13 July 2017

To PhD or not to PhD...

To PhD or not to PhD... this is a question that many prospective and current students haven't thoroughly considered. As Daniel McCormack notes in "Some Lesser-Known Truths About Academe" (CHE), part of the problem here is that students often ask their professors' advice, which is "a little like asking The Rock — aka Dwayne Douglas Johnson, the world’s highest-paid actor last year — whether you should become an actor."

Luckily for prospective PhD students today, the rise of social media has made it much easier to find a range of advice from people who aren't already professors -- whether they are current students, ex-students, alt-academics, adjuncts, or tenured professors. This should mean (and hopefully does, if you're reading this blog) that students should have a much better idea of not only whether pursuing a PhD is right for them, but how to pursue this long-term degree in a way that gives you more fulsome, recognizable career options when you complete. We've posted a couple of these discussions for prospective PhD students on our Advice for Grad Students page, such as What you should know before entering a PhD programme (Hortensii), and What is a PhD, anyway? (Jennifer Polk on UA).

So, what does McCormack want you to know? From his perspective as someone who left a postdoc position after a smooth and rather successful experience in academia, he wants you to consider some of the difficult questions about how and where you are willing to work (especially if you have your eyes on the tenure-track prize). He writes: "I want to focus on the aspects of academic work and life that are selectively bad — that is, they’re bad for some people, but not for others." Consider whether any of these potential deal-breakers with an academic future apply to you:
@AcademicsSay on twitter: "Academic life is less
like a box of chocolates and more like a pie eating
contest where the prize is more pie."
  • You have to like long-term projects
  • You don’t need to feel like you’re succeeding
    • As one of McCormack's mentors advised early on: "You absolutely must condition yourself to fail. Constantly. For every small success I had in graduate school, I am certain I had at least a dozen failures: rejected articles, brutal conference reviews, unexpected flaws discovered in something I’d just spent days working on, etc." (Basically, you have to be comfortable with few markers of progress, develop an ability to thrive on constructive criticism, and accept inhabiting "imposter syndrome".)
These final two deal-breakers have more to do with life on an academic career track than grad school itself:
  • You don’t care where you live
  • You don’t mind moving frequently
With that said, if you are open to thinking differently about what a PhD means and what these studies can do for you (for instance, as a way to pursue an alt-ac career through a more holistic approach to your professional development), the last two considerations might not necessarily apply. You can check out our collected advice on ways to think about what a PhD might mean for you beyond a tenure-track position.

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