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London, United Kingdom
I am an engineering academic at University College London where I work on the sustainability of urban water systems. I am interested in the role of engineers and technology in sustainable cities.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

The wrong reasons for doing a PhD

Late last year The Economist published an article titled ‘The disposable academic – why doing a PhD is often a waste of time’. This was much discussed among colleagues and students at the time, including on our UCL Engineering Sciences Linked In Group (which is open for anyone to join). Many of my academic colleagues reacted strongly to the idea that a PhD is a waste of time given the large number of doctoral graduates each year compared with academic posts available. The PhD is the pre-requisite qualification for an academic career, but that is not its only purpose. People with PhDs go on to make strong contributions in many fields, outside universities and research institutions, and the higher skills in analysis and critical thinking that are an outcome of the intensity of the PhD process are invaluable on their own terms, not simply as entry requirements for academia. I agree that the PhD is a unique and important qualification. However, I think the article raised some important points about the relative costs and benefits to people who are brave enough to embark on doctoral studies.

The article also raises important questions about the reasons why people choose to do a PhD. People do PhDs for many reasons, mostly the wrong ones. My three favourite wrong reasons are: avoiding the job market, aspiring to social prestige, and wanting to be an academic.

Avoiding the job market is a bad reason to do a PhD. We like to assume that people doing PhDs are the best and brightest graduates. Most people doing PhDs are in fact very bright, especially those who have been successful in securing funding. However, particularly in engineering, our top graduates are competing for the best posts in industry. It is a sad fact of capitalism that most of the smartest people in society today are running the biggest corporations, not beavering away in research laboratories. For some people a PhD might be a fall back to a prestigious graduate post, or it may be a default position for students who are academically bright but lack the ‘get-up-and-go’ that graduate recruiters are looking for. Far easier to ‘stay-in-and-take-studentship-with-friendly-professor’ than iron a shirt and face the scrutiny of an interview panel. There are many good reasons to opt out of the corporate career ladder and there are many options for people who wish to do so. Falling back on a PhD as a way to prolong the supposedly care-free student life and avoid making grown up decisions about your career path is only likely to make things more complicated in the long run. As The Economist points out, a PhD adds very little to your future earnings or career prospects and can actually hinder entry into some fields. Finding a job that suits your qualifications, interests, lifestyle and values gets more, not less, complicated with a PhD.

Coming from a somewhat anti-intellectual background it has taken me a long while to realise that some people actually do a PhD for the prestige or to make their families proud. When I told my Grandma I was leaving my engineering job to do a PhD she said ‘What? Are you going to be at university forever?’, to which I sheepishly replied ‘maybe?’. As a young Australian I was more than familiar with motto ‘those that can, do, and those that can’t, teach’ and so following an academic career path meant coming to terms with being deemed useless in most social circles. Thankfully, this inured me against the delusion that doing a PhD is somehow glamorous or a shortcut to higher social standing or respect, and it has come as a surprise to discover that for many people, especially young men from hierarchical cultures, the PhD is just that. There is nothing wrong with aspiring to high social standing, but a PhD is a very weird way to go about it.

Returning to the The Economist article, wanting to be an academic is not a strong enough reason on its own to do a PhD. The main point of the article is that academic jobs are scarce and PhD graduates are plentiful. For many people the path from PhD to academic post involves a long series of short-term research contracts, often moving between universities and countries, taking big personal risks for very uncertain returns. If your only objective in doing a PhD is an academic post then you are likely to be frustrated and disappointed, even if you are ultimately successful. For such a sought after career, university academics actually moan about their jobs an awful lot. The reality of day-to-day work, dealing with difficult colleagues and students, doing the boring admin, always worrying about funding and resources, responding to changing political landscapes, coping with the rejection and humiliation that are part of peer-review processes, justifying your esoteric research interests in terms of its social and economic impacts, all mean that life in the ivory tower is just as grubby as any other workplace. There are some wonderful benefits, like academic freedom, flexible conditions, and the joy of creating and sharing knowledge, but in the end it’s a job. Putting yourself through the intensity of a PhD for the slim chance of becoming a university lecturer is insane.

The only good reason to do a PhD is a driving urge to find the answer to a complex problem and to find out how far you can push yourself in the search for knowledge. For this you must be prepared to put aside any other extrinsic outcome you might hope for. The PhD is hard. If it wasn’t there would be no point. It requires a level of determination and self-discipline that few people possess. As The Economist points out, it can involve significant sacrifices in terms of earning and career prospects. The PhD changes you. It changes the way you see the world, and in the process it can disrupt personal relationships and your sense of self. Many of my students and friends have suffered fairly serious anxiety or depression at some point during and after their PhD. Doing a PhD is harder than holding down a job, you will rarely receive the recognition you deserve, it can strain personal relationships, and it is no guarantee of entry to academia. The only things that make it worthwhile are: knowing that you have made some small contribution to knowledge; and discovering the full extent of your own intellectual capability. These are high rewards indeed, more significant but more elusive than the prospect of sleeping until noon, the thrill of being ‘Doctor’, and scrambling onto the bottom rung of the academic career ladder.

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