Don’t Get a PhD, Says Person With PhD

My brother sounds like a professor sometimes and looks like a professor sometimes but is not a professor because he got his master’s and said: “I’m done, academia. Farewell.” He gives a trifecta of good reasons: No money in academia, no actual change is spurred by academia, your work is for other academics, not the world at large.

A fourth reason, that getting a PhD is a terrible and awful process, is outlined in this harrowing post by a woman named Liv who has a PhD and a job in academia in the U.K. She urges people to take another other route, as this one is long and hard and stressful and expensive. She writes: “I’ve just come back from a conference that was supposed to be about networking for early career researchers and basically turned into a group therapy session for trauma survivors. And this is the winners of the system, those of us who actually graduated from our PhDs and found jobs in academia.” Sounds super fun. Great fun. Most fun. Read the whole thing. Other money quote: “The whole system of academia is set up based on extremely able people looking for every possible flaw in the work of other extremely able people.”

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43 Comments / Post A Comment

I have so many things to say about this (as someone who has always wanted a PhD and am now grappling with the idea that its probably not my best option) but I don’t even know where to start. In short, being part of a community of scholars can be so awesome but there is so much bullshit you have to go through to even have a chance of getting there, let alone keeping yourself afloat.

EM (#1,012)

If you want a scholarly life but want to also make money, get an applied science-y Masters and a research job, says a person who got that thing and now does that thing.

That post, right there, is the reason I don’t have a PhD. I did my Master’s, looked around at the culture and the people involved in long-term academia, then took my Masters and ran. I don’t regret it.

ThatJenn (#916)

@MilesofMountains The day I decided to quit with my MS, I was sitting there feeling like a big failure (even though I was leaving for the same reasons you did and not because I couldn’t hack it!), and a postdoc in my lab did something that totally changed my life: she broke out a bottle of champagne and said, “Let’s celebrate! You’re making a big decision that is good for you and are about to move on to the next big part of your life!” It was something I really needed and it totally changed my attitude, thank goodness. Haven’t regretted it a once since that moment.

Laurabean (#3,040)

@ThatJenn That’s really sweet! I had to deal with a lot of disapproval when I decided to go the MS route rather than the PhD, but I have never once regretted it. Now I wish someone had broken out the champagne…

ThatJenn (#916)

@Laurabean It’s not too late! Get some champagne, it’ll probably be on sale tomorrow! A stranger on the Internet says you made the right choice once upon a time and that’s totally a reason to celebrate. :)

wrappedupinbooks (#1,426)

The best thing I ever did in undergrad was wheedle my way into a PhD. class the second semester of my senior year, so I could immediately run screaming from academia and into a regular paycheck.

Laurabean (#3,040)

@wrappedupinbooks Seconded! The grad-level classes I took were some of the most fun I had (because my career and future were in no way riding on impressing the professors) but they did help seal the deal for me not pursuing my PhD. Mostly that sad guy who looked like he hadn’t slept in years and was constantly on the verge of tears.

questingbeast (#2,409)

Academia does look like hard work, but I never understand the ‘PhDs are so monstrous and stressful’ stuff, which seems to be the standard line on the Internet. It’s great. You get paid to read for three years.* You can sit around in your knickers all morning eating biscuits. I wouldn’t call it easy, but it’s easier then any actual job I can imagine. If you love your subject and have the chance to spend some doing it, why not?

*(I mean, I imagine it would be stressful if you were paying for yourself, but does anyone do that? I don’t think I know anyone).

@questingbeast I’ve never heard the “you think school is hard, wait until you get a job!” trope from anyone who has done an advanced degree recently. I did a Master’s, and now I work at a company that is known for chewing people up and spitting them out, and the job is far easier and less stressful.

Laurabean (#3,040)

@questingbeast Most of the folks in my life right now are PhDs in the applied sciences, and I’d agree that they have a pretty sweet life 99% of the time: mostly because they get a reasonable stipend (i.e. above the cost of tuition + living expenses, whereas a lot of people get something that barely covers tuition and/or they have to reapply for the stipend every year/semester, so they’re constantly dealing with an uncertain financial picture) and because they can leave academia with a reasonable expectation of getting a high-paying job elsewhere.

The stresses of being in a PhD program with dismal job prospects (more PhDs than full-time positions or competing in a growing pool of contingent adjunct labor) under the thumb of a potential capricious or neglectful advisor can be genuinely stressful. Easily as stressful as any other job.

jenfizz (#100)

@questingbeast: Because it’s absolutely nothing like the way you describe it.

synchronia (#185)

@questingbeast Financial stress, job-market stress, trying to make consistent progress on a project with very few intermediate deadlines for years… and then there’s this:

“If you decide in your first year [of graduate school] that it is not for you – indeed, suppose you conclude that you’re better than all of this, a broader, richer thinker who can’t be constrained by the ivory tower–you will still have to deal with the nagging fear that somehow, some way, you just weren’t good enough, that you couldn’t cut the mustard. That fear will almost certainly be wrong. Perseverance can get most students through graduate school. You should feel good about how well you know yourself if you decide to quit. But academia is a total culture. It changes your standards for what is good and what is bad, what is smart and what is dumb.” Read the whole piece, it’s great.

ThatJenn (#916)

@questingbeast Leaving aside whether it’s easier or harder than having a job – it’s both, in my experience as someone who quit a PhD program then had a string of truly terrible jobs – one reason not to get one just because you can is that you’ll then be seen as an overqualified specialist if you ever, ever want to switch fields.

ThatJenn (#916)

@questingbeast The other thing that makes academia more stressful than it seems – and again, it all depends on what exactly stressed YOU out – is that your “work” is basically your self-worth while you are there. At a job, you may be good or bad at it, but in many if not most industries, it is just a job and you are assumed to have other worth and having hopes and dreams that don’t match those of the people around you is pretty standard and just fine. As a graduate student I often felt like the entire point of my life was to get the PhD and get a professorship, and any other goals were worthless, any other skills I had were beside the point, etc. This is an experience I think a lot of people working on PhDs share. Even in my worst jobs, one in companies with horrible toxic environments that kind of mirrored that attitude, I knew that at the end of the day, I went home and was myself and had other things that mattered about me.

EM (#1,012)

@questingbeast The other thing is that once you get your PhD, you are extremely specialized with little non-academic work experience and there are very few academic jobs available. It can actually make it harder to find a job after, because your field is so narrow and you have so few applied job skills compared to a BA/BSc who’s been working for the five years you were in graduate school.

@Michelle Yep, I work in an applied science job where the majority of people have MSc.s with some people with PhDs, and there’s a bit of a running joke about people with PhDs being useless because they tend to get hired for higher up positions but have no more practical skills than the greenest junior hires.

phenylalanine (#717)

@questingbeast I’m having trouble responding to this, because I don’t think you even skimmed the linked article. No, you’re right, if grad school was about eating cookies in my underwear while reading something for fun, I would never leave. Too bad that doesn’t have a goddamn thing to do with reality.

pandaonaplane (#1,528)

@Laurabean This is true. My fiancee is in the middle of a PhD in Physical Chemistry. He’s got a tuition waver and a couple of fellowships so he is actually pretty comfortable to be living in a college that has dirt cheap rent.
However, his program is STRESSFUL. 15 hour days in the lab, followed by all night study sessions for advanced quantum mechanics is a far cry from reading in your underwear while eating biscuits.

MissMushkila (#1,044)

@pandaonaplane I wrote almost this exact comment about my boyfriend, who is in the middle of a PhD in Medicinal chemistry. I’m a hs teacher, so I go to work at a God-awful hour (I wake up at 4:45). He pretty much gets up and goes into work at the same time, only he doesn’t get home until 9:30pm most nights, and also goes weekends. He frequently feels behind.

It’s exhausting and emotionally draining. I admire him for it – because I could not study one particular subject (in my boyfriend’s case the chemical biology of cancer prevention) forever, all the time. I would lose my freaking mind.

questingbeast (#2,409)

@phenylalanine @everyone In case it wasn’t clear, I am doing a PhD myself, as are almost all my friends. I genuinely do find it quite confusing how different my experiences, and those of everyone I know, seem to be to people writing about it on the internet. I have heard that American ones are harder, which must be most of the reason for the difference, except that everyone I know at American colleges seem to be enjoying theirs a lot also. Maybe my field is uniquely satisfying? Maybe everyone I know is actually secretly crying into their pillow at night? I don’t know. Just thought it worth putting a ‘PhDs are fun’ opinion out there, for some variety. I love it, personally- much better than any shit job I’ve had.

(The being overqualified for jobs subsequently is something I do worry about, but then it’s not exactly a picnic looking for a job after undergrad either at the moment. At least you get some work experience from a PhD).

pandaonaplane (#1,528)

@MissMushkila We are living very similar lives. Good luck to you and your boyfriend. It’s stressful to be the emotional supporter during the PhD process. It will not always be like this.

antheridia (#2,995)

One of the best things I ever did in my whole life was quit my Ph.D. – I now work in consulting and I have no regrets!

frenz.lo (#455)

Guys, sometimes, when I have a break at my job, I sit on the dryer and read about the pain of PhDs. And I laaaaaugh!
Jk. I don’t laugh, don’t want random PhD seekers to feel trauma, am not a monster, etc. But, ugh, this junk: [Getting a PhD] will grind you down,will come terrifyingly close to killing your soul and might well succeed. It will do horrible things to your mental and physical health and test to breaking point every significant relationship in your life.

Not trying to be like OMG, get a job, but this quote above, it also describes effects I’ve felt on my life, health, relationships and soooooooul while being involved in various shitty jobs. And my life is actually not so bad. I don’t work in the breaking rocks in the hot sun industry or something, so it’s not a game of who’s suffered the most. What i think though, is the rigors you put yourself through to get a PhD rob you of a certain amount of perspective on how crappy most jobs and most lives are.

CubeRootOfPi (#1,098)

What Liv says about getting a PhD sounds similar to what people say about going to law school (except that the PhD process sounds like a much much much much much more brutal version). They’re both degrees which allows you to enter prestigious professions and are often entered into by many people who are attracted to the prestige/$ but don’t really know whether or not law/academia suits them. In addition, the process of getting those degrees is miserable, has significant financial consequences and not very good job prospects.

deepomega (#22)

@CubeRootOfPi And, just like law school, there is not actually really money there any more! CONVENIENT

Worker Parasite (#2,292)

Going to grad school was the biggest financial mistake of my life.

littleoaks (#1,801)

I’ve seen a lot of this kind of career advice around the internets lately, this discouraging, “my job/schooling is the hardest/most demanding/lowest paying/most time-consuming, so I recommend you NOT pursue it, even though I don’t regret achieving my career dreams” kind of thing. I think dispelling myths and being realistic and concrete (especially about finances!) does a great service–but I wish that advice-givers who don’t regret their career path and are serious about being helpful would give the “Don’t follow me!” line a rest. It feels incredibly disingenuous and seems much more likely to inspire defensiveness than anything.

MissMushkila (#1,044)

@littleoaks See I feel the opposite – I always appreciate it because I feel like growing up you get very little Real Talk about what different career paths require. Almost everything is about the benefits. For example, my job:

Want to teach hs? Great! I hope you like people, because you will do nothing but talk to them all day long. Surrounding you, sometimes all at once. Then, when they leave, you get to email and talk to their parents and meet with colleagues. You will go home at the end of the day worrying and thinking about these people, and begin starting sentences with “Today, my kids…”

In some ways every career is the worst. But I want to know the warts and all before I jump into it! I am a huge extrovert, but my job Drives Me Crazy because there is no spare time and I’m supposed to constantly innovate in an atmosphere of total social chaos. If you are not a people person, you probably shouldn’t follow me! (in the same way that I should not get a PhD, because I cannot work on one subject for 15 hours a day)

MissMushkila (#1,044)

@littleoaks Also I totally took the “don’t follow me” advice about not going to law school, and feel very relieved that I did.

Laurabean (#3,040)

@MissMushkila I appreciate the Real Talk, too, as someone who also made the decision not to go the PhD (in humanities) route and instead got an MS. Almost everybody reacted like I’d decided to throw my life away. I had one professor tell me, “You’ll never make any money!” Which is the most hilarious thing in the world now that I’ve seen the market for humanities PhDs.

I had another professor tell me she was secretly glad most of the time when students told her they weren’t doing the PhD track (but not me, this was part of her speech to convince me to stay) because she didn’t think 90% of the people who went could hack it. I remember thinking, “Why don’t you try to dissuade them, then?”

There’s a lot of misinformation about what grad school is like and what the career aspects are on the other side. I was really lucky to have a taste of grad life because I was being groomed to stay in academia, but also a job on the side that I really enjoyed (yet another benefit of working through school), so it was easy(ish) to walk away from grad school. But I could’ve used a lot more support/honesty.

Mae (#1,769)

@littleoaks I appreciate this kind of cautionary advice (I probably would have gone to law school like a fool if not for reading lots of articles that dissuaded me), but I also want to hear from people who are doing things they are happy with, so I can know what those jobs and career paths look like.

littleoaks (#1,801)

@MissMushkila Oh, I have no problem with people sharing the negative side of their careers—I think that’s incredibly useful. Real Talk is great! What I’m weary of is blanket discouragement, which as an editor-type person I see a lot in career advice about journalism and publishing. Warning EVERYONE away from a career says a lot less about the rigors of a given career than it does about how highly the advice-giver thinks of him or herself (like, “I persevered through the shitty parts of my careers/overcome its not-so-hot odds for success, but you, anonymous Internet person reading my career advice, probably won’t”).

Laurabean (#3,040)

@littleoaks Good point! I think there’s a fine line between Real Talk and humblebragging about what a martyr you are for having toughed it out despite the dismal prospects. I think it’s fair to try to help people learn from your mistakes (do your best to find an adviser you can have a healthy relationship with, for example) but it is strange to say anything along the lines of “This can never work for anyone, but me” because obviously it does work out well for some folks. Whether it’s worth the risk… that’s debatable.

stinapag (#2,144)

@MissMushkila I’ve talked four people out of law school (and one person into dropping out in her first miserable semester). I love my job and I’m very glad that I’m doing it. I also don’t get paid BIGLAW money and didn’t really expect to. But I am a) lucky, b) went to a state law school and got a partial scholarship in an age where I only had to pay $1000 a semester, and c) knew exactly what I wanted to do with my law degree before I ever started. I am doing a pretty close approximation to what I wanted to do.

I also happen to practice law in a University, and I see daily the stress and labor of graduate school. (I’m also finally finishing up a masters after a 15 year hiatus, but that’s less relevant.) It’s a brutal, brutal thing, and like law, you really do have to love it. I knew a lot of people in law school who were there because they didn’t know what else to do. I know a lot of miserable lawyers. The overlap in the two groups is substantial.

One of my sisters is applying to graduate school for an MLS, and my academic dad is trying to talk her into the PhD. My sister has no interest at all, and accounts like the one linked in this post are the reason why. I’m with my sister. An MLS seems like a pretty practical, bankable degree. The PhD seems like ego stroking, and unless she falls so in love with her subject (or academia, she like me, works in a University, but not as an academician), I don’t see why she should pursue the subject beyond it’s usefulness.

Mae (#1,769)

For those of you who said they got an MS instead of a graduate degree in the humanities/social sciences: what subject did you study? What advice do you have to offer? GUIDE ME, PLEASE.

Laurabean (#3,040)

@Mae My advice is to get as much work experience in whatever field you’re considering as you can before committing to a program. Make a list of things you want in life (stability, adventure, wealth, whatever) and then be as coldly calculating as possible about whether you can get those things in that field. Also, be really honest with yourself about things you cannot tolerate: boredom, interacting with other people, etc. Look at the Occupational Outlook Handbook from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to get a sense of the general trends in employment. See if you can set up informational interviews with people doing what you want to do and ask them what they did to get there. Best of luck!

orejitasmiamor (#2,678)

@Mae I’m doing an Masters in Public Health, which is a really handy degree for working in non-profits, government agencies, education, social justice areas, research, and so much more. I completely agree with a lot of other commenters, grad school is rough. For some reason, maybe having known masters students over the years, I went into it thinking it would be interesting and exciting. And it is, some days. Other days it is a slog through subject areas I am not that interested in. I’m in the thick of it now, so we will see how it works out. And one caveat, though not a lot of people get a PhD in public health, a lot of people in my area get another degree, too (MD, BSN/RN, MSW, PA, DVM, MSed are common).

pandaonaplane (#1,528)

@Mae I got my a BA in Women’s Studies in 2010. I know, I know. But like, bell hooks is my shit.
I am now pursuing a Masters in Public Health. It was a tough road to get here. I didn’t have the best grades in ungergrad and my first degree was in an “alternative” field. However, I spent 2 years working at a research institute (substance abuse and addiction studies) and did so much volunteer work that I basically had 2 jobs.
When I finish my masters degree, I hope to continue addiction research via the National Institute on Health or National Institute on Drug Abuse. I never saw this path for myself when I was in undergrad, I figured I do a PhD in English or something (I had very little foresight at age 20)but I am glad that things are shaping up the way that they are. I have much better career prospects and earning potential has I not gone this route.
All this being said, grad school is terrible and may make you want to end your life sometimes. However, for me it is a necessary step.

stinapag (#2,144)

@orejitasmiamor @pandaonaplane I’m finishing up an MPH as well. I did all my classwork 15 years ago while I was working on my law degree and just came back for the final culminating experience this semester. I’ll be done in May.

I LOVE my MPH coursework compared to law school. It kept me sane those years. I am a lawyer currently, but my MPH is useful for the area that I practice in.

Mae (#1,769)

@Laurabean Thank you! This is very useful advice.

Cup of T (#2,533)

I am currently doing a PhD in the social sciences/humanities and while I (rightly) fear the hell that awaits me on the job market, I have absolutely loved the PhD process and don’t regret doing it (so far!) I’m funded, so while I’m not making anywhere near what some of my friends with ‘real jobs’ do, I’m not going into any debt. I also get to make my own hours, travel a lot, and meet some really interesting people, and get paid to read. Like anything else, there are downsides (long distance relationship, lost earning potential in my 20s, employment difficulties down the line) but I’m happy with my decision and know that most of my colleagues are as well.

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