As a part of the ‘Why do a PhD?’ series of blogs posts, I thought I’d contribute my own thoughts on the decision to do a doctorate. I must say that I have struggled with this post, because—like most people—I have had a mixed experience with the doctorate. Doctorates are hard, but is it worth doing one?
There can be many ‘good’ reasons for a doing a PhD, depending on your individual circumstances. You may have a burning passion for your project and—on your death bed—would regret never having done it; you may need one for the industry job you are heading for; you may want to go into academia (though a PhD certainly does not guarantee this career path—see below); you may be doing one purely for the experience of studying something you really like. These can all be good reasons for doing a doctorate, but whether they provide sufficient justification for you to do one, I can’t say.
However, having been a postgrad myself and having worked in postgrad ministry for five years, I think I can reasonably suggest some very bad reasons for doing a doctorate. These are my top picks:
- You want to be called ‘Doctor’: this is a very, very bad reason for doing a PhD. I finished my doctorate and my experience was better than the average, but I still look at that coveted title and think—by itself—it was definitely not worth it. More importantly, however, desire for a title stems primarily from pride: this is not pleasing to God and it is not how you want to fuel a 3- to 5-year project.
- You don’t know what else to do after a previous degree: this is perhaps the most tempting and deceptive reason for doing a doctorate. It is a terrible, terrible reason. If you are in your second or third year of a doctorate, looking past your elusive submission date and seeing no goal beyond it, it’s very hard to finish. And if you start a doctorate not really knowing what you want to do with your life, you will probably finish it that way too, and your career soul-searching will only be delayed rather than avoided. For most of my friends, doing the PhD only clarified one thing: they didn’t want to stay in academia. It’s easy to make that decision without doing the doctorate.
- You expect the PhD to give you a job in academia: Academia itself isn’t a bad goal. For some people, it’s the right thing. But go into the doctorate with your eyes open. Living in the ivory tower of academia sounds appealing—far away and safe from the ‘real world’—and in some ways it is. But in other ways, its much more brutal than the ‘real world’, where you can find a 9-5 job with a living wage and career progression. For most young postdocs, this is not the case, and life is a stream of underpaid teaching, unpaid research, and constant funding proposals. Academia is a high-stress environment in which to work, with low job security. Be realistic about the uncertainties of an academic career, and the quality of life it offers.
I think these are bad reasons for anyone to do a doctorate, but ultimately, there is only one piece of incontrovertible advice I can share with fellow Christians: do one if you pray about it and feel that God wants you to do it—even if you can’t point to a strong ‘pros’ list at the time of why you should. But if you pray about it and it isn’t clear that you should do one, definitely don’t do it—even if you have come up with a convincing list of reasons why you should. Like anything in life, doctorates are dangerous to undertake without prayer and guidance.
The years of my DPhil were some of the hardest of my life: the doctorate was arduous, financially challenging, at times very lonely, and nearly always anxiety-inducing. But I was sure when I decided to do it that I was supposed to do it. So, I did it. And because it was what God had for me, I don’t regret the journey. I was encouraged recently to hear from a mission partner, who said she had felt called earlier in life to do a doctorate, but hadn’t known at the time why God wanted her to do one. It turned out that her doctorate became crucial to the mission work she now does. God has a plan and that is always enough.