Why pursue a Ph.D.?
Practical and Personal Reasons
August 2013 (postdoc)
Ever since releasing The Ph.D. Grind last year, I've had lots of conversations about why someone should or should not pursue a Ph.D., especially in science and engineering fields.
I've distilled my thoughts down to a 45-minute talk, which I delivered to students at colleges around the Boston area (Brown, MIT, Harvard, Amherst College, UMass Amherst, and Tufts) throughout Fall 2013.
The title of my talk is Why Pursue A Ph.D.? Three Practical Reasons, since I focus on pragmatic reasons for pursuing a Ph.D. Here is a 12-minute video summary:
Here's a longer 20-minute version of this talk:
For a more personal take on my own Ph.D. journey, read this excerpt from the Epilogue of The Ph.D. Grind:
If you are not going to become a professor, then why even bother pursuing a Ph.D.? This frequently-asked question is important because most Ph.D. graduates aren't able to get the same jobs as their university mentors and role models—tenure-track professors. There simply aren't enough available faculty positions, so most Ph.D. students are directly training for a job that they will never get. (Imagine how disconcerting it would be if medical or law school graduates couldn't get jobs as doctors or lawyers, respectively.)
So why would anyone spend six or more years doing a Ph.D. when they aren't going to become professors? Everyone has different motivations, but one possible answer is that a Ph.D. program provides a safe environment for certain types of people to push themselves far beyond their mental limits and then emerge stronger as a result. For example, my six years of Ph.D. training have made me wiser, savvier, grittier, and more steely, focused, creative, eloquent, perceptive, and professionally effective than I was as a fresh college graduate. (Two obvious caveats: Not every Ph.D. student received these benefits—many grew jaded and burned-out from their struggles. Also, lots of people cultivate these positive traits without going through a Ph.D. program.)
Here is an imperfect analogy: Why would anyone spend years training to excel in a sport such as the Ironman Triathlon—a grueling race consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run—when they aren't going to become professional athletes? In short, this experience pushes people far beyond their physical limits and enables them to emerge stronger as a result. In some ways, doing a Ph.D. is the intellectual equivalent of intense athletic training.
Last modified: 2013-12-01