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In Defense of Useless Degrees

What does your Ph.D. equip you to do?

January 19, 2016

Danielle Marias is a PhD candidate in Forest Ecosystems and Society at Oregon State University. You can find her on Twitter @danielleemarias or at her website.




When I chose to attend a small liberal arts college for my undergraduate education, I heard many criticisms about liberal arts degrees. Some believed my degree would too broad and that I would not be prepared for specific careers and was therefore unemployable.


I first arrived at my liberal arts alma mater to eventually go to medical school and become a doctor, but four years later I chose to go to graduate school instead to earn my PhD and become a professor. Like some others, I went through my mid-PhD crisis and wasn’t sure I wanted to pursue the tenure track. Because the PhD is perceived to be very narrow and specific, and only prepares students for professorships in their field of research (where positions are dwindling), my PhD was useless if I no longer wanted to be a professor (see Combating Cynicism).


During both my undergraduate and graduate experiences, I have been asked, “So what are you going to do with that degree?” At each stage of my life--when I no longer wanted to be a doctor during my BA and when I no longer wanted to be a professor during my PhD--I cringed inside when I couldn’t provide a concrete answer.


I recently came across Time Magazine’s list of CEOs who prove liberal arts degrees are not worthless, contrary to the opposite opinions I had heard. This reminded me of the flavor of resources I had read about the value of a PhD in non-traditional careers outside the tenure track. It also reminded me that both my BA and PhD training (that, cumulatively, I have spent a third of my life pursuing) can be applied to careers that may not take a traditional, straight and narrow path.


A liberal arts degree may seem broad, but my liberal arts training focused on critical thinking, problem solving, effective writing, global stewardship, and leadership. These skills are useful in a majority of careers (for example, tech companies favor liberal arts thinking). Courses ranging from Photography, East Asian Politics, Francophone Cultures, and Earth Climate History all honed these transferable skills that have widespread value, even if the BA doesn’t spell out your future.


Sure, a PhD will make you an expert in your tiny slice of a subfield in your discipline. But along the way, you also demonstrate your ability to fully investigate a topic, write a book’s worth of persuasive writing, analyze and solve many problems along the way, gain constructive criticism (constantly), communicate your findings to diverse groups, and efficiently manage your time, projects, and wellbeing -- skills that are valued in so many professions. The versatility of the skills gained during a PhD demonstrates how the PhD can be viewed as a passport, and I think a BA is similar.


As a result of my BA and my PhD training, I feel confident I can apply my skills to many careers, rather than being unprepared to do anything. My liberal arts and graduate experiences have been rich with opportunities to develop disciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transferable skills. Today, people rarely hold the same job until retirement; the average worker will have about 11 jobs in his/her lifetime. So despite not following a straight and narrow academic and career path, my future is bright and full of possibility and potential.


So the next time I am asked, “So what are you going to do with that degree?” I will feel more secure about my prospects and how to answer that question. It may require more creativity but I believe that my BA and PhD have provided me with years of skills/talents/tools/opportunities/ingredients that prepare me for many different career paths--it’s just up to me how I use/wield them and where I go from here.

[Image by Flickr user Marcovdz and used under Creative Commons license]


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