Do You Really Need a Ph.D.?

As empowering as the notion of the alternative-academic path is, deciding to pursue a Ph.D. when the career you want doesn’t require a doctorate may not be the best choice, argues Arie Spirgel.

July 15, 2021
 
 
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Relative to the fire that it is today, when I earned my Ph.D. in 2011, the alternative-academic community was a crackling ember. At the time, finding information about career paths outside the academy felt like driving through a rainstorm in an unfamiliar town: it was not that my destination was not out there, it was that it was not easy to find.

Today, having a Ph.D. and openly seeking a career outside academe is a mainstream phenomenon. There are books, blogs, hashtags, Twitter accounts, articles and vibrant online communities dedicated to helping you make the most of your Ph.D. in a nonacademic setting. Quit lit is a genre. Even academe itself has gotten in the game, with institutions like Stanford University, the University of Michigan and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill providing resources for those considering the nonacademic career path. The movement gives voice, emotional support and practical advice to people with Ph.D.s interested in exploring nonacademic career paths. If you have a Ph.D. and can imagine a life for yourself outside academe, there is someone out there to help you find it.

As empowering as the notion of the alternative-academic path is, deciding to pursue a Ph.D. when the career you want doesn't require a doctorate may not be the best choice. In his recent memoir, Eat a Peach, the chef and restaurateur David Chang’s first piece of advice to aspiring chefs is this: if there is anything else you can do for a living, then do that. It is my wish that Chang’s advice be appropriated for the Ph.D.-curious as follows: unless the only career you can imagine yourself having requires or appropriately values a doctorate, I would strongly advise against getting one. At the very least, I urge you to have honest conversations -- with friends, family, a therapist, yourself -- about why it is that you want to pursue a doctorate. Whether it be validation, not being sure what else to do or something else, I suspect that when you look deep enough, you will find the reasons unconvincing.

The counterargument to this advice is that although a Ph.D. degree is generally designed to prepare you for a career as a professor, the skills you obtain are invaluable to other domains. It would be foolish to argue against this assertion, particularly if you already have a Ph.D. But it also ignores a more relevant point: your time is finite, which means that making one choice means forgoing countless others. So saying that a Ph.D. program offers useful skills in the nonacademic job market does not mean that a Ph.D. is the best -- or most satisfying -- way to obtain skills that are valued in the nonacademic job market.

Take my own experience in pursuing a doctorate in cognitive psychology, and notice how the skills that some might say prepared me for the nonacademic job market often fell short.

  • Writing. I read articles by people who never learned to write well, and I learned to write from the same people who wrote said articles.
  • Presenting information. I taught undergraduate sections to students who evaluated me once per semester, and if the research is right, on characteristics that had little to do with my ability to teach.
  • Critical thinking. Academics do not have a monopoly on critical thinking, and unlike nonacademic settings, the problems are often too remote for there to be any consequences to errors in thinking.
  • Leadership. Explaining to a group of high-achieving and reliable undergraduates how to run an experiment hardly qualifies as leadership training.

I could go on, but you get the point.

I cite these examples as someone who had a positive graduate experience and was mentored by professors who, in addition to achieving their own impressive levels of success, genuinely cared about the success of their students. And if it was an academic career I wanted, then I chose the right program. But I did not want a career in academe, which means that I was forgoing the opportunity to learn the skills that would best prepare me for the nonacademic job market.

If I wanted to learn to write, I could have read the works of the best writers and taken courses taught by trained writers. If I wanted to learn to present information, I could have gotten a job in sales. If I wanted to learn to “think,” I could have gone to the library and checked out books on Lovelace and Kant. If I wanted to learn leadership, I could have volunteered to help manage the local cat shelter.

Above all, if I wanted to learn the skills that would help me succeed in a nonacademic environment, I could have gotten a job in a nonacademic environment -- making more money with less work, to boot. To make it more concrete, of the skills that have been most important to my career -- for example, statistical computing, an understanding of databases, designing effective data visualizations -- I learned all of them after graduate school.

For all that they have offered the world, colleges and universities are one of humanity’s greatest inventions. A career in academe can be a noble and fulfilling profession, and if that is what you want, I hope you succeed. The world needs people like you. But if it is not what you want, you may find that a Ph.D. is not only unnecessary but also counterproductive to your goals. Academics are really good at producing other academics, yet much less so at preparing you for nonacademic work.

So rather than twist your credentials to suit the nonacademic job market, my advice is to not get a Ph.D. in the first place. Yes, a Ph.D. will introduce you to interesting people and ideas, but interesting people and ideas exist outside academe, and a choice to go in one direction is also a choice to not go in so many others.

Bio

Arie Spirgel works at the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship and offers data analysis consulting.

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