Is a PhD worth it?

Is a PhD worth it? Here’s the zen answer: only you can know for certain if it’s worth it. But for real, maybe. It just depends on who you are, where you are in your life, and if you have the desire to do it. So let’s go through the cons (always with the cons first) and the pros. Brutal honesty here.

Cons:

(1) The Time. OH the time it takes! So much time. I was a wee lad of 21 when I got accepted to graduate school. Now as a 29-year-old (plus a few years), I spend many a night thinking about my twenties. Did I spend them wisely? Did I forego experiences for school?  Would I still be a size 28 waist if I had gotten a real job after undergrad?

It really did take 9 years to get through graduate school. 2 for my MA and 7 for my PhD. But the problem isn’t just that it takes a long time to finish; You have to consider that graduate school is all-encompassing. It eats up most of your day, and you literally have to schedule “fun.”

(2) The Reality. Life does not stop because you are in a PhD program. Nobody cares. “I don’t have time for a boyfriend. I’m a PhD student.” “I can’t have a kid now. I’m a PhD student.” “I can’t take on a mortgage. I’m a PhD student.”  Well, you’re going to spend 5-10 years of your life pretending that the real world is on hold, but it’s not. The best advice I ever got about “grad schooling” was from one of my professors: “If you want to have a kid, have a kid.”  The impulse is to use the PhD as a crutch, and say you’ll do things later when you get a real job/when you have more time/when you have the “luxury” to do whatever it is you’re putting off. Just be ready for some disappointment if you put things off a little too long. Not that I know from experience…

(3) The Loneliness. The first couple of years are fine. You take classes, you have friends, you have a relatively normal schedule… and then you hit year 4. And it all goes away. You do your quals or comps, propose a dissertation project, and then spend the rest of your years toiling away over some manuscript trying to figure out if that dot over the letter is actually part of the letter or a speck of dust. People see you coming out of the library or heading to a coffee shop and ask you what you’ve been doing. “Lots,” you say. But you have nothing to show for it other than tons of thoughts and some scant notes that don’t really amount to anything. Then you try to explain why this particular word in this particular manuscript is so important for, you know, earth and all, and you can see their eyes literally closing because you’re actually putting them to sleep. You realize nobody cares as much as you do, so you get through your pleasantries and go back to your cubby of manuscript doom.

(4) The Stress. I once had hair. I did. People don’t believe me, but I did. It’s hard to remember that doing a PhD is often not earth-shattering for anyone but you. Your research is niche. It’s not going to solve the world’s problems. But somehow you’ll forget that fact and spend many of your days thinking your world is going to collapse because you haven’t done X. Oh no, I didn’t write 3 pages today. Oh no, I didn’t read that article today. Oh no, I think I left the stove on and now I’m going to lose an hour trying to get back to the apartment. PhD life is a lot of “dammit”s and “you’ve got to be kidding me”s.

Aside from the stress you put on yourself, there’s the stress brought on by your advisor, your department, your division, the university as a whole, your friend group (“why aren’t you hanging out with us?”), your family, and the list goes on and on. And you wonder why some PhD students look haggard and crazed. That’s not to say that it would be different in the “real world,” but at least you’d have some mad money to buy that damned PSL that’s calling your name.

(5) The Privileged Ones. I know, I know, everyone’s problems are legit and should be taken seriously. But good grief!  You’re going to meet some of the most privileged people on earth in graduate school. And if not at your school, you’ll meet them at conferences and lectures. They’re nice. You will like them. That’s not the issue. But it’s hard to take someone’s problems seriously when their biggest worry in life is that someone didn’t respond to an email or their third grant didn’t come through (when they didn’t even need the first because they have a trust fund). You will learn that Fred not responding to Ethel’s email is equally as life altering and stressful as you not being able to pay your rent this month. But you sit and listen to Ethel because you’re a good person, and someday, Ethel might see that they’ve had an easier lot in life (at least with certain things).

You will also meet faculty who have forgotten what it’s like to be a student. There is a certain amount of privilege that comes with being a faculty member. Respect and steady pay are the two big ones. I’ll leave respect alone for now, but pay is a bit of a problem.  I started my PhD with a stipend of $23,000 a year (that was in 2013; it’s about $34,000 now).  To a kid who was making $10,000 a year in undergrad, more than doubling my income was phenomenal. But then the adult world sets in and you realize everything costs a lot of money. Rent. Internet. Books. Coffee, coffee, coffee.  Years ago, I was complaining in casual conversation to one of the deans that grad students don’t get a livable stipend and that a lot of our family members chastise us for not making more money (my parents never did, but a good number of friends had to deal with unsupportive families).  The dean responded, “You should tell your family that you make about $95,000 a year. We just keep about $70,000 of it for your tuition. They should be proud.”  Yeah… if I’d ever seen $95,000 deposited in my account, I would have taken the money and peaced out to a beach somewhere.

(6) The Finances. You don’t do a PhD to make millions. You do it because you enjoy the work, the lifestyle, the title (yes, you better call me doctor because I worked my tail off for it.  Dr. Auggie, the Doc, DocAug… I’m still workshopping, but you get my drift). 

So you won’t make a lot of money while you’re in a PhD program (more about that in the pros section). And the sad news: you probably won’t make a lot of money after your PhD, especially with the way things are going now. You can expect to make about as much with an MA in the workforce.  Notice I use “workforce” and not “academia.”  If you get a tenure-track job after your PhD (so estimate 7 years from now), you’ll be one of the *very* few who do.  There are only a handful of jobs available now, so we can only imagine how bad the academic market will be when you’re done. So you will end up going into a non-academic career. Shocking.

Pros:

Now that you’re thoroughly depressed about PhD life, let’s look at some of the positive aspects of going through the gauntlet. 

(1) The Consistent Pay. It’s low, but it’s consistent. Most programs (I stress most and not all) pay PhD students a stipend or some form of pay for work. That means that you will have money to pay for an apartment, food, internet, and an occasional Starbucks Venti soy PSL with 2 pumps of white chocolate (don’t judge me). And when you think about the economy now, having 5-9 years of consistent pay is a good thing. I know some of you reading this will be surprised by 9 years of funding, but yes, there are programs (UChicago Humanities, for example) that provide a stipend for that long. I didn’t benefit from this program because I started in 2013, but anyone starting after 2016 gets about $34k a year. Couple that with a part-time job on campus and you’ll make a cool $40k.  Not bad if you have no job prospects at the moment.

(2) The Skills. You will gain skills. I promise. You will learn data entry, public speaking, languages, writing, pedagogy. The list goes on and on. But for the 2020 world and beyond, many of these skills are considered “soft.” BUT! You are learning them and you can translate them to a broader market beyond academia. “Dissertation” = “Project Management.”  “Conferencing” = “Public Speaking.”  “Research and cataloging” = “Data Management.” And so on.  But even the “soft” skills you learn are worth something.

Beyond the “soft” skills, you do learn A LOT. Writing. Critical thinking. Analysis. Critique. Languages. Theory. Data entry. Speaking. These all might sound like things you’re good at, but they do improve. You’re constantly put in situations where you will have to produce knowledge. You will have to produce ideas that have not been produced before. You will have to stretch your abilities to accomplish things you thought you couldn’t do.  That is worth something.

(3) The Friends. Grad school is hard, but you meet some of the best people and you will keep them in your life. Forever. The whole BFF thing isn’t just for grade school.  It’s also for grad school. There is something about experiencing and surviving a graduate program that bonds you. And, of course, you’ll have your wine nights, whiskey nights, cheese nights, and whatever nights suit you. Just make sure you’re willing to plan them. You’ll get invited. But you should do the inviting too.

(4) The Spouse. Okay, so this is very unique to me, but I’m not the only one who has found a life partner in graduate school. You will meet a lot of like-minded people who have the same values, and perhaps, maybe, possibly, one of them will be single and find you intriguing.

So, is it worth it?  Well, for me, yes. Yes, it was. The two worst, and I mean worst, events of my life happened in graduate school. And the very best ones did too.  I have a PhD that I worked hard to attain, and I’m proud of myself for doing it. I have a group of friends that I can contact whenever about whatever. I have a humble but good life. It worked out for me. No, I didn’t get a tenure-track job at some prestigious university, but I’m good. I think you’ll be good too.

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