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Top 5 Factors to Weigh Before Getting a PhD

Posted by Chad O'Connor  February 3, 2012 10:00 AM

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Arne Hessenbruch

What are the 5 top factors to weigh before getting a PhD?

1. What doors does a PhD open for you?
The fact of the matter is, it opens mostly doors within academia. In order to get a job as a professor, you need a PhD. For most others, you don't. There are a few exceptions, such as chemistry and fields related to drug development. So if you know for certain that you want to work in academia or in, say, pharmaceuticals, then a targeted PhD is the right thing.

Also, if you are interested in an expanding field, which at the moment could be something like big data analysis or brain and cognitive sciences, then you can be reasonably certain that there will be enough openings in academia by the time you have your PhD. Of course, if you want to be in the humanities or atrophying science fields, such as space research or nuclear science, then you will end up looking at lots of closed doors.

The problem is that universities do not give you any guidance in this. They are not geared to open doors for you, except if you want to become a professor, and they do not get measured by enabling you.

2. Which skill sets will you learn?
Obviously, you will learn a lot about something esoteric. For example, if you do a PhD in the history of accounting techniques among public house owners in Boston in the 1830s, you will end up knowing more than any other person on the planet about your narrow field. But because this knowledge is unlikely to help you with anything, the question really is, what else will you learn in the process? You might for example learn how to find information that is hard to find. You might also learn how to combine different kinds of information to arrive at insights that no one had seen before.

You might further learn to summarize complex issues and to present the issues to academics, both orally and in texts. It has to be said that you are unlikely to learn how to present to the general public, and so while the training is specifically to learn how to behave within the ivory tower, it may just be useful outside too.

You will definitely learn how to juggle complex issues and how to synthesize them for a particular audience. And you will learn a form of self-discipline where the motivation has to come from within. There is no instant gratification: it can take years before you reap the fruits of your labor.

The universities can also give you no guidance on these issues before you start your degree. Neither professors nor university administrators think much about the value the students get, because they are measured by other standards, such as the number of publications they produce. They are geared towards producing knowledge that matters to professors who talk mostly to each other. Of course, even though the system is not set up to assist you in building up a skill set, you can focus on this yourself and use university resources for that purpose.

I've got a PhD!

3. How will it make you feel about yourself?
Getting a PhD will likely give you a sense of achievement and make you feel proud. This is no small matter. You can put your title next to your name and most likely it will earn you respect.

In general, you will be considered smart, and that is mostly an advantage.

Feeling good about yourself and confident has many benefits, in addition to being an end in itself. You will go into future challenges with confidence and for that reason you will also be more likely to succeed. But there is an attendant danger also: you may feel a sense of entitlement over people without PhDs, and so you might be unpleasantly surprised when others get chosen over you and you learn to use the word overqualified in order to soothe the pain. So here is something you should be prepared to juggle: be proud of a PhD while at the same time acknowledging that it may not open doors.

4. Will you have fun?
This was certainly the first thing that came to my mind when I weighed the option of a PhD. And it is of course of major importance.

You absolutely have to find the object of your studies interesting, because the gratification is very delayed. Life in the lab can be tedious and boring, unless you endow your activities with meaning. You have to feel that it matters, that you play with cool tools, that you contribute to the betterment of humanity in some way, or that you discover some measure of Truth, however small. If you want to become a professor you have to enjoy the kind of life that professors lead. And if you end up needing a job outside academia that your PhD doesn't necessarily prepare you well for, then you will at least want to have had fun!

5. What is the cost?
Ultimately, you will want to try some kind of cost-benefit analysis. A PhD takes a long time, and it costs fees and living expenses.

Unless you get grants to assist with this, it will add up. In addition, you will spend many years not making a living and not learning other important skills. I think most people wing it: they go into an academic field because they are enamoured with it, and maybe also because it continues the life they led as an undergrad - it avoids having to go out and find a job. They think about the fun and maybe also about the status.

Of course, there is much to be said for simply following your passions. But since so many PhDs nowadays lead to a perceived dead end, it is a good idea to consider the above five issues before it is too late.

Arne Hessenbruch is a Danish expat and the founder of Boston Denmark Partnerships, where he connects Danish companies with an interest in doing business in Boston.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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