Their thoughts on getting a doctorate

I spent a good chunk of last week peeing on their dreams, so the least I can do is direct you to Mare’s post and Teresa’s post, in which they each respond to my two entries on why it may not be a good idea to go back and get a doctorate (More on not getting that doctorate; Don’t get that doctorate).

As you might have guessed, they are two of the people whose plans inspired me to write those entries. Which is not to say that their specific plans and goals were what I was responding to, because at the time I didn’t know the details — only that they were thinking about it. For better or for worse, my own experiences filled in the rest.

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.

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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.

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