Reasons For Starting A PhD

The other day I overheard someone say that he was planning to start a PhD because he thought he’d ‘make a good academic’. Fair enough, I suppose. There are any number of reasons why you might be thinking of (or already) pursuing a PhD, and when I overheard this particular comment I didn’t give it much thought. However, reasons why – or why not – to pursue a PhD became a recurrent theme last week, so I decided it was probably a topic worth writing about.

Good reasons for embarking on this particular brand of marathon could include:

  • You are passionate about your subject area
  • You love research
  • You love writing
  • You are looking for a new challenge
  • You are passionate about your subject area
  • You want to try your hand at fieldwork
  • You want to try your hand at teaching
  • You want to research and write a book

There are, no doubt, many others. But if you’re in the social sciences or humanities, ‘getting a job’ (or, indeed, that you think you might make a good academic) is not one of them.* It’s a bitter pill to swallow. But there it is just the same.

I don’t have any hard data on this, but the circumstantial evidence seems to strongly suggest that universities are producing far more PhD graduates than academic jobs. Meanwhile, tenure track positions are going the way of the British hedgehog: they’re still out there but fewer and farther between. You don’t have to take my word for it. These two articles about the plight of junior academics landed on my desk just this past week:

Meet your new professor: Transient, poorly paid

Thesis Hatement: Getting a literature PhD will turn you into an emotional trainwreck, not a professor 

If you are still determined to have a go at carving out an academic career, there are some things that you can do to improve your chances of landing that first adjunct or postdoc position.

First, seek out early career academics in your field and ask them about their strategy for landing a job. They almost certainly got lucky somewhere along the way, but at least some of that luck will have been the product of a lot of hard work. Also ask them about what they do in a typical week, and how that relates to their career-building strategy. The answers may surprise you.

Second, start taking on additional academic responsibilities. In addition to chipping away at your thesis research, a full time job in itself, consider:

  • Teaching undergraduate courses
  • Giving guest lectures
  • Enrolling in teaching training courses
  • Working as a research assistant
  • Helping senior academics with grant writing and development
  • Presenting at major international conferences
  • Organizing a regional or post-graduate conference
  • Enrolling in advanced methodology or analytical software courses
  • Serving on School or Departmental committees
  • Developing your ideas for your next research project
  • Publishing journal articles

All of these opportunities exist, and pursuing them shows that you are serious about an academic career. Being able to list these accomplishments on your CV will also set you apart from other applicants who focused solely on their thesis for the past however-many years.

That said, gaining this experience will require that you take a risk in putting yourself out there. Not all of your conference abstracts or journal articles will be accepted. Many of the opportunities listed above aren’t advertised, and securing them will require knocking on (perhaps more than) a few doors. Time management skills are also critical. None of this ‘extra’ experience will help you in your quest for an academic job if you don’t actually finish your PhD.

The road to full employment is no less precarious for social science and humanities PhDs looking for work in the private sector. And there is even less advice available. A good place to start, though, is So What Are You Going To Do With That: Finding careers outside academia by Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius. Also try finding a mentor outside of the academic bubble who can help you construct a resume that hiring managers might actually read.

There are plenty of good reasons for starting – and finishing – a PhD. Top among them, that we are creative, determined, hard-working, curious people who love research and are passionate about what we do. On one hand a PhD is a remarkable achievement, and on the other it is just another degree. Your PhD probably won’t land you a job. But there are other reasons to still pursue it.

*NOTE: This post primarily applies to people who will be looking for academic jobs in the United States and Europe. My experience of tertiary education systems in other parts of the world is severely limited, but I have heard that there are indeed places where the sector is growing. Your prospects might be better, for instance, if you’re willing to move to Asia.



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