To PhD or not to PhD?

I have been a resuscitation science researcher for close to 10 years. In that time I have been asked that eternal academy question: “when are you getting your Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)?”, more times than I can count. I started my undergraduate education later in life, spending the first years of adulthood working and searching for what motivated me to further my education. I knew I wanted to help people, I just wasn’t sure how. I finally determined that I wanted to pursue the science of nursing — not to be a bedside nurse, that was never my calling (more power to those who perform that noble pursuit, but that is not for me) but to become a researcher. I loved the asking and answering of questions, and I was always a bit of a science nerd, shocking I know!

After my undergraduate degree, I worked as a critical care nurse for a year and then quickly went into research. I also quickly went back to school for a dual graduate degree in nursing science (MSN) and public health (MPH). But, as an academic researcher, especially at an Ivy League institution, whether you have one advanced degree, two advanced degrees, or one hundred advanced degrees, unless one of them is a doctorate, it matters not!

I have been able to accomplish a great many things without having a PhD; in fact colleagues comment often how impressive it is that I have accomplished as much as I have “without a PhD!”. And they are right, it is impressive, because performing academic research without those three little letters after your name is an uphill battle every, single, day. I write and receive grants, publish first and last author papers, present nationally, teach two courses (one undergraduate and one graduate level) in two different Schools within my Ivy League institution, mentor students, sit on national committees, and participate in international guidelines processes. All without a PhD. Alas though, without that degree there are also a great many things I can not do, such as: become a tenure track professor (the holy grail of academia), apply for certain grants, be taken seriously as an expert in my field (even if I may be one), have my own research lab etc.

So, after years of pondering whether to PhD or not to PhD, considering programs, and arguing with my very patient and understanding wife about the need to do this “for my career”, I am finally determined to begin the application process. Therefore, this spring I have decided to cut back on my extracurricular activities and spend the semester narrowing down the best PhD programs to apply to in the fall — a daunting endeavor in and of itself!

I have watched numerous colleagues, family, and friends start and complete their own long-roads to a PhD. Some have handled it better than others, quicker than others, more publicly or privately than others. I wish I could continue on in my career without having to go back to school yet again, but I also understand that it is a necessary — and at times — evil. It is not lost on me that there are a number of things that I do not fully understand, which I will learn in a PhD program, and I am honestly looking forward to learning those intricacies. However, I am not looking forward to the stress going back to school will have on my family, on my work-life (I will be working full-time while pursuing a PhD, there is no other option), and on me personally (I hate being in school — ironic I know)!

Further, many articles and commentaries have been written recently about the trouble with academic research, and PhD programs in general (in fact, as I am writing this, a new article just came across my Twitter feed; it’s like the universe is literally trying to tell me something!). The statistics are frightening to say the least: fewer than one in six PhD's have the chance to become tenure-track professors, only one in five PhD biomedical researchers are employed within academia, funding is low with just 23% of grant applications to NIH being awarded last year, and financial incentives are nonexistent, as there is generally only a modest increase in salary from a master’s degree to a PhD. Most importantly, a PhD program is generally a younger person’s game and well, I am not so young anymore.

Optimistically — and maybe a bit foolishly — I am not concerned though! I am lucky in that I am already an academic researcher in a field that I know and love. Would I like to be a tenure-track professor, absolutely, that is one of the reasons I am considering this long road. Would I like a higher salary, heck yeah, but I am not doing this for the money (though my wife wishes I was). In addition, I know all too well how hard the federal grant dollars are to come by, but I plan to work harder and longer, as I always have, to get the grant funding I need. I am not getting any younger, but I will never be younger than I am today, so I might as well start now!

Therefore, over the next few months (starting next week, right after I submit my first NIH grant where I am the Principal Investigator, not just a Co-investigator — hmm maybe I don’t need a PhD after all…), I am going to Tweet my adventures in PhD investigation and application. The ups, the downs, and everything in between. I will try to make it an educational and entertaining one as well! So follow me on Twitter @marionleary and I will use the established hashtags in the PhD Twitterverse #PhdChat and #PhDLife. Wish me luck, I am going to need it!