Why do a PhD? Decision making under uncertainty

If you’re weighing up whether to do a PhD or not and have got this far in the “Why do a PhD?” series, you will have already considered your motivations, skills and the honour brought to Christ by studying his creation. But, you may also be trying to decide if it is worth spending 3-5 years more researching.

In this decision, a Christian deals with the duality of both an open and closed future, at least from their perspective. Whilst there is certainty in all of God’s promises (2 Corinthians 1:20), they do not know precisely how their efforts of obedience and delighted action will pan out in the PhD research.

One of my main interests is the application of behavioural economics to land and property research. The preeminent question in behavioural economics is: how do people make consumption decisions when they are so uncertain about what the future will hold?

The question really hinges around risk, which can be attributed to the benefits, but also to the costs of consumption. Choosing to do a PhD is (much more than, but not less than) a decision about consumption. It will take time, money (often someone else’s) and energy. Will it take you away from family? Will it take you away from church meetings? The benefits are also unknown. Will my research benefit society? Will it facilitate a career? Will I enjoy being called ‘Doctor’ (but then be embarrassed when medics think I understand what they’re saying)? No one can know with certainty the answer to these questions, or even if they should be the prime risks considered when weighing up the decision. However, we can make some educated guesses about them.

Given the uncertainty on both sides of the equation we need to recognize that, without Christ’s direct guidance, the decision cannot be certain: we are not privileged to make the decision with that information. Undertaking a PhD involves risk. Not doing one also involves risk. Remember though that each decision is framed within the certainty of God’s promises in Christ.

Why do a PhD? If you’ve considered your skills, motivations and enthusiasm and are still keen to do one, then one part of the answer is because you’ve considered the risks (both the upside and downsides) and you still think that doing it is an expression of love for Christ.

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