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. 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, are 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?