The PhD Question

I get this question a lot.  “Should I do a PhD? I want to work in _____.”  I get it so much, in fact, that I thought I’d turn this into a post, and let others chime in.

My answer is usually “No”, and here’s why:  A PhD is NOT a vocational degree.

NEVER get a PhD because you think it will improve your job prospects.   PhDs are trained to do research in an academic setting, for the most part. And that is….not, frankly, where the majority of jobs are.  You will be disappointed and frustrated if you think getting a PhD will make getting a job “easier.”

Pursue a PhD because you love science, or because you have a burning question about a topic that you want to investigate further.    Do it because you want to push your limits, and create new knowledge.  In the sciences, you should expect that you will receive financial support in the form of a graduate assistantship, so a PhD is something that you do for yourself.  Do a PhD if you like having your mind stretched, exploded, occasionally stomped, and then re-assembled into something wonderful and new.

Yes, it would be nice if the Academy would get with the program and make PhDs more aligned with the current job market.   Tiny bits of management training are being added here and there.  But for the most part, there is a reason everyone dresses up in funny robes with capes and poofy hats when you graduate—it’s because academia is firmly rooted in the past.

It may seem like all the jobs advertised require PhDs, but that is an optical illusion.   Advertising costs money.  Organizations only pay money to advertise jobs that are difficult to fill, or that are at a level where you are required to advertise them to attract a certain candidate pool.  PhD level jobs are advertised, not Bachelor’s level jobs.

The Return-on-Investment of advertising for a Bachelor’s level job just isn’t there like it is with a PhD, so organizations just post BS positions on their websites or locally.  You end up with the appearance of more jobs at the PhD level when you look at journals or major job-posting sites–but it isn’t reality.

If you look at 2006 NSF data for people involved in Research and Development–where you would expect a lot of PhDs to end up–you see that they are just  a small slice of this pie.

The other thing to remember is that if you are looking at want-ads, or online advertisements, you are using the least efficient method of job searching.  Surveys of new hires by the Department of Labor consistently find that around 50% of people got their jobs because they knew someone.  People hire people they already know, or that their colleagues know.

If I have a postdoc, or a summer research position, I’m going to talk to grad students and friends I know already, because they are a known quantity.  I’m going to hire someone who is the best personality fit for the job.  I can train them to do anything technical that they might not know.  It really is who you know, not what you know.

It’s most important to me, as an employer, to have someone who can work well in a group and that is reliable.  You might be brilliant and have degrees from the Ivy League, but if you piss everyone off around you and can’t communicate for shit, you are worthless to me.

This is why graduate students (and undergraduates too!) should be focusing on making connections and building a professional network rather than searching for job ads. Blogging is a great way to do that, as long as you don’t focus exclusively on flaming people.  (What?? Do as Bug Girl says, not as she does.)

Going to professional meetings and interacting with others in your field is crucial; volunteering is also an important way to make connections in some fields.

Here’s a good way to see if you are on the right track:  Think about how much time and energy you invest into getting laid.  The mental imagining of what it will be like with person X; time spent building relationships on the possibility of some future putting-out;  the trying-on of clothes and shoes; the mental debates about whether a pint of Ben and Jerry’s now is better than maybe a boyfriend later when you’re thin.
How much total time and energy is that?

Is that comparable to the amount of time you are spending on planning your career and job hunting?  If not, you may need to re-examine your priorities.  (Or, I suppose, fuck really well-connected people.)

I loved my graduate work, and graduate school was one of the best times of my life. I spent 4 years literally crawling around on my hands and knees in North Carolina, focused on solving really interesting research questions and exploring insect behavior. I had wonderful friends, and I drank a lot of beer.  Please don’t think I’m saying don’t go to grad school!

Just go for the right reasons, and don’t expect a PhD to solve all your job hunting problems.   You will get paid slightly more, On Average, with a PhD; and your chances of being unemployed with an advanced degree are lower, On Average, than for someone with no degree or a BS.  But it’s not a path to easy fame and riches.

Bug Girl’s Graduate School Series:

External Resources:


18 thoughts on “The PhD Question

  1. Oh shoot, I forgot to put in here how many jobs are filled without ever being publicly posted. If at all possible, I’ll fill a job without ever posting it if it’s not a permanent position.

    Posting a job is a hassle, there is a lot of paperwork, and you have constant phone calls and emails. Hiring someone you know is much, much easier.

  2. You are right that most jobs get filled within a professional network.

    Even worse, a very good fraction of jobs that are “posted” already have a candidate in mind, or are not really available (for a variety of reasons).

    Even if you do a PhD and a post-doc you chances of landing an tenure track academic job are quite low. Thus all PhDs should also have a professional network too.

  3. At our company there are basically two entry levels – BS/MS and MS/PhD. The former tend to be filled as contracts by a temp agency, while the latter are direct hires. Thus, it *looks* like we only hire post-grads, but a large portion of our workforce are non-directs at more junior levels.

    I don’t have a PhD, so maybe my perspective doesn’t count, but I’m one who faced the choice, weighed my options, and said no. The only reason I would have done a PhD was to pursue taxonomy as a profession, and the taxonomy jobs were too scarce – even way back then :) Things worked out anyway – I have a fulfilling job as a bona fide research entomologist, and I do taxonomy as a hobby.

  4. I’ve been considering for a while what I would need to do to end up working in a museum collection and continuing my research as I want to. The fact of the matter is that most collections jobs are looking for a PhD, but even more important is someone with experience working in museums. So, my plan looks like this: I’ve got a pro bono publico internship at the Chicago Field Museum coming up in August until I can’t handle it financially anymore. After that I plan on going for a PhD, for two reasons: One, I’m hoping it will allow me more time in a museum at whatever school I end up going to, and two, I can plan the dissertation around a project I’ve decided I’d really like to work on if I had my living expenses paid for. In other words, I want to do a PhD to gain experience and do research, so apparently it’s for all the right reasons.

    If I could jump straight into a museums job right now and continue my research, honestly, screw getting a PhD. I’ve had enough of the cult of academia as it is, just having finished my MS.

  5. Experience always gives you more options Kai! Sounds like a good plan to me (except for the not getting paid part–bummer.)

    Again, speaking as an employer, if I know there is someone good that I want to hire without a PhD, we can make the PhD “optional/preferred” on the job description. I have done that a couple of times to get the right person, and it’s worked out great.

    Academics often put the PhD on a job description as a default, but outside of academia, it’s more like what Ted describes. There are non-PhD positions out there! (although for *university* museums, they now see PhDs as a source of income via grants–which changes the equation somewhat.)

  6. Hi Bug,

    Thanks for this post. I passed it along to one of my daughters who is thinking about this very question. I think she’ll find your persepctive useful.

    Gregg

  7. I agree that the only good reason to get a PhD, at least in Entomology and related disciplines, is if you love the science. If you are motivated by job opportunity, especially a job in Academia, then you are being unrealistic – something you will get an inkling of the first time you are one of several hundred applicants for a job (and possibly a job with a pre-selected preferred candidate). There are few jobs in the natural sciences in Academia and academics tend to be elitist. If you get your degree from a high status school and a lab with a high grant success rate that publishes in high ISI Impact Factor journals (these are not independent variables), then you are more likely to be hired (but possibly also less likely to do anything of lasting importance during your career). Entomology is not a high status science and every year there are fewer and fewer Entomology Departments. This is also true of Botany, Mycology, Nematology etc. So, if you love the bugs or whatever, maybe you should look around for a trendy technology or ‘Big Question’ to wrap them in before you start your studies. Bugs are interesting, but Big Ideas are ineffable.

    If you do love the science, though, another point that I would make is that Academia is increasingly less a place for academics than for middle managers. In the US, at least, universities would not be able to run without grant money and academics are the machines that generate the grants that keep the whole thing running. The more successful you are at generating money, the more likely you are to be hired to begin with and to be granted tenured. Also, the more money you generate, the more grad students and post-docs you will be responsible for supervising – that means they get all the good projects that you always wanted to do and you spend all your time writing and administering the grants (and teaching and sitting on committees and travelling to meetings to present what is mostly someone else’s research as your own). I think an academic position should be low on the list of ideal jobs for anyone who really likes doing science and doesn’t find administration a rewarding alternative.

    I’m not sure that my comments apply to medical research, pharmacology, or other areas that are well funded – in these disciplines a PhD may be more of a required union card and the sooner you get it and get placed in a lab, the better. But if you are really interested in understanding living organisms, then I’d suggest not rushing off into a PhD program. You may regret it.

  8. @ Bug_Girl
    I’d love to hear what you think about getting a masters degree before a pursuing a PhD. A lot of the PhDs in my field have a masters too, but more and more, students are going straight to PhD research after undergrad.. I’m not so sure it is a great thing.
    thoughts?

  9. When I was a struggling undergraduate looking to change majors, i discussed my options with a friend working on his PhD in biology. He told me that to do the kind of thing I thought I wanted to do, I would have to have a PhD and the field was very competitive. That seemed impossible at the time, so I did various things, BS and MS in geology, before getting into a biology PhD program.

    I ended up at a young university with state, direction, and location in its name. I figured out how to do my research and run my life pretty much as I wanted. We did not have a PHD program, which I thought a good thing. Our MS program was very successful, as was our undergraduate program. Many of the students I worked with, who did not go on for PhD’s, found jobs in the environmental area, and were quite successful.

  10. hi bug girl. i agree with everything you say, but am wondering how an introvert, personally but not professionally shy, might go about this ‘networking’ business. i can work well with others and all, but i am happiest when working alone or at least not talking–it’s a chore for me. when i go to meetings (on my own dime, nowadays) i do occasionally strike up conversations, but nothing has ever come of them, and it is absolute agony to try to make small talk or introduce myself to the ‘big names’ in my field. i find myself spending the time alone, or with one or two people i may happen to know already, and never make any new contacts. i do feel like i went to grad school for the right reasons (already had a masters, had/have an accomodating job, and had a burning desire to do two studies of my own design) but now that i’m almost done, i feel pretty stuck. if you have any advice, i would be grateful.

  11. Katie–I actually was contemplating a post on that very topic! I think MS degrees are awesome, and am very happy I did not go direct to PhD.

  12. Girls Love Dirt–As an introvert, I feel your pain! Start small.
    A really nice book that I found helpful is “The Guide to Schmoozing”.
    Part of what they cover there is how to network without having to move too far from your comfort zone. A lot of networking is just being nice, offering to help, and saying thank you, honestly.

    Taking the time to respond to a blog comment and encouraging someone to ask more questions is totally networking :)

  13. thanks bug girl, checking out the book now! it’s nice (and surprising, and motivating) to hear that you are an introvert too; i wouldn’t have guessed!

  14. I’ll second Bug Girl’s support of the MS degree. I got mine while working full-time during the summer and half-time during the school year and I found the two years well worth the extra effort. When I went on to my PhD studies I knew exactly what I wanted to do and had a paper ready to submit. Turned out ‘exactly what I wanted to do’ did not get funded, so I had to switch my PhD topic to something else, but it was close enough.

    I think the tendency to skip the MS has more to do with benefits to the professor (PhD students tend to be more highly valued and to do more low pay work) and university administrators than to a student’s education. I’d be interested to see Bug Girl’s take on it.

  15. There is a big difference between being an introvert in real life, and a blowhard on the internet :)

    I will definitely try to write about the MS/PhD dilemma soon.

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