Don’t get that doctorate!

Three people I know have expressed an interest in going back to school to get a doctorate in their respective fields. My private reaction in each case was: “Are you crazy?” These are people with good jobs, possibly even tenure and pensions — and they want to go back to eating macaroni and cheese?

From a strictly financial perspective, getting a doctorate isn’t a good idea. It takes you out of the workforce for at least five years; most people I know have taken eight (because they’re trying to earn a living while they work on their dissertation, which stretches things out even more).

That’s a long time not to be at full salary (for people making a teacher’s or bureaucrat’s salary, the best-case scenario — tuition waivers and full scholarships — would still involve a 60 percent pay cut) or not to be contributing to an RRSP. And I don’t believe that the first two years of a Ph.D. — the coursework and comprehensive exams — can be done part-time.

It’s one thing to continue to be a student, quite another to graduate to adulthood and then have to throttle back your spending to the poverty line after getting used to certain comforts. (You think you’ll still be able to afford that iPhone? When I was in grad school, I couldn’t even afford cable, and I was better off than most of my colleagues.)

And that’s assuming you’re paying Canadian tuition fees, or have a full scholarship — I’m not even taking student debt into consideration, or how long it will take after you graduate to pay it off.

For people already in the workforce with a halfway-decent career, the sad thing is that the best thing they could do after finishing their doctorate is often to go back to their old job. In many fields, the supply of freshly minted doctorates far exceeds the number of open positions. (What, you thought it was bad in the public school system?) Too often, recent graduates end up teaching as sessional lecturers — if they’re very lucky, they’ll make more than their teaching assistants on a per-course basis.

This situation gets a little better if you’re willing to move absolutely anywhere for a job. Many of the sessional lecturers I’ve known were teaching at the university from which they received their Ph.D. — they’re there because they can’t move elsewhere, usually for family reasons (e.g., their spouse’s job), so they’re stuck.

And it’s not like a tenure-track assistant professorship pays that well either. A high school teacher at the same point in life probably makes more: during the time that the university professor has been going through grad school, the teacher has been working and building up seniority. By the time the prof gets hired, the teacher has been working for years.

But if your career prospects aren’t significantly changed by getting a doctorate, why get it at all? Often I’m told it’s for personal reasons. But it’s an expensive thing to do, I think, in the middle of your prime earning years. And considering the amount of work, stress and poverty involved, it’s a punishing sort of luxury.

Of course my opinion is coloured by my experience: in the end, graduate school delayed my entry into the workforce by five years and helped wreck my health. (Remind me to go on and on about the connection between stress and autoimmune disease.) And I still didn’t get my doctorate. (Not for nothing is the drop-out rate for graduate students about one in two.) No job I have held since then has required my M.A.; then again, the process of getting that degree developed some marketable skills (and it certainly doesn’t look bad on the résumé).

All the same, I would probably have been better off in the long run if I had stopped at my B.A., or even my M.A., and entered the job market from there.

Of course, my friends with doctorates, and those thinking of getting one (including the very people I’m thinking of), will have a different take on this subject. Am I wrong for being so down on getting a doctorate? Tell me why.