Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Considering a Ph.D.?

Are you considering working toward a Ph.D.?


Okay, maybe that is over stating it a bit.... But not by much. If you are thinking about it, I suggest you consider the following.

I started my Ph.D. studies a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed student, eager to learn and be challenged intellectually. I was a combination of ignorance of the true workings of the Ph.D. machine and overly optimistic naivete about what I did know of the horror...
"I can do it!" "I can do anything for a few years!" "It can't be that bad! Right?"


It can be that bad and worse. It's going to suck, it's going to suck bad, and it's going to suck bad for a really, really long time.
-Your family and friends may forget what you look like and vice versa.
-You will gradually loose the ability to form coherent sentences both in writing and in spoken word (exhibit 1, this blog).
-Ah, um, yeah....what was I saying? (exhibit 2)
-You will also loose the ability to understand normal people when they speak. Instead, you will ask innocent and unsuspecting people what evidence do they have to back up their opinion that China Garden has the best Chinese food in town.
-Over time you will feel stupider and dumber, not smarter. Ever meet a Ph.D. who made you think, "Dang, they are dumb, how did the get a doctorate?" They were probably smart when they started and the process sucked brain cells and IQ points out of their head through either their nose or ears.
-You will note an increase in emotional lability to the point that you may think strange things are funny and you may cry in inappropriate places and at inopportune times.
-You may harbor strange fantasies about printing the picture of one or more of your comprehensive examiners or dissertation committee members from the university web site, and attaching it to a pinata (perhaps shaped like a chicken with yellow and red feathers...with the picture of their face right on the face of the chicken) and then going to town with a baseball bat. (Yes, that is a rather well developed plan. To answer your next question, no, not yet. But, I have a feeling it will be soon.)
Why? Why is it so bad you ask?
-Being intelligent will only get you so far. You have to know how to play the game. Deference, paying of respect, and yes, good old fashioned butt kissing. But, really, to a certain degree you have to have pity on the objects of your kissing up. Obviously they have been permanently damaged by their Ph.D. experience. This damage leads them to say things like, "Well, when I was doing my doctorate..." until you want to launch yourself over their desk and firmly grasp their throat between your hands. (At this point family and close friends will become concerned that you seem to be having a lot of rather violent thoughts.)
-Hard work will only get you so far. You can work as hard and as fast as you can and you will still be at the whim of others. I have waited as long as 13 weeks to get feedback from a committee member. I have been told to change "this" to "that" only to be later asked by the same person, 'Why are you using "that"? You should be using "this"!'
-The higher the degree level, the less organized and sensible the whole process is. Nobody knows what is going on, even the chair of the program. The "rules" can be changed on a whim. The format of my comprehensive qualifying exams (taken after all courses are finished but before dissertation) completely and significantly changed 6 weeks before the exams were to begin...I still get a tight feeling in my chest when I think about it.
-In short you must possess a very high degree of ability to put up with bulls**t.
-You will have almost no balance in your life. Most programs require a residency which consists of taking a full time graduate load (9 credits, usually 3 courses) for two semesters in a row. This is to demonstrate your "commitment to the program" (oh, it will make you feel like you need "committed" all right.)
I still haven't changed your mind?
That probably means that you are invested enough in the doctorate that when someone asks you why you want to pursue one that you can come up with an answer better than "It would be cool to be called doctor". If that is all you want I'd be happy to call you doctor for only, say 10% of the cost of tuition, and none of the mental anguish.
Some other, perhaps more serious, things to think about (though I do really kinda mean everything I have said so far):
-If you can be a full time student, with either a very low stress part-time job, or a graduate assistantship it seems to be a bit less stressful than working full time while pursuing the doctorate (though there is additional financial stress).
-If you are married I would think about it carefully. The divorce rate when one partner is in a Ph.D. program is around 80%. It seems the couples who I know who navigated the Ph.D. waters most successfully were both committed to the idea.
-If you have children I would think about it very hard. It is a major time, financial, and personal energy commitment.
-If you are a woman and have/want to have children I would suggest not doing it until your kids are older (older teens) or until after it becomes unlikely you will have a baby.
-In my observation it seems to work better when both mom and dad are not working full time while one of them is in school. I have seen that work in various configurations (dad works and goes to school, mom is a SAHM, or dad goes to school and works part-time and mom works part-time and they juggle the schedule, or mom goes to school and works full time, dad works part time and is available for the kids. etc).
-Before you start, think seriously about if you are willing to commit to finishing. Most people who start a Ph.D. never earn their degree. Most quit (I have fantasized about that too). It is an awful lot of work and time and money to waste to not finish. Count the cost before you start and save yourself a whole lot of anguish.
I think once someone finishes a Ph.D. they seem to forget about how awful it was in the process.
Either that or they lie about it in order to suck other unsuspecting victims into the machine. I guess I'll see when I am finished if I would say that it was worth it or not.
And, yes, I know this was pretty rant-ish. I do feel better now.


Anonymous said...

My bro-on-law is a supervisor for the custodian crew at a university where he works and he has no uni education. Some of the people working under him have Phds. There was an article I read recently where a Phd said the money isn't the greatest and it's not easy finding work. If I find the article I will give you the link. At least your article clarifies why some people who have smarts have lost their social skills.

Learner said...

Hi Norm,

I was thinking of talking about the type of PhD chosen, and whether or not it was worth if from a financial point of view. But, I didn't have anything solid to say about it, and I thought it was long enough :) A PhD in English, or ceramics etc is not very marketable at all.

The regulating body that governs my profession decided that within the next few years a certain % of the faculty at each school must have a doctorate, so I am in a much better position with one. In my field I will be paid more in my present position once I finish and will have greater opportunity for rank promotion. So, in that sense it is worth it for me. I'm still not sure if it was worth all the stress though!

MarkyMark said...

You know what Ph.D stands for, right? Piled higher & deeper-ha!

Learner said...


You sound like my dad!

He says a BS is bulls**t, an MS is more s**t, and a PhD means piled higher and deeper :)

Ame said...


i'm a huge fan of higher education for those who wish to pursue. i have three years of college with little on paper to show for it. i loved the college experience, but i hated taking classes and being evaluated all the time (ie, taking exams and writing papers)

i guess i like learning my own thing in my own way ... that, and i cannot justify the time or expense to get an art degree, especially at my age with the kids i have. certifications, perhaps, but not a degree.

have to say, though, i'm VERY impressed with what you do!

Elusive Wapiti said...

PhD == PHinally Done.

I thought about pursuing one as a full-time (not part-time) student.

Decided that vanity was a terrible reason to put myself through that much pain.

Roci said...

There would be a lot fewer MBAs if the entrance requirement was a return on investment (ROI) analysis of getting the MBA.

Learner said...

Ame- Like you, I just love to learn :)

I think experiential learning is just as valuable, if not more valuable than structured, formal education. Don't be too impresseed, remember, I'm the one who comes to you for advice because you are one of the wisest women I know :)

Learner said...

"Decided that vanity was a terrible reason to put myself through that much pain."

EW, that is a very wise choice! A few weeks ago I was updating my boss about my dissertation and I asked him if he thought it was worth it to him to get his PhD. He said "Oh yes, it makes you feel so good when someone calls you doctor". I thought to myself that he was either a masochist (spelling?) or crazy.

Learner said...


True. There would be a whole lot less college degrees in general if people did that kind of analysis. I am happy to teach in a program where all of my students can find a good job that pays enough when they are finished to pay back their loans (at least the tuition part) relatively quickly.

Ame said...

Learner ... awww shucks! :)

i'm still impressed ... not jealous, mind you, just impressed :)


Roci - "There would be a lot fewer MBAs if the entrance requirement was a return on investment (ROI) analysis of getting the MBA."

yeah ... but no graduate school would be gutsy enough to require such analysis!

i put my ex thru his mba when we were first married before emba's came along ... that sucked! he did great, but i hated every moment supporting us by myself. just not my thing. he'd have gone on to get his law degree if i could have done it. but putting him thru school was horrible ... he was obsessed with setting the curve and graduated top of his class. i rarely saw him.

that being said ... i would have done it all again b/c he loved what he was able to do with his mba ... it put him in a place where he was very naturally talented and gifted, so it was worth it.

Novaseeker said...

That was a pretty good rant, Learner, at least an 8 out of 10, perhaps even a 9 out of 10.

When I entered law school way back when I really hated it. Just the subject matter was really intellectually uninteresting to me at that point in my life. I called my thesis advisor from the school I had just graduated from and told him I wanted to switch to a PhD program. He sympathized with my disinterest in the law intellectually, but he dissuaded me very strongly from doing that, and told me to finish law school first and see how I felt then. I took his advice, somewhat chagrined, and later realized it was the right decision for me.

I love to learn as well, and spend a lot of my free time learning. But I also like the practice of law much more than I liked law school, at least in the area that I work in. So on balance it was the right direction for me. People have often asked me why I did not go into academia -- because I guess I come across that way for some reason in conversation -- but I'm fairly happy with how things turned out over all and I can't say I really regret not pursuing a PhD.

sestamibi said...

Um, I agree with you all the way, but wonder how you could pursue a Ph.D when you use "loose" for "lose" TWICE?!

Learner said...


Thanks, it did make me feel better to get that off my chest :)

I'm glad that you enjoy your practice more than you enjoyed law school. Could you teach law without a PhD?

I really enjoy teaching, and actually enjoy the research process too, so academia has been a great fit for me in terms of personal interest. It is a lot of work, but I find much of it fun. There is always some new way to challenge yourself so it doesn't get boring (at least after 6 years it hasn't). I think there are few types of work that are as flexible as well.

Learner said...


Hi, thanks for the comment.

I know, it is rather shocking that someone who scored in the 97th percentile for verbal reasoning on the GRE is not a good speller! I could blame it on the PhD dementia and call it ehibit 3. But the truth is I have never been a great speller. I often mis-spell lose/loose, though I tend to get they're/there/their correct! I am very thankful for spellcheck!

Amir Larijani said...

Degree hierarchy:

B.S.: Bull Shit
M.S.: More Shit
Ph.D: Piled High and Deep

I decided to stop at the MBA. I thought about maybe pursuing a PhD in economics, but then came to my senses as I looked at reality:

(1) I was 39 years old
(2) If I pursued it full-time, it would take at least 4 years.
(3) That would require me to sacrifice professional experience and earning power--and the compound interest advantage--for those 4 years.
(4) Realizing I was pushing 40, I decided I needed to have a life.

At the end of the day, I could not economically justify pursing the Ph.D., after considering the cost in financial and personal terms.

Besides, the academic world is another financial bubble waiting to happen, as universities are ever-reliant on more and more federal backing for student loans to keep the cash flow coming, in order to support cost structures that are unsustainable.

Even with fields such as engineering--where an American with a Ph.D. will go very far--a M.S. degree is plenty good.

Male Samizdat said...

I did one year of PhD work and hated it. Got out.

The best description of why graduate school is so arbitrary was given to me YEARS ago: You earn a bachelor's degree, but a graduate degree is bestowed on you.

Learner said...

Amir- You sound like my dad too! (though he has been very supportive of me in regard to education).

A PhD does not make a sense for a lot of people.

And, thanks for this:

"Besides, the academic world is another financial bubble waiting to happen, as universities are ever-reliant on more and more federal backing for student loans to keep the cash flow coming, in order to support cost structures that are unsustainable."

Heh ;) This does give me pause, but since I work at a relatively reasonably low priced state school in a program whose graduates have 100% employment, I am not as worried as I would be if I worked for a private school or more epensive school (who are really feeling the pinch in the ecconomic downturn).

Learner said...

oops, I means expensive, not espensive. For some reason I have to push the "x" extra hard on my laptop.

Learner said...

Hi MS,

I didn't hate the classes (me=nerd), it's just been the qualifying exams and dissertation that have become so painful.

"You earn a bachelor's degree, but a graduate degree is bestowed on you."

I have never heard that before, but it rings true in my experience too.

Novaseeker said...

"I'm glad that you enjoy your practice more than you enjoyed law school. Could you teach law without a PhD?"

Yes, law professors do not have PhDs -- well most of them do not. But that train has left the station for me, in any case, which is fine.

MJ said...

Most PhD programs in the U.S. tend to be too technical and just about citing sources. And they made it hard for the sake of making it hard. Usually PhDs overseas is much better system particularly Britain. In many PhDs overseas, it is tutorial style and your dissuatation is primarily an oral exam where the student has to verbally justify his dissertation without powerpoint,using direct quotation, and no printed out dissertation in front of them, none. The student has to just understand what his subject is and why did he focus on that area as a part of his dissertation.

Learner said...

Novaseeker, for a second I thought you said that brain has left the station, ha!

Learner said...


Thanks for the comment :)

One of my best friends did her PhD in Brittain. It was quite different (though hers was more of a philosophy/history degree and mine will be more of a science based degree). She took many fewer structured classes (only 1 full time year). But, her dissertation was a much longer process (her final version was around 400 pages).

Jesse said...

Sounds like this doesn't apply to you, but I read an article recently (probably linked from a blog so you may have seen it too) that discussed how getting a Ph.D. in science--once thought of as a noble pursuit--is such a bum deal these days. It basically entitles you to spend countless years in the limbo of post-doc world waiting for the rare tenure-track opening, and the market for those is so saturated with those in waiting that the jobs don't pay crap anymore anyway.

Engineering is similar in that the economics of getting a grad degree often don't justify the toil and years lost unless you actually enjoy it. Professors even told me that back in college, advice along the lines of "pursue a graduate engineering degree for something other than money, because if it's money you want then the industry experience is better and you should later pursue an MBA or some other non-engineering degree to further your career." Or something like that. One even joked that he'd be upset if any of his engineering economics students learned so little that they ended up in a Ph.D. program! Not that I ever wanted to suffer through more than the minimal amount of engineering school anyway (could someone please explain to me why the hell I ended up being an engineer?), so I never paid much attention to all that.

As for the money aspect, I think that has far more to do with "luck" and simply being in the right place/industry/company at the right time then most people realize. I'm living proof of that. But that's another discussion.

Novaseeker said...

"Novaseeker, for a second I thought you said that brain has left the station, ha!"

Heh, maybe I should have said that, too! :)

Learner said...


I read that article too (I think maybe at Vox's?). I think it is about supply and demand. Even with my current degree, an MS, I make more than PhDs do in other disciplines (biology or english for example) because of the demand for faculty in my discipline is so much greater. I also think that is because if I left academia I could work in a position in my clinical specialty making more money than I do now. English PhDs don't have those kinds of options.

Do you like being an engineer better than engineering school?

Jesse said...

Do you like being an engineer better than engineering school? .
Well, I guess the best way I can put it is, I don't dislike the work as much as I did the schooling. Work is less stressful without the exams and all, and I'm finally getting the hang of what I'm doing so it's not frustrating every day, but I can't say I enjoy it. I'm not really that gifted in it or great at it either, certainly not in school and not now. Thankfully, my field is booming at the moment so there's decent money to be made--the latter being unusual for engineering these days so I can't complain. It's not too bad as a means to an end, but I still count down the days until I jump into something else instead, whatever it ends up being.

Jesse said...

Wow, Blogger is really freaking out. I'm surprised that last comment got posted. Yay Google...how can such a successful company that no doubt recruits some of the best talent in the land be so freakin' hopelessly inept?? Them and Microsoft...


Learner said...


I hope you find something that you like to do.

I feel you blogger pain, rant on bro!