I’ve mentioned this before, but one of my few regrets in life was forcing myself to finish my PhD even though I knew 6 months in to it that I hated what I was doing and did not want to continue in academia. I often reflect upon my time as a PhD student as a waste of time, and that I could easily be doing what I’m doing now with “just” a master’s degree.

I often get a terrible feeling in my stomach when I hear someone is entering into a PhD program…especially if they say they’re doing it because they don’t know what else to do with their life at the moment. I want to yell “DON’T DO IT!!!” at the top of my lungs, and go into the myriad of reasons why they should, at the very least, think twice about it.

The other day, DH was telling me about an article in The Economist about just that (Doctoral Degrees: The Disposable Academic (why doing a PhD is a waste of time)). This article does a wonderful job of explaining those reasons. DH and I agree that this side of the story is rarely written about, so I wanted to share some of the highlights:

– There is a HUGE oversupply of PhD students. Even if someone really, really, REALLY wants to be a tenured professor, there are so few of these jobs out there that the chances of finding one is ridiculously small.

– PhDs are trained for academia, not industry…so your skill set is shit if you “can’t” (or don’t want) an academic job.

– “PhD courses are so specialized that university careers offices struggle to assist graduates looking for jobs, and supervisors tend to have little interest in students who are leaving academia.”

“…the skills learned in the course of a PhD can be readily acquired through much shorter courses.”

“Writing lab reports, giving academic presentations and conducting six-month literature reviews can be surprisingly unhelpful in a world where technical knowledge has to be assimilated quickly and presented simply to a wide audience.”

“The fiercest critics compare research doctorates to Ponzi or pyramid schemes.” Universities love cheap labour. Graduate students and post-docs are cheap, will work long hours, and are disposable. “In Canada 80% of postdocs earn $38,600 or less per year before tax—the average salary of a construction worker.” (who, by the way, has not spent years and mucho $$ educating themselves for their job).

– “A PhD may offer no financial benefit over a master’s degree. It can even reduce earnings.” An interesting example explains how, 30 years ago, physicists were being hired in the financial sector because of their training in advanced calculus, but that is no longer competitive when MBA students can take one such course AND have the requisite business and financial training. Though, the article does note that a PhD in medicine, the sciences, and business can be beneficial over having a masters…by 3%.

As I stated above, a lot of students continue to the PhD because they don’t know what else to do, or are doing it because “they love it”. It’s even easier to press the ol’ snooze alarm on life when stipends are available (being paid to learn seems attractive, even though the going-rate is abysmal). ” But there are penalties, as well as benefits, to staying at university. Workers with “surplus schooling”—more education than a job requires—are likely to be less satisfied, less productive and more likely to say they are going to leave their jobs.”

Yes, the pursuit of knowledge is important for society, but “doing a PhD may still be a bad choice for an individual.” because “The interests of academics and universities on the one hand and PhD students on the other are not well aligned.”

Students enter graduate school with a naive and idealistic view that universities are dedicated to training the best and brightest, and actually care about the future of their graduate students.
Few realize that the system is fully designed to benefit others.

The article is definitely worth a read – it’s nice to hear a more realistic (albeit, fairly negative) viewpoint of the academic world, rather than the one we all hear when being wooed by professors who want more graduate students.

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Comments on: "Why Doing a PhD Might be a Waste of Time" (18)

  1. Wow, that's certainly a very different perspective. Thanks for sharing.

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  2. Our department just started a program to turn physics PhDs into finance masters…

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  3. Anonymous said:

    I am someone like you — I have a PhD in an engineering field, and now I am doing an engineering job which I could have easily gotten, and done with a masters. In fact many of my current colleagues even have bachelors degrees, and not even a masters, although I do have some colleagues who have PhDs.

    This being said, I honestly do not think that my PhD or that of my colleagues was a waste of time. It is true I did not become a professor, but an important part of what happened to me in grad school was that I learnt to know myself, and to understand what I like. It was a great environment to transition from a college student, where I was basically an young adult, with no clue about what I wanted to do or could do, into a proper adult who knew themselves and had confidence in their abilities and were aware of their limitations. I essentially grew up!

    Grad school was a great environment to grow up because although I made less money than I would have if I had a job, I also had less responsibilities, much more time, much more freedom on what I could do, and access to a highly intellectual environment and opportunities.

    I think a lot of people find grad school very painful because the process of growing up and realizing your limitations is painful. Of course many grad students are also in bad situations, which is always bad. But one has to keep in mind that people who do not go to grad school go through this process of “growing up” too, and sometimes it is even harder for them; and if you look at it this way, (unless of course you are in a bad situation with a bad advisor) this is not a bad way to “grow up”.

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  4. I remember that article!

    I don't NEED the PhD to do the majority of my work, but I've never regretted getting it, and sometimes it has been helpful in getting a job or getting more money. And, in biotech and pharma at least, there is still a bit of a ceiling for people without PhDs. It is much, much harder, if not impossible, to get to the highest levels without the PhD. I don't think that is right, or that it has to be that way- but it is that way right now.

    However, I had a fairly happy PhD experience. If I'd hated it 6 months in? Then I agree- I should have dropped out.

    And academic science has become a bit of a Ponzi scheme. I get invited back to my alma mater occasionally to talk about “alternative careers” and it always strikes me how some of the folks there think I “failed” because I didn't go into academia. They assume I tried and couldn't make it, when in fact I didn't even try. I went straight into biotech.

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  5. I remember this article too and I agree with a lot of what Cloud and Anonymous said above.

    My field is a the intercept of medical science and engineeirng and I'm planning to defend my PhD this year. I have no desire to attempt to stay in academia, and I hate that the system does make you feel a bit like you have failed at a career you never actually wanted if you choose to leave academia.

    Most of the job options I am looking at (including pharma/biotech and more science writing/policy positions) make it seem that a PhD will be beneficial, if not neccessary. I have also heard similar stories to what Cloud commented on regarding advancement in biotech without a PhD. It could be that I am still naive and overly optimistic so we shall see. Regardless, my grad school experience has been positive and enjoyable so far so I don't think I will come to regret the decision

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  6. I like that the article paints the polar opposite of the academia sales job. It tempers their enthusiasm for cheap labor who after training, very few jobs will exist for. A nice balance if you will.

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  7. Wool Free – yes, that's why I thought I'd post it. It's not often we hear that side of things!

    nicoleandmaggie – ohh…I'd LOVE to hear more about that. I'm going to send you an email.

    Anon – hmmm…I kind of think “growing up” in such a sheltered environment might not be so great. It's really difficult to transition from that kind of environment to the real world.

    Cloud – The article does say that PhDs in the sciences are marginally better than having a masters, so there is some benefit there. I also hate the “alternative careers” thing…I was just asked the other day why I haven't applied to “real jobs” yet 😛

    Liz – yes, PhDs are more beneficial than masters in some areas of science. I guess it's whether the time and effort is worth it (obviously depends on what you want to do).

    GR – That's my favorite part, and why I wanted to write about it.

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  8. Anonymous said:

    I definitely agree that phds are kindof a ponzi scheme and a waste of time for most people. despite the fact that i am a tenured bio prof at an r1.

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  9. Wow. Thanks for writing this Alyssa. You already know how I'm feeling… and not a day passes without me questioning what I'm doing and if it's still the right thing. It is seriously likely that I am coasting on “well, I've gotten THIS far, how can I stop now?” fumes here… and I'm honestly not really sure what to do with that. It hurts to think about dropping out now, but it hurts equally as much to think about finishing! Neither one is an easy choice, and neither feels quite right when I really think about it. UGH!

    Thanks for the link and for your thoughts on the matter!

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  10. I think if someone is paying you to go and you are at a top 10 program then get a Ph.D. If not, you'd better have a damn good plan B these day! I know that people will argue about opportunity costs etc, but I'm humanitiesish enough to put a nonremunerative value on learning stuff just for the sake of learning.

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  11. Anon – I can't tell if you're being sarcastic, but I'm taking your comment at face value and saying “YAY”!

    Ella – it's definitely a tough decision, and I really feel your pain! I know I say now that I should have dropped out, but when I was in it there were so many things going on in my mind that made the decision so hard…it was just easier to stay and finish for so many reasons (even though I was miserable).

    feMOMhist – I definitely think people need a plan B (or even a plan A that ISN'T academia, because it's not the end-all-be-all)

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  12. Anonymous said:

    just listened to the freakanomics podcast about 'the value of quitting'. talks about how failing to quit can be bad – and we need to stop solely talking about the value of perseverance.

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  13. Anon – I totally agree! There's nothing wrong with quitting if something is making you miserable. I mean, if we had to stick with everything we started, we'd all be married to our high school sweethearts – though that works for SOME people, it sure wouldn't for the majority!

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  14. Ella: “well, I've gotten THIS far, how can I stop now?”
    Me too.

    I'd like to point out the start of a solution in the article, too: PhDs are not teaching the right things

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  15. Anonymous said:

    NOW you tell me! LOL

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  16. Suzanne Mayer said:

    For some people, it may be a waste of time because they don’t know what they are doing at grad school in the first place. It would be a great thesis help if you really know what you can expect at grad school and what can be other things that might be the impact of enrolling in a grad school.

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  17. Painful journey said:

    im finishing my phD in 6 months time and its a pain indeed, six months feels like 10 years because i dont like research at all. “maybe its a burn out”.
    I wanted to quit in my 2nd year but it was hard to think of not finishing what i started.

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  18. Suzanne – I think preparing students for what graduate school is like, and what their options can be afterwards, would be very beneficial.

    Painful Journey – Ugh, the last 6 months are the worst, especially if you haven't been enjoying it for a long time (I was very much in the same boat). Hang in there….you're in the home stretch now. A couple things that got me through the end was taking up a hobby (knitting) and starting to plan what I was going to do after. Good luck!

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