More on not getting that doctorate

I’ve already gotten some feedback about my previous entry urging people not to do a doctorate. Not here — nobody ever comments here — but on Facebook and on my cousin’s blog (she’s one of the three people I was thinking of). To my great surprise, none of them wants to kill me (so far as I know; they all seem pretty devious to me, and could get me when I’m not looking).

I wrote that post quickly and not necessarily coherently, and I left some ideas out; the feedback has helped me think more clearly about my point. Let me try to restate it more cogently.

Getting a doctorate is something that involves an awful lot of effort, but not necessarily a lot of reward — especially if you can’t get a tenure-track position, or a job requiring a Ph.D. and paying accordingly. You don’t get a Ph.D. unless you are compelled to do so — you’re wired so that you have no other choice. From my perspective, if you already have a career, you’re lucky: in a way, you’ve dodged a bullet. What mystified me was the notion that someone who already had a career, one that paid well relative to a starting professor’s salary, would want to spend several years in poverty chasing a degree that wouldn’t necessarily improve their material circumstances or change their career path.

But that’s the general principle. Reality is more complex. Of the three people I was thinking about when I wrote that post:

  • One (my cousin) makes a very good living at a successful career and is having second thoughts, though loves the idea of being a university professor.
  • One describes herself as “underemployed” — the income level of a Ph.D. student wouldn’t be that much of a pay cut, apparently — and is strongly motivated to do something that requires the degree.
  • One could take paid leave (at reduced pay) for a year to get her coursework done, and would still be able to pay into her pension; moreover, she believes that a Ph.D. fits into her overall career goals.

Which reassures me a bit.

One commenter argued that I was focusing too much on finances — that as long as you can make enough to live, it’s worth it to do something you love. It’s very hard to argue against that. The key, I think, is going into it with eyes wide open: knowing, for example, that you’ll be poor, busy, and stressed for years, and that you might not be able to find a job, doing something you love, once you’re done. Only you can decide whether the sacrifice is worth it — whether the reward is worth the risk.

(It’s quite possible that I’m too focused on harsh realities and not enough on chasing your dreams; it was a long time before I was able to allow myself to take the time to work on my writing, for example.)

It’s axiomatic that you shouldn’t go to graduate school unless you receive funding. A decent scholarship, a full teaching assistantship, or a combination of both, plus a tuition waiver, should be enough to keep you alive, though not in style. I was comfortable enough on what I was given. (Under no circumstances should you attempt a Ph.D. without full funding. Living in poverty is one thing; massive indebtedness is another.)

But I’m not just focusing on the finances. No, for me the issues is the finances plus the ordeal. I have to confess that I see this subject filtered through my own experiences, which were unpleasant. Grad school was simultaneously the most stimulating and the most stressful part of my life. (Hopefully, if you’re considering a Ph.D., you’re not quite the stress monkey I was.) The comprehensive exams alone were soul-crushing for me, but then I was given a reading list of 399 books, received minimal guidance, contracted ankylosing spondylitis in the middle of it, read five books a day in a vain effort to catch up, panicked to the point of paralysis during the last month, went blank during the orals, and flunked magnificently. After which I rapidly lost the will to continue.

So from my point of view, if you can get to a decent career that you’re happy with without having to go through that, you’re lucky.

And if you’re prepared to go through that for no good purpose — without a specific goal that absolutely requires that Ph.D. — you’re crazy.