Should I Get My PhD? (Probably Not)


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"I'm thinking about getting my PhD," is something that students like to say when thinking out loud about their futures. Sometimes it is added as an afterthought just before or after a bit about family. They will say, "I'll get married and we'll have some kids, ... and I'll probably get my doctorate." And so on. The doctoral degree seems to factor into about half of my students' futures.

It is my opinion that, for most students, pursuing the doctoral degree is a mistake.

The picture of the octopus is not (only) for fun. It represents the title of an essay written over 100 years ago in which another American psychologist makes a similar argument. His essay shines brighter than the one you are about to read. You'll find a link to the better one below.

Side note: In the field of psychology, there are three doctorates you can get: Doctor of Education (Ed.D.; e.g., in counseling psychology), Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.; e.g., in clinical psychology), and Doctor of Philosophy (PhD; e.g., in developmental psychology). I do not count an MD with a specialization in psychiatry as a psychological doctorate. There are important differences between each, but I'm going to lump them all into "the doctorate," which I will occasionally refer to as the PhD. 

Opportunity Cost

For the average psychology student, a doctorate will take 9-11 years to complete. This figure is added to however many years it took for the student to finish their bachelor's degree. 

9-11 years is a considerable investment of time, and it is usually spent during a person's 20s or 30s. These are important years if a person has hopes for starting, supporting, or being present to a family. But these years are also important for the purposes of financial planning and wealth building. Forget the likely prodigious costs for tuition and so on. Money invested in your 20s will have 40 years to grow before traditional retirement age. This means that $20,000 that is invested (which is actually less than the maximum the government allows you to save annually in tax-deferred retirement plans) during this time will grow to $900,000. And this is when using lower-than-average market returns. By spending an extra 10 years making less-than-minimum wage during this time, a student is walking away from an awful lot of money down the road.

All of this to say nothing of the significant debt that a student will probably incur during these 9-11 years. My PhD program was fully funded (with a minimal living stipend), yet I still wound up nearly six figures in debt. The average debt is much higher.

Nobody Cares

The next reason to avoid a doctorate is that nobody cares. This reason might come as a surprise. There is a lot of excitement and social capital associated with a doctorate. "I'm a doctor, but not that kind of doctor," is a popular joke on TV. The doctorate has taken on a vague bucket-list sort of achievement quality. People say the same thing about writing a book or learning to speak French. 

Just like seeing a Porsche 911 driving down the highway, when a person hears that you have a doctorate, they will wonder whether or not they might look good in one. They will not think of you any differently. And I think they are justified in this. A doctorate is evidence that you were patient enough to survive another 9-11 years of tedium (at considerable cost). 

Philosopher Graham Harman, on his blog, has explained that the value of the PhD is that it comes with the realization that there is nothing special about the PhD. This is important if you think that everybody with a PhD is Albert Einstein. If you are so tongue-tied and nervous whenever you're around non-physician doctors, then possession of a PhD will allow you to keep your head. That's worth something, but probably not $900,000. 

You Don't Need One

There are a few jobs that require a specific doctorate. You cannot become a physician without an M.D. or D.O. You cannot become a clinical psychologist without a Psy.D. or Ph.D.

But most jobs can be applied for and had without a doctorate. You don't need a doctorate to become a college professor, for example. Many colleges and universities will hire faculty who hold a master's degree in their area of expertise. You also don't need a doctorate to become a clinical mental health counselor. In about half of the states in the USA, you can become a fully licensed therapist without a doctorate. 

Think seriously about whether or not your desired job requires a doctorate. Ask yourself, "Is obtaining one worth all of the opportunity costs?"

The Whole System is Ridiculous

Perhaps my favorite reason for skipping the doctorate is that the whole system is ridiculous. Doctoral degree-granting programs have been multiplying like rabbits. Specializations are invented, and then degree programs are designed at increasing heights on the academic ladder. 

I won't go into the scandal about the compensation of graduate teaching and research assistants, but I will say that universities make tons of money with their doctoral programs. It is no wonder that most disciplines create 10-100 new doctorates for every one job that becomes available. 

The disconnection between "doctoral training" and the jobs that come on the other end was captured beautifully and hilariously and poignantly by William James, in an essay titled "The PhD Octopus." In it James tells the story of a student who was pursuing his doctorate in the Philosophy Department at Harvard University. This student had decided to leave philosophy, in the end, and to accept a position as an instructor of literature at another school-- a position that had been all but secured. A condition of the new literature professorship, however, required procurement of a PhD (Procurement? Merely thinking of James has me using longer words). This student would have to return to Harvard to complete the PhD in philosophy before he would be able to teach literature. 

I trust you get the idea by now. The PhD in philosophy does nothing in helping this young man teach literature. But it didn't matter. The bureaucracy of the PhD required it. The student failed his thesis and had to bow before the human resources department of his new school in order to keep his job.

The whole thing was a joke. The joke persists.

But You Got Your Doctorate

It is true, I obtained a PhD. This makes me a hypocrite. If I could do it all again, I would probably still get a PhD. But this is because I was one of the lucky ones. I'm in the minority. I was one of the 50% who finished the degree that I started. Then I was one of the 25% of PhD-finishers who would go on to land a tenure-track job at a university. Part-time, nontenured, or conditional positions are far more common for PhDs. When you hear "part-time, nontenured, or conditional," think "60-hour work weeks with unpaid travel." It's not a situation I would wish on any of my students. 

I also wouldn't wish 9-11 years of zero net worth accumulation during prime wealth-building years on any of my students, either.


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