Lo, what should I find at Amazon this morning but a nice review of Slave Labor! And then, while seeking something else, a confirmation of Slave Labor’s thesis in Yuval Bar-Or‘s Is a Ph.D. for Me?, verbosely but accurately subtitled Life in the Ivory Tower: A Cautionary Guide for Aspiring Doctoral Students.
Too many young men and women who go into PhD and MFA programs have no idea what awaits them. Every would-be graduate student should read these two books.
If you understand what to expect and if you have an independent source of income, by all means get a PhD in whatever subject warms your heart. But bear in mind that a PhD is a professional degree, not a program whose purpose is to turn out a man (or woman) for all seasons.
A “professional” degree should get you into a profession, but more and more PhD programs fail to do that. As a steadily increasing proportion of American faculty is relegated to the sweat-shop, your chance of landing a full-time job that will support you and a family is remote, at best.
Do I regret having pursued a doctorate? Not much. But my circumstances were exceptional:
- I was married to a man who was among the top 3 percent of earners in this country.
- He was a public-intellectual sort of guy who ran in some very brainy circles, and so adding a PhD to my name made me a variety of trophy wife.
- My real job was to support him in the community, take care of his home, raise his child, and manage his social life. So, as a practical matter I had gainful employment outside of academia.
- And I stumbled into journalism, pretty much by serendipity. While the doctorate didn’t directly affect my performance there, behind the scenes it did help me to land the best job of my working lifetime, an editorial position at a large regional magazine.
- Twenty years of journalism experience plus the disused doctorate got me in the door, after a divorce, to a full-time (but nontenurable!) position at a large state university. As Bar-Or suggests, academia is not the happiest place to put food on your table. But in the unlikely event that you obtain full-time work, it suffices.
Often, though, I reflect that had I started in magazine journalism after I finished the master’s degree, I would have had one hell of a lot more fun and, by using the time to gain job experience, would have gone much further up the executive stairwell.
Some doctoral degrees will give you entrée to corporate and high-level government jobs. Economics is one of them. A master’s in journalism is another (I would not pursue a PhD in that trade). The PhD in psychology has some potential, but in terms of earning a living, a master’s in nursing can help you to become a psychiatric nurse practitioner, which more reliably will return a six-figure income.
Think it through. Don’t get a doctorate in a subject just because you “love” it. Get a doctorate, if you must, solely as a career move. And be damn sure that career will be open to you when you complete the degree.
What are some guidelines that might help you think this decision through? Start with these:
- Never assume you’ll be able to get a job in university or community-college teaching. To the contrary: assume that at best you’ll spend several years as a grossly underpaid part-time adjunct, that you’ll be outlandishly lucky to nail a full-time position, and if you do, it probably will be in Podunk, South Dakota.
- Research employment avenues in government and business. Get on the phone (talk to somebody!) and request informational interviews with people who are in the kinds of jobs you think your degree might lead to. Ask how difficult it is to obtain work in that person’s field, and whether the doctorate would be an asset, a hindrance, or a neutral embellishment.
- Select your school with care. In academe, the quality of your degree-granting institution matters. Every advertisement for a full-time opening draws hundreds of qualified applicants: competition is beyond fierce. Especially for academic jobs, it’s crucial to take your degree at an R-1 university. If you don’t know what that is, think about some other line of work.
- Do not imagine that even though everyone else has a tough time getting an academic job, it won’t be that way for you. No matter how good you are, you are not special!
- Do not imagine that you’ll get your foot in the door as an adjunct or research associate and then in a year or two the department will be thrilled to take you on full-time.
- Get an exquisitely clear view of how much the program will cost. Remember to include the cost of housing, food, and commuting, as well as books, tuition, and the school’s miscellaneous rips.
- If you have to finance graduate school with a loan, calculate realistically how long it will take to pay it off and how much it will cost you over that period. And don’t forget to add an extra year in school, beyond what you imagine it will take to complete the degree. Most people spend a year or more after their coursework to write the dissertation.
- Consider pursuing the degree in another country, such as Canada, where tuition may be lower than US schools charge these days.
PhD image: Shutterstock. © 2016 Lemon Tree Images