Don’t get a PhD

That’s right. Don’t get a PhD.

You might read the title of this blog entry and think that I’m kidding. Well, I’m being intentionally provocative I’ll grant, but I’m not kidding. Every now and then someone asks me if I would recommend that they go ahead and get a PhD in philosophy or theology. As rule of thumb, I wouldn’t. Why not? Didn’t I enjoy my experience? Yes, very much. I got a scholarship to pay for all my fees and a living allowance, so I got to do stuff I love for three years and get paid for it. It was great! And if that’s all you’re after – three years of doing what you love, then I take back my warning. Go ahead, do it, because you will very probably get what you want. But…

But what if you’re not doing it just for the satisfaction and pleasure. Are you going to do it for the knowledge? Read books. Start a blog and write articles. You don’t need to get a PhD to know about your subject. Actually you would only go after a PhD if you already knew your subject well enough to say something lengthy about it. And then we come to the more likely culprit. You want to get a PhD because you think you’ll be able to enter professional academia once you’ve got a PhD, and perhaps a few publications.

Now, some people ask me this because – no boasting intended – they admire what they think I’ve achieved. I’ve got a PhD, so I would know if it’s a good idea for them, because I’ve been there and done that. Well here’s the thing: Did you also notice that even though I completely finished the PhD in mid 2007 and it’s now mid 2010, I haven’t had a single academic job – not even a job interview? Imagine that I’m in a rowboat, in the middle of a lake. So are a hundred other people. The lake is big enough to hold just one hundred rowboats. We all have fishing rods, and our heavily baited hooks are in the water. There’s a single fish in the water, and everyone on the lake knows it. You’re standing at the shore and you call out, “so…. should I bring my boat and rod out there too?” Another illustration: There’s an elevator full of people. No, not just full, it’s absolutely stuffed with people, and the crowd overflows out into the lobby, where still more people – dozens of them, are pressing in as hard as they can, trying to get into the elevator. Should you try to get in? Imagine that the scene before you does not change. The people in the elevator are quite happy to stay there, and the crowd pressed hard up against them just keeps on pressing it, showing no sign of letting up. You haven’t even entered the mob yet. Should you stand around for hours waiting to get in?

Consider the New Zealand scene in philosophy: Your options for universities are Auckland, Waikato, Victoria, Canterbury and Otago. There are a few smaller places (e.g. polytechnics) that may have an elective paper or so in philosophy, but these are the main options. Do they all hire new faculty each year? No of course not. There might – might – be two full time recruitments each year in the nation, and that’s a really good year. How many graduates do you suppose there are? I don’t care to guess. Take into account, too, the fact that departments will not only consider New Zealand candidates. The situation is the same on a larger scale in the US, the UK, and Australia. As a PhD grad in philosophy, you will almost certainly not get a job on a philosophy faculty. Period. Deal with that. Should you get a PhD in philosophy (or theology)? If you’re doing it for the love of it, sure why not. It’s expensive, but whatever. If you’re thinking of doing it to enter the academic profession with that degree, then you had better be special. Or you had better know somebody – in which case someone better than you is going to get screwed over. So you’d better be special. But can I recommend, in general, that you fling yourself into a pool of candidates – a pool that I am in – that already faces impossible odds? No. I can’t. The best advice I can give to most people (read: to normal people, who might happen to have a keen interest in philosophy and teaching) is simple: Don’t do it.

Glenn Peoples

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30 thoughts on “Don’t get a PhD

  1. It depends what someone wants it for, Richie. If it’s because they think it’ll produce a job opening in academia teaching philosophy, then no (DISCLAIMER: It might not be that way for American community colleges, which are more numerous than Universities and also favour Masters grads to PhD grads). If it’s for personal development, or it might contribute to some very different career path, then sure.

  2. This is a gloomy post, Glenn.

    I hope you haven’t given up. You’re great at what you do! Getting your name out there and getting the attention of that elusive fish is what you need to do – and prayer can’t hurt either.

  3. I am set to do a philosophy Masters in the UK. There is a lot of demand for teachers in secondary schools (high schools) from what I can see, though it comes in the guise of religious education more often than not.

  4. I think that’s almost true of any profession. If you get a masters degree, you are qualified. If you get a PHD, you’re over qualified unless you want to stay in academics. If you want to stay in academics, you had better be the best out of the candidates or there’s really no hope for you. I have a masters degree (not in philosophy) and I don’t have any intention of getting a PHD at the moment because it will only limit my potential in what I can do.

  5. I just finished my Master’s in Philosophy. I won’t say I wish I hadn’t, but it cost me more than I expected it to. I would not recommend graduate school in the liberal arts for anyone.

    In fact, right now I am applying for various jobs that have nothing to do with my field of study. Why? Because I realize how hard teaching jobs are to come by. It is far more important that I develop other skills than -to follow your analogy- cast my fishing line in the crowded lake.

    The DaoDeJeng says, “Abandon Learning Have, Now Worries.”

    This is why I will not apply for PhD programs.

  6. An MA really doesn’t open many doors in the US (finishing my second one right now). Yes, there are many more places to work, but there’s also a substantially larger population. Consider, in my case, living in Washington State, which has roughly the same population as NZ. We would have about the same (probably fewer) positions in philosophy and religion.

    Advanced degrees are gambles and serve one main function: they are generally the minimum requirement for applying for an inner circle. If you want to get in that circle, you have to have one. But having one is no guarantee of getting in.

    I hate to say that I agree with your advice Glenn. If anything, I hope you’re encouraged that you’re doing something important and not so discouraged that you haven’t been able to do what you planned (easier said than done).

  7. I certainly have no thoughts of giving up. I’m in this now, and alongside my mundane professional life I’ll continue to chip away at my goal. I (in a rather humbled and modest way, given the way things are going) do think that I have a couple of assets in my favour and will keep working on them. The blog entry was intentionally provocative. There are some people who probably should go after a PhD in philosophy on professisonal grounds, but they are very few and far between.

  8. It’s different here in the states. I’m working on a Ph.D. in philosophy. One always hears how hard it is to find a job, even here. Yet, most of my friends have (eventually, though not always without struggle) found themselves decent jobs. That said, I still live in constant fear that I won’t find a job when I graduate. And the market is much worse now than it has been in the recent past. I’m afraid that if I don’t find a job, I won’t know what to do with myself when I get done.

    Yet, I am also getting paid to do what I love in the mean time. I’m meeting all kinds of interesting people who share my interests. I’m working with some of the top scholars in the field. And, as a bonus, I’ve been sheltered from the storm during the economic recession. So, I’d say, job or no job, it’s been worth the ride (as long as I find something to do with myself when I get done — I do have a family to think about).

  9. This is a great post, Glenn – very realistic. The same is even true in my field computer science. There are not that many jobs out there for someone who studied one narrow thing for 4-6 years, unless you can start a company off of it or do research for a company. I stopped at the M.S. and I would recommend that to philosophers, too. It’s just too long!

  10. As a PhD student in Philosophy, I agree with the general tenor of your post. Just a couple of points:

    (1) The analogies. Would I get in the elevator? Well it all depends where the elevator is going. If the elevator is going where one really really desires to go, then it probably is rational to wait around and try and get in. I think the analogy of an academic career to a professional sporting career is an apt one. The chances of success for any given kid who wants to be an all black are very slim, but does that mean they shouldn’t strive for that goal? I’m not so sure.

    (2) Some of what you say is based on circumstances that many other aspiring Phd students wouldn’t be in. If an incredibly brilliant student who was willing to move anywhere in the world to do a Phd and anywhere in the world to get a PhD job, then there chances aren’t necessarily so slim. The best Phd programs in the world are very successful at placing people directly into research-oriented academic jobs.

    I would think that if one is fully aware of the job market and willing and able to take all those steps which are more likely to lead to an academic job, then pursuing a Phd is not irrational.

    But as I say, agree with your basic sentiment. There are few to many people going into PhDs thinking that they will be the exception to the rule…

  11. “There are few to many people going into PhDs thinking that they will be the exception to the rule…”

    Yeah, it’s like 95% of people thinking that they are above the median. Not possible.

  12. If you want to get a PhD, I would suggest to only think about the fields that have commercial or health relevance. They get paid more and the demand for us is higher simply because we can bring in more money than other fields. It is a struggle to move on to the next level after your yearS as a postdoc….we do have more options (biotech, consulting, government, etc).

    Unfortunately, if you are in a field strictly for intellectual curiosity and / or interest that has limited monetary appeal to the university or the public….I am sad to say that I agree with Glenn (unless you are really good or you can bring something unique to the table).

  13. I think it’s a similar situation for (evangelical) Bible college graduates. The atmosphere at college is full of hope and inspiration but the reality outside that cosy little world is that churches are full of average people who don’t want brilliant insights, they just want a pastor that they like. Careers are built on things that pay $$$ not flights of fancy.

  14. …and Ropata has hit the nail on the head of the “why Joel will never be a pastor” nail.

    Ideally, one can be liked and share brilliant insights, but this frequently goes against the status quo, which means you could lose you job.

  15. You are more than likely not very qualified, here’s a saying that might help u:

    if life is easy, life will be hard
    if life is hard, life will be easy (paraphrased)

    Perhaps the PhD for you was a little too enjoyable, from what I can see. Go back and do the work you will realize there are jobs.

  16. Amen, Sister. I did mine in 2007 and am, if not regretting it, re-evaluating my reasons for doing it. The recession isn’t helping either…

  17. Why do people keep doing this ? Seriously… You don’t need a PhD to follow your pursuits. Start life!!! Read Rousseau and Kant in your spare time. You can do in depth study without spending your life and money away. A lot of us would love to be an academic, but shouldn’t philosophy teach you to think objectively? From that objective thought, would come the conclusion that you are probably not going to make a career out of it. And if so, your sacrifices will not be worth it. Such as, constantly moving to undesirable places, relationship problems, etc. etc.

  18. It seems that you are discouraging people from pursuing a PhD because it is very competitive. If your intent is to warn people of the competitiveness of academic positions for PhDs, that is valid. But it sounds more like you have some personal frustration, which might be the chief motivation for this discouragement for future PhDs. I don’t know anything worthwhile that doesn’t involve risk and sacrifice. One thing is true if you discouraged one prospective PhD you were successful in increasing your odds of landing that job.
    I sense a bit of bitterness in your tone towards Phds who are hired because they know someone. I feel for you, but this is true in almost every field. I can think of dozens of job out there which are just as competitive. I once took a job examination which included 60 thousand applicants and this was for 7 openings. I think you are wise to inform future PhDs that is not easy to land jobs in their field right away, but i think discouragement is not necessary. I hope you land your dream job, and reread psalm 73 these words have brought me comfort.

  19. Woah, I don’t think “sober” should be equated with “bitter.” Just because Glenn uses himself as an example (it wouldn’t be appropriate to use another person, after all) doesn’t mean this is a vent of personal bitterness. Getting people to re-think why they would want to do this is necessary.

  20. Lament and rejoice: that’s been my experience. And that’s with an MDiv.
    “Get a job as a pastor or be unemployed,” says pastor Matt Chandler. True! Although I am a pastoral assistant at the moment, I seriously consider getting a degree in health sciences. That’s where the coin is.
    ‘Course, I do have friends with PhD’s, and they are getting jobs. But, I’ll take Glenn’s wisdom: read books, and write articles.

  21. I am now finishing a masters in philosophy from an english university. I know there are no jobs in philosophy, but that is not the main problem. the problem is that universities , in general, lie about the career prospects after graduating. they say that philosophy can offer you a career in publishing, law, politics, teaching, whatever. the fact is, if you don’t specialize on those fields, a degree or masters in philosophy won’t guarrantee any good job in fact. I got a BA in philosophy and now finishing a masters in philosophy too. I thought about moving to a poorer country were a masters is still worth, and can give you acess to a job in a university. at least, it would be more respectable and enjoyable to do, then working 40 hours a week as in a bar or as a carer. if i stay in Europe those are my real only job prospectives, unless I decide to take another master in law or tourism. as the blogger points out. do it for love, not for a job you would hope to have in future. you can’t plan life. but still, I am thinking of pursuing a p.h.d. in philosophy because it is better to be poor than hypocrite and ignorant. philosophy also can give you a job I believe. you just have to prepare yourself to emigrate to a poor country were there is a lack of graduates, and there are lots of countries in that situation like Brazil, Chile, Philipines, India, etc… Countries that pay low wages but are more than pleased to accept you as a professor of philosophy with just a masters or crap p.h.d. Now that philosophy can seem a waste of time sometimes is not wrong, although I would say that philosophy is also addictive

  22. Good article glen, and I do understand your frustration. It’s prevalent with any career these days that there is a great deal of difficulty to get established where you so desperately want to be. The reason why I am pursuing my masters in theology and then my phd is because my value lies In education. I believe it is the most important aspect of life in our world. I’m planning on doing missionary work in Africa and hopefully educate pastors and teachers over there to be more qualified to be able to teach the younger generations. My point for saying all of this is that if you are truly passionate about your “subject” or “expertise” it doesn’t matter how Long it takes to get a job or even what you do for that matter. The fact is if you hold true to the values you have, God will use you in unbelievable ways, bigger then you can imagine. I wish you the best of luck glen

  23. Hugo – I liked your post. I am about to start a PhD in theoretical physics – which is as practical (in the worst sense) as philosophy (we are just very good at lying about the implications of out research to secure funding). Its the same deal, although from the sounds of things much better for us physicists. 10 grads for every faculty place, great minds dropping out, etc etc. What you have said reflects something I have been thinking for a while, and it was a real breath of fresh air to hear. Step by step this has happened to every part of our society. My parents, growing up in England, could be artists and musicians by doing part time jobs and living on welfare. This is obviously impossible now.

    Go to a developing country like brazil to be a professor, if you can get it. Get another job on the side. Live in a squat. Don’t have kids. The life of an academic should be the life of a monk : ). We are not the sputnik generation, there aren’t going to be any cushy faculty jobs or council houses because there are no soviets to compete with (who, by the way, where whipping us at physics, despite having a collapsing economy). If theres anything else that would fulfill you, do that. but if the only thing that would get you out of bed in the morning is (philosophy, physics, etc) then do that. Its a lot like being an artist – some people make it big, many other incredibly good people don’t. The university professor was an emulsion of the american dream and the intellectual dream – but like all emulsions it had to separate eventually.

    Lets face it, the academic path that we thought existed no longer does – and it happened in our lifetimes. If we keep fighting over the withered feet of academia all we can expect is stagnation in our fields, or even complete assimilation into fields that are profitable like finance etc.

  24. I am curious to know the intellectual benefits of obtaining a PhD in philosophy. If I were not in debt, had no family, and had inherited a large sum of money, I could see myself devoting my life solely to the pursuit of knowledge and to the development of my own philosophy. Today we have access to virtually all information we could possibly dream of; I doubt there is any philosopher whose works I can’t obtain. For those texts that I find unreadable, I also have no doubt that I would be able to find something or someone who would be able to explain it to me properly.

    A PhD program may give you a structured environment, the presence of others who have similar interests as you, and highly pedestaled individuals (philosophy profs) who, like bright and shining angels, will guide you to the correct manners of inquiry. Is this where the premium lies?

    If money is no object to you, perhaps pursuing this PhD would be fun and invigorating, but is completing such a program actually necessary to your personal quest for knowledge? Does not having a PhD which is merely a piece of paper, disqualify you from the higher realms of philosophical thought? I’d like to think not, but who are the gatekeepers to these realms?

    The PhD is a series of letters that can be placed at the end of your name. It is a series of letters that gives you power over others, it is an intimidation. It is also something that many people decide to dedicate large portions of their lives and resources in order to obtain. Is the goal personal enlightenment, or is it academic snobbery? Or, might it start out as a quest for enlightenment and then turn into a narcissistic impulse to dominate others.

    I can’t help but see hierarchy and elitist snobbery in our academic institutions. As a good friend of mine once said, “there is only one thing more feckless today than the Roman Catholic Church, the University.”

  25. “There is only one thing more feckless today than the Roman Catholic Church, the University.” Spoken like a true Protestant. Can you imagine the state of charity work in the world without the Roman Catholic Church; I’d rather not.

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