Sunday, March 8, 2009

The PhD Is An Exercise in Masochism? Why Do You Think We Love it So Much? Barry from Bismark on Grad School.

I don't know what advice to give students considering grad studies. I landed a visiting faculty position before finishing my PhD, although that means that I have the triple threat of teaching a 12-hour load, making last-minute changes to my thesis, and preparing for my defense. My adviser had told me that there was no chance that I would get an academic job ever, but I did. She is still astounded. Even if I didn't land an academic job, salaries for PhDs in my field range from $150K-$250 in private industry. That is certainly more money than one can hope to earn in the field without one, unless one starts his own business and it turns out to be a Microsoft or a Google.

A friend of mine from when I was getting my masters degree asked me whether she should go to graduate school about a year ago. I didn't know what to tell her. A masters degree can certainly give one a leg up professionally, but I was making six figures a year without one before I went back to grad school. Getting a PhD is an exercise in masochism and there really are not the opportunities for new PhDs in most fields to justify the six years of servitude. I do not think that I could in good conscience urge someone to get a PhD unless I was sure that he or she was really devoted to the field and wanted to do research in a subspecialty. PhD programs are all about heartbreak, from trying to get a paper published to trying to get a job. I have done well in the latter respect, and I managed to get papers published after pigheadedly sending them off to conference after conference and revising time after time. Some very bright grad students don't do so well in either regard. Some really bright grad students don't graduate at all. There are many qualities other than intelligence or potential for research that one must have to succeed in grad school.

I would advise students in my field to get a masters degree simply because degree inflation is making their bachelor of science degrees worth less and less. But as far as getting a PhD. I don't know. Even if you get an academic job, that is still a hard life. You can land at a teaching college like I did and have to prepare and deliver twelve hours of lecture each and every week, or you can land at a more research-oriented school and have to submit five or six papers to competitive, prestigious conferences every year just to get the two or three published that you will need to keep your job and get tenure. Either way, it is a hard life that leaves little room for anything else.