is a Ph.D. worth it?

For those keeping score at home: Back in Oz.

As it often is, the trials, tribulations, and travails of career scientists have been in the news lately.

I’m a bit late to the party as far as this email is concerned, but it’s making the rounds of the blogosphere; see responses on AstroBetter, Cosmic Variance, and Astrobites, focusing on different aspects of unrealistic expectations of either junior scientists or their supervisors.

The most often repeated item from the email is that the faculty at Unnamed Academy allegedly expected their students to work 80-100 hours a week, simply because the faculty worked that much. I think the consensus among the above-linked responses is that almost nobody realistically works that much, at least not on a regular basis — your physical and mental health will give out long before that; 50-60 hours is more realistic. (See the AstroBites surveys, which address this quantitatively.) Better to do the work that needs to get done, and to pace yourself according to your ability to focus. How to know when you’re procrastinating because you’re baked, and when it’s because you’re avoiding something? I ask myself that often, but I think the answer is complicated and intuitive.

Lucianne Walkowicz wrote an excellent response which got to the heart of many of the questions I felt should have been asked. Weeks will differ — some will be fast, some will be slow, and if you’re not meeting your goals you should ask what your obstacles are instead of asking merely how many hours you worked. I think it’s useful to do some self-monitoring to know how many hours each week you’re useful and what your capacity and limits are, but I agree that counting your hours as a form of self-flagellation is not the way forward, and — just as importantly — that no minimum number of hours will guarantee you success either now or in the future (in her words: “success is not a product that can be yours for a set purchase price.”). You could work like a dog and still not get that postdoc, or be denied tenure, or whatever. There’s more to it than that.

Speaking of which, Lucianne also touches on the question of future employment in general. She notes that while jobs in astronomy are scarce, there is much one can do with the training acquired in graduate school or in postdocs if one is willing to flex a bit and try to acquire transferable skills, or to figure out how to transfer those skills. While non-academic jobs are rarely front and center within an academic environment, I do know of people who have successfully made that transition. Not that it wasn’t a big adjustment, or that success came quickly, or that it wasn’t at some level painful if the person in question wasn’t already so jaded by all of the above that academia felt like banging his/her head against the wall (“it feels so good when you stop”).

I came to wonder about this last week when I wrote my first letter of recommendation for a student interested in studying astronomy at the Ph.D. level, and a Ph.D.-bearing friend opined that it was better to tell students simply never to do a Ph.D. The comment related to much of the above woes, but particularly to the difficult job market new Ph.D.s face, which made me wonder for a while: am I actually ruining my students’ careers by encouraging and enabling them to go to graduate school in science?

After some consideration, I think the answer on average is no, but it is not an easy ethical question for me. As we can see from the breadth of responses, the experiences of students in Ph.D. programs varies widely, depending strongly on what and where they’re studying, their relationships with their advisors, their own psychological makeup and their future aims. It’s on me not to send my students knowingly into a lion’s den, but I don’t think one size will fit all here. As for the general employment issue, it’s certainly true that the job market sucks right now. But as far as I’m aware, the job market also sucks for bachelor’s degree and master’s degree recipients as well as for Ph.D.s, because the (US) economy sucks. While I’d bet Ph.D.s are savagely overqualified for a wide range of good-paying jobs with reasonable hours which require specific training or experience, I also think that fewer and fewer of those jobs will be available as the job market continues to “post-modernize”, becoming ever more global, fluid, and knowledge-oriented (see, for example, this Atlantic article and a third of Tom Friedman’s NYT columns). And while a Ph.D. is not specifically job training for a non-academic career, I think the kind of people who want to do Ph.D.s are in a better position to make what they will of a world like this.

One big problem here is truth in advertising. Most people don’t go into a Ph.D. thinking that they’re going to start their own company, or work in software, or work as a quantitative analyst (financial or otherwise) for any one of a number of firms; they’re there to do science. So we owe it to our proteg├ęs not to mislead them. The American Institute of Physics handles numerous studies of recent physics degree recipients at all levels. While, technically, unemployment among Ph.D.s is only 2% and hence low compared to the national average, the Great Recession still defines the job market and so degree recipients are less likely to have the job they want. In what may be related news, postdoc employment among recent physics Ph.D.s has risen sharply — so highly-qualified people are working longer hours at temporary jobs than ever, hoping to get to the next rung on the ladder, or eventually to hop over to a different ladder. I can’t find any longitudinal studies on how Ph.D.s fare over the long term, bouncing around from postdoc to postdoc (much as I feel like I’ve been doing) or how well they do at finding something more stable in any sector, whether in education, in government, or in industry.

In light of all this depressing news, would I do a Ph.D. again, knowing what I know now? Yes, I think so. I might go into it with different expectations, or asking different questions than the ones I asked the first time round. But even if I were asked to clear out my desk tomorrow, the life experiences I’ve had as part of the scientific community have been net positive, and I’ve been places and done things I could never have imagined.* That’s despite many genuinely rotten and soul-killing moments I’ve experienced in the very same profession, fighting battles similar to those others fight outside the ivory tower. While I can imagine what I might be doing next, I also know there’s a good chance that I’ll end up somewhere totally different, possibly due to opportunities which come out of left field. Many opportunities are made rather than found, and depending on where I go, I may well have to make my own opportunities which weren’t advertised or set up for me. That was one thing I found so impressive about the person for whom I wrote the Ph.D. recommendation: we never originally advertised for a student in the program in which that student ended up working for us.

I think the only sane advice these days is that we all pretty much have to be responsible for ourselves and can’t feel entitled to any particular favorable outcome we might have in mind. It sounds so Republican when I say it that way, but all I mean by that is that each of us is the only one who can possibly know what he/she wants for the future, and hence is the only one who can chart the course for getting there in an uncertain, competitive world which is indifferent to one’s welfare outside one’s own Monkeysphere. Social support and mentorship out the wazoo are expected, of course, from one’s inner circles, and virtually required in order to do well. We can’t expect that support and guidance to materialize out of nowhere, so like with everything else, we have to make it happen. Reaching out to others and fighting the tendency to become isolated are important. Talk to everyone, get lots of opinions, keep asking tough questions, and don’t be satisfied with easy answers.

These are just my impressions. If you’ve got opinions, I’m keen to hear them, especially if you feel like you (respectfully!) disagree.

*To head this one off at the pass, because I’m sure people who know me will bring it up: While I feel amazingly lucky to have landed where I am right now, it’s more because Brian’s a reasonable, caring guy who trusts his people and expects the best from them than because he’s a science celebrity. I have no idea how much weight his recommendation would have outside an academic context. If I’m ever in a position to find out, I hope he can at least say that I write good software and don’t totally suck at managing projects. Brian’s also not the only person here; the Mt. Stromlo community overall has a very supportive, interactive culture. Nobody here is too important to give you the time of day, or a good chunk of their time to talk about interesting things.


About Richard

I'm an American scientist who is building a new life in Australia. This space will contain words about science and math, but also philosophy, policy, literature, my travels, occasional rants, all sorts of things I find strange and awesome. The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my employer at the time (currently University of Sydney), though personally, I think they should.
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4 Responses to is a Ph.D. worth it?

  1. Joshua O'Madadhain says:

    The answer, so obviously and so uselessly, is “it depends”. (And of course you know that I never finished my PhD.)

    I’m not sure that people that contemplate going into academia necessarily think through all of the implications, and since the risk (it seems to me) is pretty high that despite one’s best efforts it often doesn’t work out, I think in your position I would have asked them if they wanted to talk about what they wanted. (Which you may have done, of course.)

    Here are some of the questions I might have asked.

    Attached to someone? Planning to stay that way? Are they OK with a long-distance relationship or willing to move to wherever you can find a position?

    Along those lines: how flexible are you yourself willing to be in re: choice of places to live?

    Do you mind moving every few years, or do you want to feel ‘settled’? If the latter, how long are you willing to wait for it?

    I think that going to graduate school was actually a good decision for me, in practice, because my third (!) graduate school is the environment in which I developed the software that’s arguably had the biggest impact to date of anything I’ve ever done, and certainly played a role in me getting positions at my current and previous employers. (Close second would be the models that I developed during that time.)

    I can go on about this topic indefinitely, probably, but that’s probably enough to go on for the moment. :)

    • Richard says:

      Thanks Josh. I usually forget that you didn’t finish your Ph.D., and in any case definitely think of you as a highly-motivated, world-changing person irrespective of whatever your formal qualifications may be. :)

      I don’t think it’s too controversial to say that there are at least SOME people who will benefit from going to graduate school (we can debate how big that fraction is, but whatever). And we need to make sure we can train our next generation of scientists and engineers, so we want at least some people going into Ph.D. programs. I never had trouble dispensing advice and telling stories before, but the responsibility to get it right seems a lot more real when I’m in the business of writing letters. Knowing the direction my field is taking in terms of things like employment trends is important knowledge, and even if I don’t make the final decision, I want my students to be equipped to make the most informed decision for themselves that they can possibly make, and hence (I would hope) the highest likelihood of making the right decision for them.

      I don’t think I phrased it as “do you want to talk about what you want?” but I certainly asked my student to think carefully about the future and mentioned some of the pitfalls above, as I always do. Engaging them on a more asky level may be a good thing; the mentorship workshops I’ve been in (and they have a lot for academics at ANU and as part of CAASTRO) suggest that the student should be doing about 80% of the talking.

  2. For me, and the path I decided during that fateful summer at Penn State, I knew that for me, a PhD was not worth it. By the time I was finished with college (and my subsequent time getting my masters), I was confident enough in my academic abilities that I could have done it … but I don’t think I ever had sufficient will. Considering how I chose to completely change my career path and move into an area of study that also didn’t require an advanced degree, I think it was easier for me to stop where I did … so, in a sense, I cheated. If I had continued with physics, I would have seen far greater need – and worth – in pursuing a PhD and post-doctoral work afterward.

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