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I’ve heard many professors warn students not to get a Ph.D. They include instructors in English, who recall high debt and poor job prospects, as well as those in public policy, who contend you can create more social change in government or nonprofit jobs that don’t require advanced degrees. And, in many ways, I get it. You want what’s best for your students, and you know how challenging and draining the process of pursuing a doctorate can be. You may know what it’s like to pay back the debt, or maybe you’ve been frustrated by your work being buried in academic journals that few people read.
For some students, the advice to not get a Ph.D. is warranted. The process is long and means years of foregone income and potential debt. Many students may not know what a Ph.D. requires or what one can actually provide them careerwise. If students don’t really know what they are getting into or aren’t ready to make the decision, professors can direct them toward research assistant jobs that can prepare them to decide whether an academic job may be a good fit.
But when professors make such statements about not getting a doctorate in front of an entire class of students, they’re not only talking to the students who see the Ph.D. as one choice in a world of seemingly limitless possibilities. They’re also speaking to students from marginalized backgrounds who may a see Ph.D. as too far a reach when, in fact, it may be the perfect path for them. And they are the very students who most need their professors’ help simply to navigate the process.
Less than 5 percent of the U.S. population currently holds a Ph.D. While diversity among Ph.D. holders has increased in recent years, 76 percent of Ph.D. holders were white as of 2017. The statistics for other minority groups with Ph.D.s are less clear, but students with disabilities, those from low socioeconomic backgrounds or holding other marginalized identities may find themselves hard-pressed to find a doctoral mentor. When a student who identifies with one of these groups searches for advice about Ph.D. programs, they need to know that they can talk to the professors who teach their classes.
During my own Ph.D. application cycle, I relied on mentors at my college to help me navigate the process. I didn’t know what to put in a personal statement, how to look for professors in academic journals or that I should be reaching out to potential mentors ahead of my application. All those unspoken rules in my field were vital for gaining entry into a competitive Ph.D. program where I could get funding—another important issue that mentors can help students navigate. But such rules are not obvious to students who have not been raised in the academy. They also vary considerably by discipline, which can make it difficult to search for advice on the internet or through mentors in different fields.
Looking back, I believe that most professors who talked to my classes about not getting a Ph.D. would have helped me if I had approached them. But their public warning against pursuing the degree made me feel like I couldn’t ask them about the process or let them know that I planned to apply. For students whose parents or immediately family members fall into the 5 percent of U.S. Ph.D. holders, guidance becomes easier to find without having to seek help from students’ professors. But for those who do not hail from this group, professors might be the only connections to academe they have. Such students need to be able to consult with their professors about the process, and they must be comfortable enough to ask for help. When a professor announces that they don’t think students should get Ph.D.s, they close this door to students who might ask for advice. Consequently, students from educated families may go on to pursue Ph.D.s with the help of outside mentors, while other students without those supports will opt out of getting the degree. This widening of the gap in who has access to doctoral-level education is unacceptable.
Allowing the demographic gaps in Ph.D. holders to widen is not only harmful for individual students but also for the future of academe and even our nation. People with Ph.D.s become the academics who produce what society labels knowledge. While academic research may feel like it’s buried away in journals, it also becomes the science that we’re told to trust. When policy makers and practitioners turn to that science to inform how society should be governed, they’re placing faith in the researchers who design scientific studies.
Lack of diversity in the academy and the types of knowledge it produces are not new problems, and academic institutions are making efforts to expand the types of voices represented in higher education. But we’ve seen major constructs in social science called out for their failure to account for minority experiences, and we’ve seen those same constructs disseminated widely in nonprofits, government agencies and educational institutions. When individuals from diverse backgrounds have a say in the development of research, we can better ensure that the research accounts for experiences outside dominant groups.
Yet that can’t happen if diverse students don’t get Ph.D.s. So, if you are a professor, rather than making broad statements discouraging entire classes of students from pursuing Ph.D.s, consider inviting individual students to talk one-on-one during office hours. Find out why a student wants a Ph.D. and, if they’re not quite sure yet, equip them with tools and information they need to make an informed decision. Remember that a student’s lack of knowledge about how to navigate the process or frame their interests does not translate to them being a poor fit for a Ph.D. program. It may very well mean that the student in front of you is the one academe needs most at the table—and your guidance can help them claim their rightful seat.