Advice for Prospective Doctoral Students

There is tons of advice on the Internet (e.g., on the academic blogs I read) for prospective doctoral students. I am very happy with my own graduate school choices but I feel that I basically got lucky. Few people are saying the two things I really wish someone had told me before I made the decision to get a PhD:

  • Most people getting doctorates would probably be better off doing something else.
  • Evaluating potential programs can basically be done by looking at and talking with a program’s recent graduates.

Most People Getting Doctorates Probably Shouldn’t

In most fields, the only thing you need a PhD for is to become a professor — and even this requirement can be flexible. You can have almost any job in any company or non-profit without a PhD. You can teach without a PhD. You can write books without a PhD. You can do research and work in thinktanks without a PhD. You don’t even always need a PhD to grant PhDs to other people: two of my advisors at the Media Lab supervised PhD work but did not have doctorates themselves! Becoming a tenured professor is more difficult without a doctorate, but it is not impossible. There are grants and jobs outside of universities that require doctorates, but not nearly as many as most people applying for PhDs programs think.

Getting a doctorate can even hurt: If you want to work in a company or non-profit, you are usually better off with 4-6 years of experience doing the kind of work you want to do than with the doctorate and the less relevant experience of getting one. Starting salaries for people with doctorates are often higher than for people with masters degrees. But salaries for people with masters degrees and 5 years of experience are even higher — and that’s before you take into account the opportunity costs of working for relatively low graduate student wages for half a decade.

PhD take an enormous amount of time and, in most programs, you spend a huge amount of this time doing academic busy work, teaching, applying for grants or fellowships, and writing academic papers that very few people read. These are skills you’ll need to be a successful professor. They are useful skills for other jobs too, but not as useful as the experience of actually doing those other jobs for the time it takes to get the degree.

Evaluating Graduate Programs

If you are still convinced you need a doctorate, or any graduate degree for that matter, you will need to pick a program. Plenty of people will offer advice on how to pick the right program and trying to balance all the complicated and contradictory advice can be difficult. Although I love my program and advisors, I’ve known many less happy students. Toward that end, there are two pieces of meta-advice that I wish everybody was told before they applied:

  1. Find recent graduates of the program you are considering, and the faculty advisor(s) you are planning on working with, and look at where they are now. Are these ex-students doing the kind of work that you want to do? Are they at great programs at great universities?

    Chances are good that a PhD program and its faculty will prepare future students to be like, and do work like, the students they have trained in the past. Programs that consistently make good placements are preparing their students well, supporting them, making sure they have the resources necessary to do good work, and helping their students when they are on the job market. A program whose students do poorly, or just end doing work that isn’t like the kind you want to do, will probably fail you too.

  2. If recent graduates seem to be generally successful and doing the kind of work you want to do, find one who looks most like the kind of academic you want to become and talk to them about their experience. Chances are, your faculty advisors will overlap with theirs and your experience will be similar. Ex-students can tell you the strengths of weaknesses of the program you are considering and what to watch out for. If they had a horrible experience, there’s a decent chance you will too, and they will tell you so.

Doing these two things means you don’t have to worry about trying to think of all the axes on which you want to evaluate a program or pour through admissions material which is only tangentially connected to the reality you’ll live for a long time. What matters most is the outcomes, of course, because you’re be living the rest of your life for a lot longer than you’ll be in the PhD program.

8 Replies to “Advice for Prospective Doctoral Students”

  1. I think the most important aspects of a doctorate is that the process of getting it should be rewarding to you. This isn’t a quick qualifying course or a drivers licence or something where the end result is the only thing that matters. It is years of your life; if you do not enjoy the process you should not be doing it.

    The corollary is that if you really, truly love doing it then what you do afterwards may not matter too much. I like the analogy of getting five years all-paid life on a tropical island. Yes, there’s poisonous animals and rough weather, but also the experience of a lifetime. If that experience appeals to you then you should not turn down the opportunity just because it’s limited to five years.

  2. I think this is right Janne. But I also think that most people who would find doing a doctorate rewarding would also find doing other things equally rewarding. Doing a doctorate is also something like a dress rehearsal for being a professor. I’m sure that there are corner cases where this isn’t true but it seems pretty unlikely that someone would love the process of being a graduate student more than any other possible job and not also want to be a professor.

  3. This probably applies well to Computer Science and Information Technology related fields, but I’ve always wondered how well it goes for sciences like physics or chemistry, or other areas of knowledge such as maths or even philosophy.

    Most people studying something like pure mathematics (something really high level such as Category Theory for example) do it either to come up with new research answers and problems (in which case I see the PhD as the best direction) or to teach on the subject (same for that). Sure, it might be different for applied mathematics (like statistics or cryptography) or some areas of physics/chemistry, but I feel there are some areas that are exclusively meant for academic research.

  4. My own points of references are in sociology (organizational mostly) and in computer science and engineering.

    Based on my partner and her experience, I think this mostly applies to biological sciences and public health although I think there are more positions in applied biology that put candidates without PhDs at a real disadvantage.

    I think my first piece of advice will apply even more to “more academic” disciplines  (i.e., disciplines with less strong industrial and non-academic connections). I’d be very surprised if the second piece of advice does not apply everywhere.

  5. In philosophy, a Ph.D. is the best preparation and, for practical purposes, a
    prerequisite to research work.

    Having recently graduated, my advice to prospective candidates would be to do
    as I did – choose a topic that deeply fascinates you and which you know will
    sustain your interest for however long it takes to carry out the research and
    to write, then revise, a successful thesis. We’ve probably all heard of the person who
    proves a significant theorem, writes a thesis about it and receives a doctoral
    degree within months – but this is very atypical, and you should, in general,
    expect a lengthy and challenging research process, perhaps with changes of
    direction along the way. The average time taken to write a Ph.D. thesis is
    reportedly growing, as is the quality of the research. (Unfortunately I don’t
    have a reference to the study; can someone verify this?)

    The exact requirements of the Ph.D. program and the examination process vary
    between countries, but the essence is the same: the candidate undertakes a
    research project and writes a thesis/dissertation, which is then assessed. The
    research must make an original contribution to knowledge in the discipline. In
    some countries, doctoral programs include a coursework component, whereas in
    others, all needed courses must have been completed prior to admission.
    Whether the examiners are appointed from within or outside the university in
    which the candidate is enrolled also varies – here in Australia, for example,
    the examiners must all be external.

    Also, be sure to take advantage of opportunities to attend research seminars
    and conferences in your discipline. These will broaden your understanding of
    research problems that lie outside the narrow limits of your current project,
    which can easily become completely enveloping otherwise.

  6. I think the idea is that if you are looking for best monetary return, then PhD is not what you want.  If you want to understand the theory really well, then PhD is good.  There are many private sector jobs that want PhDs.  It’s not just for professors.  And I agree, there are probably many people that get PhDs that shouldn’t.  On the other hand, lot of times you don’t know that until you try.

    Plus despite what a lot of people seem to say.  Being a graduate student was the most fun and least responsibility I have had in my entire life (perhaps since preschool).  My responsibility was mostly doing math which is what I like doing.  Once you get a job, your responsibility is a lot of stuff you really don’t care about doing.  I never understood why people don’t like being a grad student.

  7. “PhD take an enormous amount of time and, in most programs, you spend a huge amount of this time doing academic busy work, teaching, applying for grants or fellowships, and writing academic papers that very few people read.”

    my main issue is that while i’m not looking for a career that requires having obtained a phd, i just don’t see any other opportunities to read, have access to a certain type of discussion, materials, time for writing that a phd would allow me (theory, philosophy, etc. being my interest). not being independently wealthy it keeps on coming up that a phd (with all its compromises) remains the only option to pursue this.

    so what to do…

  8. a to the a: I think you’d be surprised at how it is possible, if you find and insert yourself in the right career, place, and social setting, to have access to the activities and discussions you want to. Communities of professional writers, translators, and others very often have the qualities you are looking for. I don’t know you, so I’m sorry I don’t have better advice.

    After all, you’re going to have the same dilemma after you finish the PhD that you’re facing right now so this is really only putting off the problem. Don’t do grad school because you find some of the side-effects enjoyable with the idea that you’ll give all those side effects after graduation. Instead, spend the next five years finding and building the life you actually want to have going forward. If you want to be an academic, the best way to do that is probably graduate school. If you don’t want to be an academic, it probably isn’t.

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