A topic well worth some serious thought, especially for those who are considering getting a graduate degree. I did my PhD in visual psychophysics, then went straight into a college teaching job that had nothing whatsoever to do with visual psychophysics. It immediately forced me to break out of my super-specialized base of knowledge and learn more about the kind of psychology that can actually help people live better lives. I had to relearn the basics — introductory psych, social psych, cognition, perception, etc. — to be able to teach them. It was fulfilling, teaching students about their own and others’ cognitive biases, or helping them learn how to study more effectively, or showing them fascinating real-life examples of how unreliable memory can be, or how groups make decisions. My interest in helping solve real-world problems took me into research and consulting, and finally to founding my own business. In every chapter of my professional life, the main benefits of having a PhD were not some advanced, specialized knowledge I learned; they were basic knowledge of research principles and methods, and the experience of learning how to apply those principles and methods to a specific problem.
I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to get a PhD. But on entering the 25th year of my career, what has become most strikingly evident to me is this:
There’s a big, troubled world out there, and you don’t need a fancy degree to help improve it. You just need to roll up your sleeves, do the grunt work to learn what’s important in your field, and be willing to get your hands dirty. There are too many good minds hiding in ivory towers, hashing out ideas in eloquent prose related to problems that the rest of the world cares little about. If I could give one piece of advice to someone on the verge of entering grad school, it would be this: Don’t get yourself barricaded in that tower. Come down to earth (at least occasionally) and do good work that matters.