join social sciences! Also, this doesn’t directly address the issue of: should academic librarians get PhDs? I’ll tackle that in a later post.

I’ve been asked this question by a number of people, primarily academic librarians but also friends working in other areas of university campuses. It’s a difficult question, and I’ve changed my mind on how I answer many times over the past five years. Many times friends or colleagues have said “I admire you for getting a PhD, you’re so smart!” and my inevitable response has been, “no, you’re the smart one, for not getting a PhD! Don’t get one unless you absolutely have to.” And that’s somewhat how I still feel, but it’s complicated. For a survey of my past thoughts on the matter, see this slew of previous posts:

First, ask yourself some questions.

  • Do you like school? I mean, really really like school? Do you like learning in a lecture format, or even better, do you like reading a bunch of material and then coming together with like-minded nerds to passionately discuss your thoughts on it? (Even if you hated your undergrad but loved discussion-based masters’ courses, you’re probably a good fit for a PhD.)
  • Are you superb at delaying gratification? Like, for yeeeeeaaarrrs?
  • Do you have a clear goal in mind to keep you focused on WHY you’re getting the degree? (This might change with time, but it helps to have a really, really good reason for getting it to begin with.)
  • Are you excited about performing original research (either with original data or secondary data)?
  • Do you like reading and writing? A LOT?
  • Are you highly opinionated about the topic you wish to study? Do you find yourself engaging family and friends about it? Do you voluntarily read articles or books on the topic? (Look: if you don’t like reading research articles, you should really just stop reading the rest of this post and make a better use of your time and money than a doctorate.)
  • Do you stay late at work (or conferences, or classes, etc.) to talk to colleagues about issues related to the topic?
  • Do you like theory, scientific observation, survey variables? Are you excited by assessment? Do interviews and focus groups intrigue you?

Now, there are some exceptions:

  • You don’t have to love math or statistics. Yeah, it helps, because you’re going to have to wade through a lot of statistics courses and quantitative research, but you can muddle your way through if you’re determined.
  • You don’t have to enjoy writing, per se, but you need to be disciplined enough to do it anyway. If you like talking to others about research, you can practice at translating that vocalization into writing until it becomes habit.
  • Maybe you’re not excited about the prospect of research itself, but do you have lots of questions that you want to answer? Might those be… research questions? Then you’re set!
  • Don’t really understand what “theory” is or why it’s important? To be honest, neither did I–but you’ll figure it out eventually.


It’s going to take a long time. It might only take you four years, if you’re ridiculously fast, or six years, if you’re fast, or 8-10 years if you’re realistic. Even if it only takes four years, it’s going to FEEL like it takes 10 years.

Remember that social life? Family obligations? Having a clean house and laundry? Time for home-cooked meals and leisure reading? You’re either going to forego all that or never sleep. Probably a combination of both.

Your best friends, spouse, etc. may not understand this nerdy passion that’s overtaken you. It’s okay. They still love you, and they’ll be great to hang out with when you need a break.

If you’re working full time, beware. This is going to be like adding another full time job to your schedule. You’ll spend most evenings and weekends on homework. Family reunion? You’ll be the person reading a statistics textbook in the corner. When you finally look up from that book, your nephews might be five years older and a foot taller–take it from me. And your professors won’t have much sympathy, even when you’re taking a full class load.

You’re going to feel like you’re going crazy. In fact, you may at some point need counseling, medications, or a support group to get you through it. It’s okay. It’s rough, it’s a ton of pressure, and sometimes the only thing that keeps you going is knowing that your classmates are going through the same misery.


After reading that, I kind of wonder if anyone would ever believe that I highly endorse getting a PhD! I do, but only with the clear-eyed understanding of what you’re getting into. It’s not something to get into because you want the title of “Dr” or because the faculty schedule looks appealing. You have to be passionate and determined to the point of pig-headed to make it through this process.Β  I can’t easily put into words the amazing rewards I’ve had throughout this process, but I’ll try.

Confidence: I have grown personally more than I could have dreamed. I’m confident about myself as a scholar, an independent researcher, as a woman, as a leader. I have seen myself torn down to my knees and built back up again. I feel like I can take anything that life chooses to dish out at me.

Camaraderie: This gives you the slightest inkling into what soldierly bonds must be like. Times of extreme stress sure can band people together–forming a small study group, learning community, writer group, whatever, is imperative to surviving the doctoral process, learning at a higher level, deepending the rigor of your research and thought, and forming some amazing friendships.

Critical Thinking: Granted, most of us that have made it to any level of graduate study are pretty comfortable with this skill. But learning statistical analysis and how to critique the validity and reliability of a survey instrument take this to a new level. You find yourself reading all kinds of information and probing for the flaws in the argument, the authenticity of sources.

(Believe it or not, this alliterative listing was not on purpose. Talk about doctoral training! Years of alliterative lists and paper titles do a number on your brain, I guess!)

Risks & Costs:

Failure: This is a huge one for me, particularly as I’m at the dissertation part of the equation, the point at which most PhD students fail. Seriously, as intensive as all that coursework is in terms of academic work and the amount of time it takes in your schedule, nothing compares to the difficulty of self-motivation to execute, complete, and write up an original research project. You have to want the PhD badly enough to look realistically at the failure outcomes, and be willing to take that risk of being a lifetime ABDer… because you know you want it badly enough to push through and finish.

Relationships: This process will profoundly affect your relationship with your family, friends, and significant other. This will suck for them, too. Are you willing to put those relationships through it? Are they supportive and fully aware of what this process will demand from you? Are those relationships strong enough to be put through that? Is your partnerable and willing to take more than his/her fair share of childraising duties? Will your friends still be waiting to hang out with you in six years?

Health: Mental and physical health take a huge toll. Exercise and healthy eating are often the first victims of an over-full schedule. Make this a priority from the get-go, but realize that no matter how hard you try, you’re going to feel the effects at some point.

Financial: It’s a costly venture. Be sure it’s worth the monetary cost: will your earning potential raise enough to justify the cost of the degree? If not, areΒ  you okay with that?

Time: Even more than the money, is the value of all that time you’ll put into this. Take a hard look at what you want out of this degree: is it really worth a decade of your time? What could you be doing with that time instead: raising a family, writing a novel, moving up in your career, saving for retirement…?

This is a grim picture. The truth is that getting my PhD has been and continues to be one of the most rewarding experiences in my life. Part of the reward has been because it’s been such a hard-scrabble battle of an academic experience, but mostly it’s been because I am a dyed-in-the-wool nerd that is passionate about higher education, and this experience has not only taught me about that topic, but brought me into deep discussions with fellow educaiton-passionate nerds. Even if I decide not to work in higher education administration, not to become faculty or a researcher or even a librarian anymore, I will not count this time and money as wasted. It’s taught me so much!

What are your thoughts on the pros & cons of PhDland?

Why did/are you getting one, or why did you decide not to?


12 thoughts on “To PhD or Not to PhD…

  1. Colleen S. Harris says:

    I left my first PhD program because I realized that while I loved reading and discussing the topic (international relations) into the wee hours with bright folks, I had zero desire to do a dissertation research project on it. None. This is a huge problem, since that’s what the PhD really means. (Loving the readings and discussions is really a master’s degree qualification, imo. And so I’ve successfully collected a bunch of those.)

    Something I wish I had read in my first PhD program experience is this: going into a PhD program hoping you’ll eventually have a dissertation topic hit you over the head is Not Good Enough. This time, on my second go-round (in a different discipline, for an EdD in Learning & Leadership), having a good direction for the dissertation has actually been fabulous with keeping me on track with coursework and the papers I write for classes, since I know it’ll feed into that ultimate project.

    I’m concentrating on the fact that this degree will qualify me for the job I really want, and (particularly crucial for me given the investment of time and effort) that my dissertation will actually have useful, practical results in the real world. (I never felt that my IR work would actually have an impact on foreign policy, and that was another thing that helped me make the decision to wash out.) I’m getting one because I would be a fantastic teacher, because this research needs to be done (and if I’m going to do the research agenda anyway, it may as well come with the spiffy honorific), and because I’m a big ole nerd and can’t keep myself from wanting to stay in an academic learning community that isnt strictly work.

    Also, although going ABD the first time around is probably one of my biggest shames (I know it shouldn’t be, but it is), that experience was invaluable in teaching me what stressors and pitfalls I should avoid, and which ones I should expect as unavoidable. It taught me what to look for in a program, knowing my own support needs. In essence, it made me ready for this go ’round. (I’d never recommend going ABD just to learn that, of course. But it did offer me some advantages over folks coming in blind.)

    I used to laugh at a faculty member who once told me “A PhD is not a sign of massive intelligence, it is a sign of massive persistence,” but now i agree with the sentiment πŸ™‚

    • Starr Hoffman says:

      Yayyy, Colleen, I knew you’d have an insightful comment to add! Thanks for the contribution, especially the ABD perspective.

      I agree, I went into this program having a pretty good grasp on my dissertation research area, though not the exact topic, and shaping all my research and assignments toward that has been extremely helpful–it sure makes the lit review portion less intimidating!

      Yes: PERSISTENCE is so key.

  2. Starr Hoffman says:

    Let me also give, again, HUGE thanks to my husband in particular, who has been tremendously supportive of the very idea of me getting the PhD, and has been encouraging throughout the process.

    Also, huge thanks to all the friends, family, and coworkers who valiantly continue to believe that one day I’ll finish and be around again! I appreciate it. More than you know.

  3. Miranda Bennett says:

    Here’s another c-word for your list of rewards: credibility. If you work in higher ed, the PhD is the coin of the realm, and sharing a degree and title with your faculty colleagues can get you a level of respect you might not otherwise enjoy. They know that you know what a doctorate really signifies (totally agree with the persistence comment!), and it’s just sort of nice not to feel obligated to correct people when they refer to you as “Dr.”

    I went straight from undergrad to a humanities PhD program and then to library school, and, looking back, I’m not sure what I was thinking. The opportunity to complete a doctorate was a privilege and very personally rewarding, and I know the PhD on my CV has opened professional doors for me, but I’m *so* glad I did it when I was a single, child-free twenty-something!

    I wish you all the best in your dissertation research and the preparations for your big move. I hope you’ll continue blogging from Ukraine!

    • Starr Hoffman says:

      Wonderful point, Miranda–I think you’re right, credibility in higher ed can be a big plus–but I think it also highly depends on the type of academic library (and the type of position) in which you work… but then I’ll blather on about that in a later post. πŸ˜‰

      Thanks for sharing your experience! Like you, I’m glad that I kind of barreled into graduate school and haven’t looked back–I’ve been enrolled continuously in college since 1995 when I began my undergrad, and I think that momentum has been part of what’s enabled me to keep going through two masters and this doctorate… that, and the lack of kiddos at home, you’re right!

      Thanks for the well-wishes, and I’ll definitely keep blogging from Ukraine, probably with a little more regularity. πŸ™‚

  4. Jeremy says:


    Really enjoyed reading this piece. Found your thoughts to be accurate and on point. Wouldn’t change my choice to pursue the degree, but do think prospective students need a drive that overcomes a realistic presentation of the pursuit. You do need relationships strong enough to bear the strain, and, of course, you just have to be a little bit crazy (in a good way)!

    I too have made it through the coursework, am currently in the process of comprehensive exams (written completed/pending, qualifying paper in process, oral in the coming weeks), and preparing for the dissertation. The goal is to defend in time to graduate next May.

    Hope you are well and our paths will cross at ASHE again one of these days. Good luck on your research!

    All the best,

    • Starr Hoffman says:

      You are so right–being a little crazy helps! Good luck on your qualifying paper and orals; sounds like you should be setting out on your dissertation right when I hope to defend my proposal–we’ll be in it together!

      We’ll definitely see each other at ASHE again; I won’t be able to attend this year, but I’m hoping to come in either 2012 or 2013. That was a fabulous conference. Good luck!!

  5. Momo says:

    Being a lot crazy helps even more!!! Fortunately you come by this honestly. I think your Dad’s side of the family are the over-acheivers…so I can smuggly say….NOT MY FAULT!!! Love ya anyway, Momo

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