Need PhD?

June 17, 2008

I get many emails from young intellectuals all over the world about getting a PhD. The gist of the missive usually runs as follows: “I am really interested in doing a PhD. It has been my dream for the longest time imaginable. Attached is my CV. Please take a look at it and give me advice on this.”

This sort of naked request comes with little guidance, rendering any attempt to provide advice specific to the case a stab in the dark. Trying to do so is like a doctor prescribing apposite medicine for a specific ailment when the patient has only indicated that he/she is feeling unwell. But some broad thoughts are always helpful, and here they are.

Are you sure of what you want? Asking for advice on doing a PhD assumes you have concluded that this is what you want to do for a reasonable period of time in your life. Are you being led into this by some fanciful imaginations of gilded academic life? Is there nothing else you could do with your life than this? If the answer is a strong yes, go for it. Any doubts, I would hold off. Academia is too weird an environment and probably does not suit most people. And there is no prior experience that correlates to it. Most of us in it took a chance, and for those of us that remain, it was something that worked out!

Remember, getting a PhD is a long hard struggle for 4-5 years (maybe more) and then becoming an academic is not usually monetarily rewarding. It is said that doing a PhD is a way of giving up current income so as to give up future income! Getting tenure is hard and needs some luck at the best of times. So you have to love the work even though it is easier to love the lifestyle. So be quite sure it is what you want most of all. You will not be able to say – “So what if I am not happy. At least I am rich.” No, financial glory is not part of the package.

In broad terms, think through whether you want to use your PhD in an academic institution or you want to be in industry. If you want to be an academic then ask yourself if you like teaching? You can hate teaching and still lead a successful academic life, but this is becoming less and less acceptable.

Are you good at working independently in a self-motivated manner? Barring conference deadlines and infrequent promotion reviews, there is little pressure on academics to perform on the research front. Engaging co-authors in this process is a partial solution to this problem of motivation, but not over a long period. You have to be sure that for the next few decades, you will feel like getting up every morning yearning to do research. This is of course not always true, there are so many mornings that one gets up cynical, but if this feeling persists, its time to get out. You don’t have to if you are tenured, but seriously, there is no point in lingering. Its like being retired and doing nothing. In that mode, research retirement is the waiting room for career demise.

There is a lot you need to be sure about, but there is one thing you do not need — you don’t need a thesis topic the day you enter graduate school. Even students that come in with a well-thought out topic often end up leaving that area of work and learning something new. Reinventing oneself, I believe it is called.

So keep an open mind as a newly minted graduate student. The purpose of all the course work in your field is to sample from the glorious buffet of intellectual ideas and then to load up on a few items. You may find that the mind food you enjoy most after a year is quite different from the initial research you came looking for.

I highly recommend trying to publish something, no matter how small, before deciding on a PhD. Innovative research and creative exposition are all very well, and intrinsically enjoyable, but there is also the painful process of getting yourself published. You have to deal with referees and editors, whose initial inclination is to reject all and everything. The effort of reworking a paper based on referee comments, and responding to all the criticism usually amounts to more than all the creative work that you initially put in. If you cannot take the heat of the review process, then this profession is not for you. It is also hard to get this experience when you are not in the process. So why not go ahead and give this a road test by trying to write something publishable? You may even find that the process of writing is not as rosy as it was when you only imagined it. Go on, kick the tires, give it a spin.

Are you good at managing your time? It looks like academics have a lot of flexibility and degrees of freedom with their time, and yes, that’s true. But it’s really needed. A professor that is fully engaged has several papers in process, classes to teach (some old, some new), administrative work on campus, meetings to attend, papers to referee, editorial work, conferences to attend, and more. While this seems like a short list, it is important to realize that each of these tasks individually takes a lot of time, and needs blocks of quiet concentrated effort. Many times, it is hard to call up the focus and concentration needed to get this work done well. So there are “dead” periods when nothing is happening and it all gets really frustrating. Maybe it’s good to do something else in that time. But good time or bad, you need to be very good at handling time well.

It’s important to realize that being an academic is truly entrepreneurial. There is no boss or subordinates. You are truly on your own, or with a few co-authors. In the classroom also, you are the sole leader of the pack that does not have to agree with you or like you. And almost all service on campus is of little consequence if done poorly, but can have a huge impact when done well in an entrepreneurial manner. Are you a leader or follower? You may well be a solid academic as a follower but you will never be the one that has the Seminal Idea.

I think its important to be warned about the lifestyle. Its alluring but deceptive. Hang around and do nothing but intellectual chit-chat in cafes is what the outsider always seems to see. But getting paid poorly to do work that is unsatisfying (unless you like being an academic), even if you can never be fired, gets old pretty soon. After the fifth day of ignoring the calling to research and lying on the beach basking in the glow of tenure, it all begins to start feeling rather empty. I tried it, and so I know. I could not even take a month off without feeling that the “what me worry” lifestyle had failed me. I had to do something creative to keep me from losing my mind. So, don’t be fooled by the lifestyle. If you really just want to make a lot of money and then lie on the beach, do just that, and stay away from academia.

So the only advice there is can be summed up as: If you “know” that you enjoy research and will love teaching, don’t mind working all the time, anytime, for small money but great personal satisfaction, then sign up now. But don’t do it because you think the lifestyle is great, or you believe some rosy picture of an academic in an ivory tower.