I’ve been hesitant to write this post because it feels like I am possibly foreclosing options by doing so. After some deliberation, I decided to go for it.
PhD Or Bust! … or Not
The litany of “Don’t Do It, Girl!” articles about PhD programs hasn’t been that convincing to me. Too often, they are written by tenured professors who write from a privileged position of relative security amid shifts in the Academy. On the other hand, I’ve read a good number of these articles from current or former PhD students, many of whom are facing high debt loads coupled with diminishing job security and clout in the workplace. Either way, their stake in this matter is not mine. More to the point, most of them do not resemble me remotely in terms of their social position. I am a Black woman with a “disability” who hails from a working-middle-class background (with more social than economic class). I do not have the same considerations as many of these writers do.
I’m in graduate school now, finishing up my MA in Social Sciences (Political Science) at the University of Chicago. I am right in the middle of the Academy. I am the frog who knows that the water is hot. I have lived the lean life of a graduate student, and it is not unlike the life of an un(der)employed recent graduate amid a recession in some respects. On the upshot, there are books, academic journals, and fascinating graduate seminars (my intellect frolics!).
As I finish my MA Thesis, I ask myself, “Do I really want or need a PhD?” After a moment, I break it down- “What do I want to do? How will a PhD help me accomplish this? Or will a PhD program mean years of foregone opportunities for practical work in the field in which I already work?”
What do I want to do? I want to do what I am already doing- research, writing, creating and designing training materials for non-profit organizations and NGOs serving “populations on the move” (thus far: homeless communities, refugees, asylees, trafficked persons, migrant workers). Do I have the skills that I need to do this? Yes. Am I gaining the experience I need? Yes. But do I need a PhD to do this work? The current answer is “No.”
In short, my interests have never been simply academic or intellectual. Yes, intellectual analysis informs my practice, but the former is not sufficient. In my experience, theorizing in an enclosed space and place is an exercise in futility. Good theory is dynamic and its validity is tested through practice.
I resist using a “Return on Investment” (ROI) analysis to assess whether a PhD is worthwhile for me, because economic analysis often fail to capture the “softer” benefits of education and other pursuits that do not immediately yield economic gains. On the other hand, as a product of home-schooling, I’ve always rejected the notion of education being legitimate only in institutionalized contexts, and it makes sense to consider the economic costs of a PhD program.
- In 5-7 years, will practical work experience matter more than a PhD and its concomitant specialized skill sets (so often attuned to the academy)? If so, why get a PhD?
- How much student loan debt do you have? Post-PhD, will your income be sufficient for repayment? What does the job market for PhD-holders in your field look like? What are the beginning salaries of successful job-searchers?
- What does your funding package look like? Do you have a scholarship, fellowship, stipend or a TA-ship?
- Furthermore, will you have to take out student loans to cover unanticipated costs during the PhD program (these costs include housing, health issues, and so on)? Will you need to work in addition to a full course load in order to make ends meet?
These questions differ from the questions I asked myself as an un(der)employed college graduate without much professional work experience. Now that I have years of professional experience and clearly-demonstrated skills, I have different considerations.
What Should Prospective Applicants to Graduate Programs Know?
To be honest, there was a lot that I did not know the first time I applied to graduate programs. I did not know that as I advanced in my graduate studies, I’d be asked to narrow my focus more and more. I did not know that the “life of the mind” is not without its fraught interpersonal politics (e.g. “Don’t cite Prof. X in Prof. Y’s class. They had a beef back in grad school.”)
And I most certainly did not know how hard and fast the lines between “traditional” disciplines in the Social Sciences are in spite of claims to “interdisciplinarity.” My undergraduate degree from U.C. Berkeley was in History, but my Thesis employed both Historical methods and interpretive methods employed by Political Theorists. Here at UChicago, my Thesis is based on ethnographic data and historical primary documents, while the methodology is squarely in the realm of Political Theory.
In a nutshell, everything I wished I knew before I applied to graduate school can be found on my colleague’s blog, where he has articles on every step of the process, including:
- MA or PhD?
- Your Timeline – A timeline for applicants applying to graduate programs in the U.S.
- Organization During Application Season
- The GRE and the GRE Fee Reduction
- Your CV – Tips on how to write and format your CV
- Letters of Recommendation – Considerations for choosing a recommendation-writer
- Organizing Your Information – Organizing your information for a potential recommendation letter-writer
- Picking a Program – More geared toward the Humanities, but applicable to the Social Sciences
- Multiple Offers: The Power to Say No – How to negotiate when you have multiple admissions offers
- Notes on Mentors – On the importance of mentors
This seems like a long list, but I assure you, this blog is an excellent resource for prospective applicants to graduate programs (particularly in the U.S.).
After a talk with my mentor, a former Professor, I soberly reached the conclusion that a PhD is not a necessity for me, and would probably come at a great cost to me and my goals. To be frank, it was freeing. My perspective has shifted such that I can consider a PhD program as a possible future option, even as I continue to do the work that I love to do. I will still turn in my best possible Thesis, and I will still maintain communications with faculty members who taught and supported me through graduate school.
What are your considerations when you think of applying to graduate programs? How will you weigh the decision to go… or not?