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Why go for a Ph.D.? Advice for those in doubt
March 16, 2012 - 6:22am

It is very fashionable these days in the world of arts and entertainment to create prequels. As opposed to sequels, telling readers/viewers what happened next to their favorite characters or plots, prequels go back in time. I find myself following this trend and writing a prequel to my post on how to avoid Ph.D. drop-out.

One of the comments to the above-mentioned post made me think that one of the best ways to minimize Ph.D. drop-out rates is to select the best candidates for the job. The next logical question is: Why follow a Ph.D.?

Why go for a Ph.D.? There are as many reasons as people, you may say, but perhaps these motivations can be systematized in some general categories. The disinterested reason most often given is that people go for a Ph.D. because of their thirst for knowledge. Simply put, Ph.D. students are those with high degree of internal motivation that stems from their inborn curiosity and love of intellectual pursuits. They are expected that after they obtain their degree they will metamorphose into scholars for whom also the temptation of researching new and exciting subjects is irresistible, or at least preferable to all other choices.

But is it so that one can satisfy this desire for deeper understanding only by enrolling in a Ph.D. program? Are there no other avenues for the interested mind than university-based research programs? Certainly we all know the answer: there are other opportunities to drive research projects outside the academia. Sometimes access to these opportunities is conditioned by having received a Ph.D. from a university, but I would not claim this to be the absolute rule. Think-tanks and research institutes do hire capable minds with or without the diploma.

There are other reasons for pursuing a Ph.D. though, let them be called more pragmatic. In this sense, the doctoral degree is not just a passport to a world of research and new knowledge. The degree is a valuable asset that increases one’s chances for obtaining higher paid, more satisfying jobs. It is seen as an investment, a certificate of one’s special abilities that gives advantages on the job market.

While it is true that Ph.D. holders do get higher salaries, the higher education market is not one of the most rewarding in terms of financial stability. There are few available jobs, there is a lot of tough competition and the salary of a professional is lower here than in the industry. So the Ph.D. diploma is valuable if its possessor is interested in the non-academic job market. However, how many of the Fortune 100 people hold a doctorate? Not many. On the contrary, there are numerous among these who are drop-outs (even before finishing a Bachelor). So if you want to be really financially prosperous, then Ph.D. degrees are not for you.

There are other pragmatic reasons that motivate students to continue their education to the Ph.D. level. Coming from the times when these diplomas were reserved for a minuscule segment of the population, the doctoral degree is a seen as a prestige marker, the recognition of one’s exceptional talents and the certificate of belonging to the intellectual elite. The non-material rewards that a Ph.D. is supposed to bring, at least theoretically, are connected to social standing; Ph.D.’s can be used as a vehicle for upwards social mobility, and for the fulfillment of personal and family ambitions.

The prestige power of the Ph.D. is however on the wane. With mass education, the number of doctorate holders increased exponentially, so that the elite membership and the high social status coupled with it weakened. Especially in connection with a decrease in salary size for university professionals, doctorate holders may be seen as exceptional but quirky: why choose to specializes narrowly, work so many hours, and for so little pay when one could get a more lucrative employment elsewhere?

Some people are driven to pursue a Ph.D. because of pragmatic reasons that are not of their own making. The Ph.D. is not the first-hand choice, but the one imposed by necessities. If the job market does not offer attractive alternatives, or if entry to the job market is prohibited because of immigration status, then pursuing the highest academic degree is the choice for students who under other circumstances would have opted for a position in the industry and not in the research field.

Why did you choose to pursue a Ph.D.? Or why did you decide against a Ph.D.?

Anamaria writes from Lund, Sweden. She is one of the founding members of the editorial collective at University of Venus.


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