Should I Get a PhD?

Claire N. Saunders
Mar 24 · 4 min read

Originally published at www.clairensaunders.com.

Should I get a PhD?

Benjamin: I’m just…

Mr. Braddock: …worried?

Benjamin: Well…

Mr. Braddock: About what?

Benjamin: I guess about my future.

Mr. Braddock: What about it?

Benjamin: I don’t know. I want it to be…

Mr. Braddock: …to be what?

Benjamin: …Different.

For those of you who reside under rocks, this is an excerpt from one of my all time favorite movies, The Graduate. The movie follows Ben, played by Dustin Hoffman, the summer after he graduates from college. Long story short, Ben is a little uncertain about his future and whether he should go to grad school. And I forgot, Ben also sleeps with both his cougar neighbor Mrs. Robinson, played by the deceptively young Anne Bancroft, then runs off and marries Mrs. Robinson’s daughter Elaine. I digress.

The whole point of bringing up The Graduate is that I talk to a lot of Bens. Who is a Ben? Well, a Ben is a little worried about their future. A Ben questions whether they should go to grad school. A conversation with a Ben begins with them casually inquiring me about my life as a PhD student. Do I like my life? Am I crazy busy? Are the horror stories true? Then they ask the question they intend all along: Should I get a PhD?

I always refuse to answer that question. Truth is, it is a deeply personal decision. For as long as I could remember, I wanted a PhD. I didn’t always have a good reason. At first, I fell in love with the idea of people calling me Dr. Saunders. Then all the people I came to admire as scientists had PhDs. In my preteen head, it was logical. I needed a PhD to be like them. With time, I gathered more perspective and learned more about what it actually means to get a PhD. Here are some of the lessons I have gathered along the way.

A PhD will not give your life meaning.

Being a graduate student is difficult. The work is mentally demanding. The hours are long. The pay is low. Several recent studies go so far as to declare a mental health crisis in graduate education. From my own experiences, it is not pretty. This is why it is so dangerous (yes, I mean dangerous) to dive into a PhD in some kind of Eat, Pray, Love search for meaning. The graduate education system is set up to churn out publications and research scientists. Sometimes it forgets that these research scientists are human beings.

The doctoral research system is not set up to help you scale your way up Maslow’s Hierarchy. In fact, sometimes it is pretty damn hard to even fulfill Maslow’s lowest level, physiological needs. At the end of a long day of research when Murphy’s law holds true, you need to be able to look yourself in the mirror and tell yourself that you are more than the scientific contribution you made to your field today. Just because you failed to make a unique contribution, you are not a failure.

A PhD will not give you money.

I was going to fill this section with a list of average PhD stipends along with the costs of living in their corresponding cities followed by a laughing emoji, but I decided against it. When you take a step back, it is amazing to see a system where highly educated people with advanced college degrees subject themselves to positions that pay <$35,000 for 5+ years with such extreme hours to not even earn minimum wage. This might seem painfully obvious, but do not go into a PhD program for the paycheck. I am fortunate enough that I am fully funded and can live reasonably comfortably on my stipend. Not everyone is that lucky.

While many PhD students move on to incredibly profitable careers, that is not a given. Job markets are volatile. Many fields produce too many PhD scientists. There are far too few faculty positions with far too many interested applicants. In the end, like all things there is no guaranteed payout.

A PhD will not give you power (or respect).

This one is challenging for me because I tend to associate titles with intrinsic power. While getting a PhD will make it easier to obtain a management position or a higher up position in a company or university, it doesn’t automatically give you power or respect. It took me awhile to come to terms with this, and the only way I did was because of my very first research position.

The summer after my freshman year of college, I got an internship at a government laboratory. Needless to say, I was absolutely terrified to be working with actual PhD scientists. When I finally arrived at the lab, I was super awkward and formal and kept referring to everyone as Dr. (insert name here). People corrected me and asked me to call them by their first name with the reasoning that it is super weird to be calling everyone doctor all the time. Especially in a place like a national lab, a PhD is normal/required for the job so it doesn’t give you more power or respect than anyone else. Power and respect are always earned.

So why bother with a PhD?

If you love conducting research, coming up with and testing original ideas, working with the best minds in the field, and asking big question, you should consider a PhD. If you are just worried about your future or looking for some deeper meaning or valuation, you might want to reconsider.

At the end of the day a PhD is just a PhD.