Be smart about getting a PhD

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Connecticut (USA), Jan 15 (ANI): A recent article in The Economist (http://econ.st/hB706a) concluded that a PhD was a waste of time for most and that students would discover that "that they would be better off doing something else."

The article argued that there were too many newly minted PhDs competing mostly for poor jobs that offered very little return on their investment of time and money. Harsh words for those who may spend five or more years pursuing a doctorate.

However, as many comments on the article were quick to point out, citing statistics obscures far more than it reveals. The job prospects, the time for completion, the skills gained and the overall satisfaction in PhD programs vary tremendously across different fields and universities.

In general, PhDs in engineering, hard sciences and social sciences have an easier time applying their skill set to non-academic jobs than PhDs in the humanities. The job prospects, completion rate and overall financial well-being are far stronger for a PhD graduate from a top university where an admission package includes tuition, health insurance and a yearly stipend than a student attending a low-ranked school who has to pay their own way through graduate school.

Using financial pay-offs to assess the value of a PhD is somewhat flawed to begin with. As most PhD students and graduates would say, nobody goes into a PhD program hoping to become rich; that's what law school and business school are for.

Highly intelligent and self-motivated students choose to pursue a PhD in order to spend their life working on new ideas and living the life of an intellectual, not to make lots of money. For the same reason, the author's comparison of the financial return of a master's degree with that of a PhD is also flawed.

In most disciplines, a master's degree leads to a very different kind of job than a PhD. The income difference between someone with a PhD and masters may be small, but you cannot get certain jobs without a PhD, especially academic jobs. Most PhD students enter graduate school with some idea that they would enjoy research and teaching.

The perks of a tenure-track job at a university can also be very appealing: flexible working hours, access to campus resources, and paid sabbaticals, to name a few. However, it is impossible to know whether you are suited to such a life before trying it out. Most PhD students would advise not going into debt for a degree that does not lead to a lucrative career and to attend a good university, which will make you competitive after the degree, but beyond that basic financial calculation, most pursue PhDs for non-monetary reasons.

The Economist article is correct in stating that the academic job market is extremely competitive and increasingly so in the current economic environment. Hiring freezes in universities have further limited the supply of desirable tenure-track jobs. Even students at top schools may seek jobs outside of academia out of compulsion rather than choice.

PhD students quickly learn that the quest for an academic job may require you to take any available job, work as a post-doc or reapply in a subsequent year, if nothing works out. Many of the problems of the job market discussed in the article such as the increase in contract, part-time and post-doctoral jobs are of concern.

A lot can be done to improve the availability and quality of jobs for PhDs in academia. Yet, like aspiring athletes, the odds of success are not usually a deterrent for those who sincerely want to be academics. While not getting a tenure-track job can be disheartening, many pursue a PhD anyway for the chance of getting the much desired tenure-track job. There may also be increasing job opportunities for PhDs in universities in developing countries where there is still a shortage of PhDs.

Many PhD students, at some point, explore alternatives to academic jobs. PhDs in the US may consider careers in industry, elite private high schools, think tanks, or even management consulting firms which are increasingly hiring PhD graduates for their strong problem-solving skills, and more interestingly, paying them at the scale of an MBA graduate. For each of these alternative careers, while a PhD graduate may not be the traditional employee, they bring a certain set of skills that can be valuable for employers. While the actual substance of a PhD dissertation may or may not be useful outside academia, having attended a highly ranked university signals an intelligent and hardworking individual to prospective employers.

The truth is that many people get into PhD programs, not quite sure of what to expect at the end, but with some idea that they might enjoy a life devoted to research and teaching. This may or may not be the end result, but for most, it is worth trying it out.

You might end up hating the experience and the years "wasted" on the degree, but disappointment with career choices is possible in any other field of work as well. In that respect, it is more useful to think of the PhD as work experience where you spend time teaching, learning how to analyze data and tackling difficult problems. PhDs realize that how you know something is as important as what you know. It is true that many students do not complete their PhDs, and also true that many successful PhDs do not pursue careers in academia. However, you come out of a PhD program as a different person with a unique set of skills and outlook that are valuable both inside and outside academia. By Divya Madhavi (ANI)

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