#PhDOrBust… or Not: Is a PhD For Me?

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:

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.).

In Conclusion…

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?


  1. Hi Arrianna, thanks for sharing, I just felt like I should leave a little reply in here. In fact, I thought you had been doing your PhD all along, it is only recently that I’ve realized you’re doing your master’s thesis. I used to think it’s the soon-to be PhD who is speaking ;) Anyway, I have a few considerations I’d like to mention here: 1) The most deterring thing about a PhD in the US is probably the extreme costs. This is totally unfair and certainly helps a lot to keep off a lot of people from any but the richest sections of society to pursue their studies up to PhD level. Do you think the only option is getting a PhD within the U.S.? In other countries, tuition fees are often considerably cheaper – possibly there are even foreign exchange programmes with scholarships for incoming students included. I know this kind of thing exists in Germany, for example, though I honestly don’t think Germany is a particularly attractive country or place to study. But they do fund incoming students on certain programmes, that much I know, and I’d be surprised if other countries didn’t do the same. 2) I really can’t tell why your former professor advised you the way she or he did, and therefore I’m not supposed to speculate about it. But still: are you really totally sure you’d have got exactly the same advice if you were, e.g., a caucasian man? 3) I don’t know how much the way people think will change over the next couple of years, but it’s well possible that the credentials of a PhD will not disappear so soon from people’s world views, even though it’s rather stupid to be impressed by a few letters behind someone’s name. Having a PhD could open up opportunities to teach at university or do some research alongside your other activities outside academia. It can even be a door-opener in totally unrelated situations, just because people respect PhDs. Who knows, as much as there are obvious shortcomings in academia, leaving it completely could also make you miss the intense thinking and arguing you’ve got used to by now, which is not easily found in other professional fields. At least that’s how I feel about it myself, and that’s also why I have decided to continue pursuing that PhD even though I’ve had to overcome a number of obstacles along my way. At the same time I do know that there are extremely interesting and meaningful activities for me outside academia, or somewhere between academia and the “outside world” (social entrepreneurship, for example), and I am determined to explore these options and even concentrate on them. But that notwithstanding, the PhD is still high up on my to do list, and luckily, I’ve found a way of doing it through a research that I’m actually getting paid for, instead of having to pay for it myself. Otherwise I’d really find it difficult to manage. – Well, so much for my thoughts, sorry it’s become that long, I just wanted to share my thoughts as I’ve been facing the same question :)

    1. The thing about getting a PhD in Europe is that without scholarships, stipends, etc, I’d be paying out of pocket to do research and produce a doctoral thesis, whereas in the US, if a PhD program really wanted me, they’d offer full funding for 5 years (2-3 years coursework, 2-3 years of dissertation writing.) I applied to schools in the UK, and the cost deterred me.

      I am not at all interested in teaching within the academy, and the process of getting a PhD seems to be too costly in terms of time, money and foregone opportunities for practical experience. That’s where I stand at this moment.

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