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(This post is dedicated to hilly02 and tammabanana. With thanks to Conor who recommended the book.)

At the recommendation of a fellow PhD student, I acquired a copy of The Chicago Guide to Your Academic Career this weekend, and have only gotten as far as reading the first chapter. The first chapter, however, deals with why one should NOT pursue an academic career. It points out - quite rightly - that bright students are often encouraged to go to graduate school and continue on in school, and having done a PhD are gently pushed towards the job market. Many of them do it because they haven't yet decided what else to do, and staying in school can avoid the decision. But in the end, they have ended up with a career despite attempts not to.

I feel as if this is happening to me, to a certain extent. I think I would be happy teaching, and I would like to leave my options open, and I'm quiet content pursuing a PhD. None of this necessarily means, however, that I have consciously decided that my career will be as a professor/lecturer at a university. Part of me still likes to think that my dream job hasn't been invented yet, and thus how could I know what it is?

At the same time, however, I obviously have at least some degree of aptitude for the profession of academic, or I would not have made it this far. Time management is something a good academic needs and which I'm not particularly good at, but I'm strong enough in other useful attributes to make up for that to a large degree. I strongly suspect - and indeed, anticipate - that I will finish this degree. However, even having done a PhD, that doesn't mean I have to have an academic career. Think of Carly Fiorino, CEO of Hewlett Packard. She has a PhD in Medieval History and is now CEO of HP.

PhDs don't always open doors, however, In many cases, having one may mean you're overqualified for a job you later decide you actually want, and it can work against the prospects of getting that job. Or so I've read in many sources, including The Chicago Guide. Also, plenty of people don't finish their PhD - this is neither a pro or a con really. It's better to figure out as early as possible that you don't want to waste 4-7 years of your life doing something you really didn't want to be doing. If you're a coursework addict, an MA might be worth doing, but not a PhD. And certainly don't do a PhD since you think other people expect it of you.

If you have no better reason, do it because it sounds like a lot of fun. Do it because you want to be an academic or some other job for which it's a requirement. Do it if you want to be well-trained in research projects, and like working on large projects with minimal support and guidance from other people.

Having given you all this advice, much of which was gotten second-hand, I should point out that I don't think I made a mistake in choosing to do a PhD. If you want to give it a go, go for it. Just keep in mind that you're not stuck in academia. You can always choose to go do something else instead. Honestly. The same applies to any career.

Although, for now at least, I'm fairly content with where I'm heading, I am still figuring out what to do with my life. I wish you luck in figuring out what to do with yours.

About a month ago, a group of blogs rather avidly discussed the pros and cons of academia, although more from the prospect of whether or not working in academia at all is a good thing. If you're interested in pursuing the subject, Mama Musings (also here) and Caveat Lector are some of the very many who weighed in on this particular issue. They each link to some of the others.

Timothy Burke also has an essay on "Should you go to Grad School?" - although it's particularly targeted at undergrads.)

There are, of course, many other books on graduate school. I don't know the genre. Here's the link for Amazon and The Chicago Guide to Your Academic Career if you're interested in pursuing other options via the commercial method.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 2nd, 2003 02:56 am (UTC)
Other books I found helpful were:
How to get a PhD and Stop working and Start Thinking. The latter is specifically written for science graduate students, but the former is for doctoral students (and their supervisors) in general. Both are primarily geared towards the UK system, but I imagine the advice translates reasonably well to the US system.

Possibly the best analysis of the whole PhD experience can be found at phd.stanford.edu - this should be required reading for any postgraduate student.

Undergraduate friends often make some comment along the lines of ``I thought I might do a PhD - you know, doss around as a student for another few years...''

This, of course, is roughly analogous to saying ``I thought I might run a marathon - you know, to get out in the fresh air for a bit...''

After five and a half years as a (part-time) PhD student (I had my viva about three weeks ago, and am just doing my final thesis corrections at the moment), I'm more convinced than ever that you should only do it if you're genuinely interested in your subject. If you find yourself not caring about what you're studying (as opposed to just finding the work temporarily dull, stressful, or frustrating - which is perfectly normal, and everybody gets it at some point) then you should think seriously about going and doing something different (either working on a different topic, taking a break, or even quitting altogether). Really, life's too short :)

On the other hand, it's an amazing challenge, and a brilliant opportunity to learn lots of new stuff - both in terms of furthering your studies, and also by learning new ways to think.

But do it for the right reasons. I did it because I was (and still am) interested in my subject. One of the other graduate students in my department (who, as far as I can tell, started a PhD because he wanted to be called `Dr', and had a bit of a chip on his shoulder about `only' getting a 2i in his first degree) quit his PhD recently, after four stressful years which he could have spent progressing in a decent job.

Where he went wrong, I suspect, was by treating his PhD as a job - strictly monday-friday, 9am-5pm. This sort of approach doesn't always work with creative endeavours like research - you've got to be prepared to work late some nights if inspiration strikes (or if there's something that needs finishing) but also there will be days when you just have to go and do something else and let your subconscious get on with it, uninterrupted.

Apr. 2nd, 2003 06:30 pm (UTC)
PhDs and things
Thank you for your lovely response! It's good to have reading material on the subject for the UK system. I particularly like your fresh air analogy.

I'm looking forward to this summer, when classes are over, and I will finally have uninterupted days to read and write and just get work done. As distracting as my subconscious' contributions to my dissertation can be, even more distracting are all the classes and such which are clogging up my schedule and my mind.

Congratulations on the viva!
Apr. 2nd, 2003 10:52 am (UTC)
Wandering and drifting..
I must admit, even now I've ended up as a Postdoc over here I'm still not entirely sure what I want to do with my life. I seem to have gone along going 'that looks interesting' and headed in that direction for a while. I did the PhD because the subject matter was cool and because industry appeared boring, and I still find it interesting even though I'm now off doing something thats about half a foot to the left.

An overall rough aim, 'I'd like such'n'such a lifestyle', or 'I want have done X by the time I retire' is probably a good way to find some kind of happiness with what you do. I only found out a few months ago that this was the philosophy my dad had been using for years! I always thought he had eveything well planned, and based what I should do on what he'd done. Then, when I strike out on my own, I found I was doing what he actually did, and he was very supportive and understanding of why I needed to do it.
i.e. trading off pensions, 'the housing chain', etc. and a bog-standard lifestyle to go and experience other things.
As I said to a PhD candidate who was here on Friday, without the PhD, I wouldn't be here. I wasn't why I did it, but it was really good bonus (reward :o)).
Apr. 3rd, 2003 12:09 pm (UTC)
Thanks for posting this Shansy. I've been in a bit of a dither for a number of years now because I never finished my Masters degree and I've always viewed that as an obstacle to getting an eventual PhD.

I've always had it at the back of my mind that after I was "done working in the real world" I'd hop back into academia.

But I'm not really as much into research as I am into taking classes. Part of what I enjoyed the most about my brief time as a grad student, was sitting in class and discussing. I like to talk about what I've read with other folks who are equally well-read. It's not that I don't like writing papers either, but I don't have a passion for research either unless I'm really fired up on the topic.

Still, I'm at a bit of a crossroads myself, because I don't particularly like the career I've gotten myself into. I sort of happened into it by chance. There are elements of it that I still enjoy, but I keep making bad decisions when taking jobs and wind up with positions that don't emphasize the parts of my job that I like. So I wind up stressed and resentful and wanting to quit.

Of course, the newest variant is Vic and one part of me had always planned to be a stay-at-home-mom. Unfortunately that avenue is currently closed to me, so here I am dithering along at a job I don't really like because I have to and missing my days in class and the intellectual conversations that used to fascinate me so much.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )