Should You Get That Ph.D.?
Should You Get That Ph.D.?

In Do You Really Need a Ph.D.?, Arie Spirgel's cautions about starting a Ph.D. program if your ultimate goal is not to become a professor. Spirgel writes,

As empowering as the notion of the alternative-academic path is, deciding to pursue a Ph.D. when the career you want doesn't require a doctorate may not be the best choice. In his recent memoir, Eat a Peach, the chef and restaurateur David Chang's first piece of advice to aspiring chefs is this: if there is anything else you can do for a living, then do that. It is my wish that Chang's advice be appropriated for the Ph.D.-curious as follows: unless the only career you can imagine yourself having requires or appropriately values a doctorate, I would strongly advise against getting one.

Like many things that seem obvious, however, the Ph.D. story is more complicated.

A word of caution first. Anyone considering a Ph.D. might not want to listen to advice from anyone with a Ph.D., us included. People with doctorates are notoriously bad at this kind of advice, often exaggerating their history into a singular universal experience.

They can also be unintentionally patronizing (i.e., I will keep you from having the same terrible experience I did or I know you can never have what I have, so I’ll advise you against trying). This can lead to well-intentioned but often myopic advice.

That said, it is also very true that the academic job market is atrocious, and finding a job in your field may very well be the academic equivalent of winning the lottery (regardless of your credentials and background).

Still, we would like to offer a friendly amendment to Spirgel.

If a Ph.D. is a life goal in and of itself for you or what you want to do in life is to work in higher education at increasingly higher levels of responsibility, then you would do well to consider getting a Ph.D. or Ed.D.

The less obvious fact of a Ph.D. or Ed.D. is that that disciplinary knowledge is only part of the value. In addition to the disciplinary knowledge you gain, getting a doctorate means buying time, gaining experience, and investing deeply in a challenging project.

Each of these can be meaningful in themselves.

Having time to learn can be one of the most meaningful experiences for any Ph.D. student. Time allows for greater work, of course, but it also can encourage creativity and give rise to serendipity. Time is perhaps the most important element of any educational experience, from kindergarten through post-graduate.

The experience one gains in a doctoral program can be invaluable. That could be teaching experience or lab experience or work experience that gives you insights into aspects of higher education that are often invisible to undergraduate students and even masters degree students.

And working on a long-term difficult project shows commitment, grit, and a sense of rigor that demonstrates to future employers your ability to do complex higher-level work.

These are all incredibly valuable aspects of pursuing a doctoral degree.

What might you do with this degree? Well, here things get interesting.

If your goal is a tenure-line academic job, then Spirgel may be right. You should ask yourself whether you will be happy you spent the time on an advanced degree that will likely not get you that job.

If, however, you’re willing to pursue a career as an educator, you might do well to consider the doctorate.

Note that we are replacing "professor" with "educator."

In the higher education of the 21st century, those two roles need not be synonymous.

One of the biggest stories in higher education is that teaching is evolving from a solo practice to a team sport.

What is standard in high-quality online education — and is becoming more common in residential/blended courses — is for faculty educators to collaborate with non-faculty educators on course design. The past year of the pandemic demonstrated for many the importance of well-supported instruction.

We need to think more expansively about what it means to be a postsecondary educator in the 21st century beyond the traditional faculty path. 

And we need to recognize the ways that getting a Ph.D. prepares one for an educator career in the new world of higher education.



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