In the past year we’ve noticed a lot of bad press about PhDs. Comments and criticism have been abundant and wide-ranging, often highlighting how difficult and pointless it can be to go through graduate school. From what we’ve seen in the news and heard from students, a PhD can be:
– A waste of time and money.
– Not much of an advantage over only getting a BA or MA, unless you really want to be a professor.
– High stress throughout the process, with risk of depression and burnout.
– Exhausting. Many PhD candidates are overworked and tormented by their supervisor.
– Not always fruitful. Even if you do want to be a professor, finding an opening can be very difficult and many end up being post-grads for years, or even their entire career (if they stay in academia).
So, with all this criticism, is there a point in going through with a PhD? The goal of this blog is not to give you an answer, but to highlight some of the difficulties that may arise, and help you gain a better perspective on some of the obstacles you may face. Hopefully, by having a better idea of what struggles you may encounter, you will be able to make a more informed decision and make sure, if you do decide to go through with one, that your supervisor and the programme are both a good fit. That way, when some difficulties do arise, you will know that overcoming them is worth the effort.
Challenge 1: unless you want to be a professor, it may not be worth it.
The New York Times published The Disappearing American Grad Student about a year ago, discussing how (especially in the STEM fields), although 80 percent of students are from United States at the undergraduate level, at the graduate level the number is reversed: About 80 percent come from foreign countries such as India, China, Korea and Turkey. The article argues that several factors contribute to the gap. But that “a major one is the booming job market in technology. For the most part, Americans don’t see the need for an advanced degree when there are so many professional opportunities waiting for them”. The same is likely true in Europe. Many students who chose to study in their home country, see little value in going on to get a PhD, since they can likely get the job they want without one. Of course, only if their dream job is not in academia.
Challenge 2: some universities care more about cheap labour than launching academic careers.
A recent Guardian article (They called my university a PhD factory – now I understand why) published just last week, highlighted the struggles of a PhD candidate. This anonymous academic discussed how it’s already an oversaturated market where too many people graduate with similar accomplishments, only to apply to the occasional openings. As he puts it: “when permanent jobs come up, the ensuing feeding frenzy sees hundreds of applications from superbly qualified candidates. I’ve got peer-reviewed publications and a book contract – and so has everyone else”. He goes on to explain how before choosing his programme, he thought his university’s reputation as being a “PhD factory” was a sign of its efficiency. However, he soon came to realise that PhDs are manufactured and no one cares what happens to the students once they graduate. “All universities care about are the fees paid by students and the cheap labour they provide. This is the opposite of efficiency: no factory would mindlessly churn out goods that no one wants”. But despite this, he still believed that he could be lucky and make it, achieving the dream career he set out to do. Like any profession that comes with uncertainty, such as musicians, actors and artists, there are many willing to continue to pursue their dream, even though they may not achieve it fully. Although he concludes that he is happy to have tried being an academic, he ends with “I can see that the PhD production line is broken, and it won’t be fixed any time soon”. This article clearly painted a grim picture of setting out to do a PhD, and seems to advise not to, unless academia is your dream and you are willing to lead a more uncertain career.
Challenge 3: the psychological stress you may endure.
The final point I would like to mention regarding the challenges of a PhD is the mental toll it has on many students. Although all prospective candidates are aware that a PhD is hard and is meant to be, many don’t realise how emotionally difficult it can get. As Dr. Jennifer Walker, puts it in the article: There’s an awful cost to getting a PhD that no one talks about: “The days I spent pursuing my PhD in physics were some of my darkest. It wasn’t the intellectual challenges or the workload that brought me down; it was my deteriorating mental health. I felt unsupported, isolated and adrift in uncertainty. Anxiety attacks became a part of my daily life”. Although Jennifer does not go on to have a career in academia, she was able to complete her PhD, with the help of a therapist, and believes that graduate school developed her inner strength and gave her the courage to mould a life of her own.
Although you may be now thinking, considering all these challenges, is there really any point in even considering graduate school? The answer is yes. For some of you, yes. Although mental health challenges are common, having “an inspirational supervisor partially offset these risks. So did interest in an academic career, even among students who thought they had little chance of ultimately making it. Seeing a Ph.D. as good preparation for a non-academic career and an added value for employers was also beneficial”. The article Ph.D. students face significant mental health challenges goes on to explain, as long as someone has a clear idea of the future they want and the path they will lead, then they can get through any challenge that may arise. This is true for anybody, not just PhD candidates. It’s important to know yourself and take the time before you start any path to figure out what drives you and what motivates you to keep going. Of course, there may not be an easy answer… yet. Anything worthwhile in life takes hard work. That’s why it’s so important to take the time to assess and reassess what your goals are.
Although this blog covered some heavy topics and serious challenges that a potential PhD candidate may face, in the end going into academia may be a perfect fit for you and the best decision you will ever make. The blog, Should I do a PhD? Top 5 reasons a PhD is a Good Idea, by Dr. Jain, an MIT PhD graduate, highlights the top 5 reasons for getting a PhD and explains why it can be an incredibly valuable achievement. He believes graduate school is worth it if: you have an irrational LOVE for research, you enjoy challenging assumptions, you know exactly why you want a PhD, you have a desire to invent and you enjoy the learning-teaching process.
If you take away anything from what you have just read, it would be to make sure you are honest with yourself before making any big decisions. This may sound obvious, but it’s especially crucial when it comes to decisions that will affect your life path and will demand considerable dedication and hard work to get through. Once you know what you want out of your career, any challenge you will face will be surmountable. You will know deep down why you are doing it, and therefore will have the determination and energy to achieve it. Even if it does end up being a PhD.
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