Should I do a PhD?

I get this question a lot.  “Should I do a PhD? I want to work in _____.”  I get it so much, in fact, that I thought I’d turn this into a post, and let others chime in.

My answer is usually “No”, and here’s why:  A PhD is NOT a vocational degree.

NEVER get a PhD because you think it will improve your job prospects.   PhDs are trained to do research in an academic setting, for the most part. And that is….not, frankly, where the majority of jobs are.  You will be disappointed and frustrated if you think getting a PhD will make getting a job “easier.”

Pursue a PhD because you love science, or because you have a burning question about a topic that you want to investigate further.    Do it because you want to push your limits, and create new knowledge.  In the sciences, you should expect that you will receive financial support in the form of a graduate assistantship, so a PhD is something that you do for yourself.  Do a PhD if you like having your mind stretched, exploded, occasionally stomped, and then re-assembled into something wonderful and new.

Yes, it would be nice if the Academy would get with the program and make PhDs more aligned with the current job market.   Tiny bits of management training are being added here and there.  But for the most part, there is a reason everyone dresses up in funny robes with capes and poofy hats when you graduate–it’s because academia is firmly rooted in the past.

It may seem like all the jobs advertised require PhDs, but that is an optical illusion.   Advertising costs money.  Organizations only pay money to advertise jobs that are difficult to fill, or that are at a level where you are required to advertise them to attract a certain candidate pool.  PhD level jobs are advertised, not Bachelor’s level jobs.

The Return-on-Investment of advertising for a Bachelor’s level job just isn’t there like it is with a PhD, so organizations just post BS positions on their websites or locally.  You end up with the appearance of more jobs at the PhD level when you look at journals or major job-posting sites–but it isn’t reality.

If you look at 2006 NSF data for people involved in Research and Development–where you would expect a lot of PhDs to end up–you see that they are just  a small slice of this pie.

The other thing to remember is that if you are looking at want-ads, or online advertisements, you are using the least efficient method of job searching.  Surveys of new hires by the Department of Labor consistently find that around 50% of people got their jobs because they knew someone.  People hire people they already know, or that their colleagues know.

If I have a postdoc, or a summer research position, I’m going to talk to grad students and friends I know already, because they are a known quantity.  I’m going to hire someone who is the best personality fit for the job.  I can train them to do anything technical that they might not know.  It really is who you know, not what you know.

It’s most important to me, as an employer, to have someone who can work well in a group and that is reliable.  You might be brilliant and have degrees from the Ivy League, but if you piss everyone off around you and can’t communicate for shit, you are worthless to me.

This is why graduate students (and undergraduates too!) should be focusing on making connections and building a professional network rather than searching for job ads. Blogging is a great way to do that, as long as you don’t focus exclusively on flaming people.  (What?? Do as Bug Girl says, not as she does.)

Going to professional meetings and interacting with others in your field is crucial; volunteering is also an important way to make connections in some fields.

Here’s a good way to see if you are on the right track:  Think about how much time and energy you invest into getting laid.  The mental imagining of what it will be like with person X; time spent building relationships on the possibility of some future putting-out;  the trying-on of clothes and shoes; the mental debates about whether a pint of Ben and Jerry’s now is better than maybe a boyfriend later when you’re thin.
How much total time and energy is that?

Is that comparable to the amount of time you are spending on planning your career and job hunting?  If not, you may need to re-examine your priorities.  (Or, I suppose, fuck really well-connected people.)

I loved my graduate work, and graduate school was one of the best times of my life. I spent 4 years literally crawling around on my hands and knees in North Carolina, focused on solving really interesting research questions and exploring insect behavior. I had wonderful friends, and I drank a lot of beer.  Please don’t think I’m saying don’t go to grad school!

Just go for the right reasons, and don’t expect a PhD to solve all your job hunting problems.   You will get paid slightly more, On Average, with a PhD; and your chances of being unemployed with an advanced degree are lower, On Average, than for someone with no degree or a BS.  But it’s not a path to easy fame and riches.