The 5 1/2 Most Important Things I Didn’t Know When I Started My PhD
Toying with the idea of getting a doctorate? Here’s some things you need to know.
When I decided to get a Ph.D., there was an awful lot that no one told me. Knowing what I know now, I would still have done it. But wouldn’t it have been great to have been better informed?
1. Almost half don’t finish.
I first figured this out by counting mailboxes. Way back in 2002, when I started, there was a room in our department with a physical box for each person, with everyone's name color coded by program. I counted about 70.
Later in the program, I started looking at completed dissertations to get an idea of format, length, etc. My schoolmates were publishing an average of three per year. That meant the completion rate at my school at that time was probably 20–30%.
Nationally, rates are around 45 — 65% per year, depending on discipline. My school was an outlier. Immediately after I finished my coursework, my school aligned our requirements with other similar programs. My department slashed course requirements, went from three comprehensive exams to one, and started a cohort system.
These changes were not solely out of kindness. The university was on a crusade to become a Tier 1 research university and needed healthier Ph.D. programs.
Lesson Learned: Be aware of the graduation rate in your department at your school. Don’t be afraid, but don’t start unless you are 100% committed.
2. The classes are the easiest part. Then it gets real.
Two distinct phases divide typical doctoral programs. The first phase is coursework. Like a Master’s degree, you take required and elective classes. These culminate in some combination of oral and written exams. In my case there were four, but that’s unusual. The courses are challenging and the comps are painful, but at least there is a road map.
After passing the comps, you reach All But Dissertation (ABD) status. This is the most dangerous time. I saw at least two professors that were hired as faculty in my department at ABD status who did not finish their programs back at their universities. There might have been more. Consider the crushing blow of failure after years and thousands of dollars invested, plus losing your job.
The hardest part. Deciding what to study and how to study it was my hardest part. What is it that you are passionate enough about to marry the topic for a couple of years? Can you research it? What will be your thesis and how will you prove or disprove it? I lost a couple of YEARS at this stage. Most who lose momentum like that never recover.
Once you devise your research plan, you write a dissertation proposal that you defend in front of your dissertation committee. It usually goes through several drafts and rewrites, and can take months to get through.
The easiest part. The good news is that once your proposal is approved, it’s all down hill. You have have written a detailed plan, now you just follow it. You collect the data, do the analysis, and come to a conclusion. Often, it doesn’t really matter what the result is, just whether you did a good job proving or rejecting your hypothesis.
The dissertation defense is even easier. Your committee will already have reviewed and approved a final draft of the dissertation. You should already have answered any real concerns that they have. If you fail the dissertation defense, it’s because your committee didn’t do a good job preparing you. It happens, particularly at some schools, but not that often.
Lesson Learned: Work on your proposal early. Research your sources and come up with a topic. Find a trusted professor, ideally one who will chair or be on you committee, to give you some advice on your hypothesis.
3. There is no magic job at the end of the rainbow.
Earning a Ph.D. Doesn’t guarantee you a full time job in academia. Only about 25% of courses are taught by tenure track faculty. The rest are graduate assistants or ‘adjunct’ instructors. Adjuncts are gig workers, usually paid by the course but sometimes hired full time. If you aren’t lucky enough to land a position at graduation, you will likely end up in the adjunct track.
For someone like me, with a separate professional day job, it’s a great deal. It pays well and I love the work. Not everyone is in my position.
Consider a new Ph.D., thousands or tens of thousands of dollars in debt, who doesn’t land a tenure track job. Plenty of young Ph.Ds teach two or three classes at two or three schools, trying to string together enough dollars to support a young family. If they want to land a teaching job, they have to publish articles to be competitive.
Lesson Learned: Go in with a plan for after, and start working that plan early. Research the demand for your degree in both industry and academia.
4. You won’t feel successful.
Not everyone will go through this phase, but enough do that it rates mention.
I am proud of my Ph.D., but getting it caused anxiety all its own. I felt like a fraud during the last stages of my dissertation and after graduation. It seems like a cliche, but a piece of paper can’t validate your self worth.
You look around at everyone else and wonder, ”Did I really do this?” The university must be making a mistake. I’m not that smart, I can’t be a Doctor. You remember every flaw in your dissertation, the one misspelled word on page 83 that will be there forever.
Maybe your math was wrong, or you didn’t do the right statistical test. Your university is going to find out you are really not all that smart. They are going to send you a letter taking it all away.
Don’t listen to your lizard brain. Either time or an article like this one will fix you. I read about it somewhere on the internet and it clicked; I understood what I was going through. I asked a couple of other recent grads, and they had the same feeling. I told my brother is working on his own Ph.D. He thought it was just him that felt that way.
Lesson Learned: It can be an emotional process. Talk with your peers and talk with your professors. Read about others who have been through it.
5. It was worth the effort.
A doctoral degree will not make you more intelligent, but you will stretch and grow your mind in ways you never foresaw. It probably won’t make you rich, but it will help you professionally somehow.
I’ve trained for and run two marathons. A doctorate is like training to run a marathon for half a decade or more. If you are talented enough to earn a Master’s and be accepted into a Ph.D. program, you probably have the talent to finish. When you do, it is an accomplishment you will be proud of for life.
Lesson Learned: It can be an emotional process. Talk with your peers and talk with your professors. Read about others who have been through it before you.
PS. Thanks for reading this far. One last item is that you have to purchase your regalia (cap, hood, and gown). You can’t rent, even if you are not going to work in academia. It will probably set you back $500! Not a big deal after years and thousands of dollars, but an irritant along with other graduation expenses. This was the 1/2 thing.
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I spent ten years getting a Ph.D. unrelated to my job. Was it worth it?
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