Three Short Thoughts on Doing a PhD

Three Short Thoughts on Doing a PhD

January is that time after application season is over, and friends and acquaintances start doing a double-take on their life decisions. "Should I actually be going to business school?" (maybe). "Should I actually go to law school?" (Hell no!) But the question that seems to elicit the most conflicted feelings is always graduate school, and particularly PhD programs.

It goes without saying that PhD degrees have been under fire, from a whole host of sources. And yet, I am in one, quite happy, and couldn't imagine doing almost any other degree. Considering this is my first year, and most students and my advisor have strongly said this is the worst year by far (due to all the course requirements), I take this as a good sign. Here are some thoughts for those who are thinking through their path.

If you don't understand the job market for PhDs, you are (truly) an idiot

That's blunt, but really, there is no excuse in 2014 not to fully understand the job market for PhD holders. If you want to work at a research university, you will work anywhere in the country in which a job is being offered, since there may only be three jobs in your entire field in a given year. You will not necessarily live near a major global city, and indeed, you may live in a terrible suburb in the middle of nowhere. That's how it is.

If you are looking to get married and need to get two jobs in one location, good luck. If you aren't prepared for the massive work it takes in a job search to secure one of these jobs (which easily takes the bulk of the last year of a PhD, and possibly additional years beyond that), then what exactly are you doing applying?

The job market for PhDs in academia has been horrific since the 1980s. If you are even thinking of applying to a PhD program, you have the reasoning capacity to look up the data and understand what the next two decades of your life will be like. Go into these things eyes wide open, and don't become cynical because "no one told me" or you rely on admissions materials (i.e. marketing) to make your life decisions.

There is a massive difference between fields. Choose wisely.

I am quite sympathetic to my colleagues over in the sciences, who have such a different graduate school experience from the social sciences. Long hours in the lab, terrible management and mentorship, fights over publication credit, strange machinations to prevent the top students from graduating, and more are just some of the average experiences in the wet sciences. It is really quite hellish, and almost universal.

My program, which is the PhD in Public Policy at the Kennedy School, is quite different. Like most social science graduate degrees, it is quite hands-off, and allows students immense flexibility to design the research agenda that most interests them. Since we are an interdisciplinary field of study, we even have flexibility of how we approach the disciplines. I spend more time in sociology than most of the other graduate students (we are mostly economics-focused, with some political science), but I believe that understanding people is important for good policymaking.

The university is a diverse place, and degrees are not equivalent even if the abbreviation is the same. Ask probing questions about exactly what you want from a program, and whether the design of a program will let you do it. If a program doesn't fit, don't do it. There are many options out there, and fit more than anything else will make you successful.

Graduate school is a luxury -- savor it while you can

I don't know if it is just me, but I have a pretty low tolerance for complaining from grad students. I've complained about the library before, but then again, I am also (technically) the student representative to the Kennedy School library. I do try to actually do something about my complaints other than whine.

Regardless of the context you want to put it, graduate school is truly a luxury. It is a job in which you can read papers and books, write research, think about thoughts independently, and make a contribution to the world intellectually in a way that the vast majority of jobs in the economy simply don't allow. That's something to truly savor when you go through the process.

But the problem is that some people get really used to the luxury, and define their lives entirely by doing everything they can to stay on campus. Even after their third or fourth postdoc, visiting professorship, etc., they are still trying to make the magic happen because they just don't want to work in the "real world." As one person put it to me, "I can't even think of making money." That's a luxury, and if it happens that the luxury has to stop, don't wail, but enjoy the moment while it lasts.

Photo by Darrell Miller used under Creative Commons.