To pursue a PhD or not to by Simon M. Mutungi

Simon M. Mutungi is a PhD candidate and fellow at the University of Cape Town and Yale University. Simon shares some thoughts and facts for those considering whether or not to pursue a PhD.

Like most students, I grew up hearing scary tales about the hardships and mental implications of pursuing this highest academic honor – PhD. The most vivid of these was the popular word play on the acronym – Permanent Head Damage. Some of these fears were actually grounded in fact. Studies show that one in two PhD students experiences psychological distress and one in three is at risk of a common psychiatric disorder such as depression. Yet, as I near completion of my doctorate in law, I have found that these challenges are not unique to the PhD experience. From kindergarten to junior high school, to college, we are told frightening stories about how mathematics is undoable, how only the insane pursue a law degree (later on the bar), how medicine and engineering studies are a reserve for the sharpest minds. In hindsight, our very existence from childhood to now, is awash with accomplishments that we were constantly reminded we could not achieve, yet here we are. Of course our resilience does not negate the fact that the pursuit of a PhD is challenging. So the million dollar question I hope to guide you personally answer, is whether or not a PhD expedition is worth it.

‘Worth it’ is not monolithic. While some pursue a PhD to awaken intellectual curiosity and improve knowledge about their respective potential fields of expertise, others do it to attain academic bona fides necessary to position themselves for a specific job or to get promoted at work. Others do it to improve their odds of earning a good salary, while others do it to better society and save the world through ground breaking research. Some do it simply to attain academic kudos and win praise amongst their peers. I will steer clear of the moral relativist dynamics behind the various reasons and rather emphasize that it is imperative you identify your personal reason(s) for wanting a PhD.

Remembering the reason you started this project in the first place, helps you overcome difficult days (and surely as night follows day, those moments will come). Your reason is also critical in drafting your application letters, shaping your choices for the graduate school, the program or lab, the supervisor you wish to have and perhaps most importantly – the topic of research. The topic must definitely be an area you are passionate about. The PhD project will be like your baby or pet that you foster from infancy to adulthood. And through some of the tough times in that growth, if your research was about something you had no particular interest in, you risk abandoning it at worst or being dispirited at best. With some research suggesting that on average, 50 percent of PhD candidates drop out of graduate school without finishing, it is imperative that you are passionate about your topic of research so as to be motivated to see your project to completion.

A deeper introspection into your personal reasons may also direct you to not pursue the PhD at all. While it is one thing to convince the admission committees that you are a worthy doctoral candidate, it is an entirely different thing convincing yourself that embarking on this plus 3-6 year (in America upto 43% of doctoral students only get their PhD ten years after their first date of enrolment) the journey represents your best professional, intellectual and personal interests. So why do you want to pursue a PhD?

To help you answer that question, I will briefly analyze some of the reasons or myths out there that largely influence folks to pursue doctorates or stay away.

A PhD only makes you an expert in a narrow field

If your only interest in the PhD is to become a leading expert in a specific area, then you are short-changing yourself from the start. A PhD is meant to arm you with a wide spectrum of skills including complex problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, and coordinating with others. These are four of the top ten skills the World Economic Forum Future of Jobs report recommends for those willing to master work in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The first skill – complex problem solving – is the hallmark of a PhD program. The PhD teaches one how to intricately define a problem, disaggregate it into solvable segments, prioritize realistic solutions over far reaching ones, build a work plan for execution of proposed solutions, conduct critical analyses and format findings in a compelling manner easily communicable to any audience. This skill is transferable and can transcend your specific area of interest to other segments of life.

A PhD only prepares you for an academic career

Related to the above point, the skillset and knowledge attained during your PhD does not have to be confined to what has traditionally been misperceived to be an academia only route. While most PhD students end up in academia, others end up in business. In fact, the leading management consultant firms including McKinsey, BCG, Bain among others all have special recruitment sessions for PhD students. The private sector too is ripe with opportunities for PhD students, even those who want to stay in an academic like position – such as industrial researchers. In fact, I would encourage the private sector to look to hire more PhD candidates as their training in out-of-the-box thinking is crucial for overcoming some of their day to day challenges.

A PhD is a reserve only for the genius

Hollywood productions such as Big Bang Theory have misled many to believe that only a prodigy like Sheldon Copper or Leonard Hofstadter can pursue a PhD. Fortunately, this is but fiction as one need not be a genius to pursue a PhD. American psychologist Leta Hollingworth defined a genius as someone with an IQ of 180 which would translate to around one person in every two million people. I will let the genius in you do the maths on this. However, one should be reasonably smart enough to pass the prerequisites set by schools such as achieving good pass marks in their masters or GRE, GMAT or TOEFL tests. You must also be hardworking and diligent considering most programmes require you to teach undergraduate students.

A PhD increases your pay potential

A study in the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management by Bernard Casey shows that British men with a bachelor’s degree earn 14% more than those without one. The earnings premium for a PhD is 26% compared to 23% for masters which can be completed in as little as one year. In some areas such as maths and computing, social sciences and languages, the earnings premium difference between PhDs and masters vanishes on average. In others like medicine, business and financial studies is the difference significantly high enough. According to the study, a PhD generally commands only a 3% premium over a master’s degree in the UK as of 2009. Note that this varies across continents, countries and research areas. In my personal experience, the PhD has opened me up to markets that have better pay than the one I was in prior. And in some instances, I have been turned down from jobs I so badly wanted most probably because of the PhD due to being a tad bit overqualified for the position.

Thus runs my illustration of the magic and mania of a PhD pursuit. It is the source of both remarkable professional and personal prosperity as well as spectacular fragility and challenges. In choosing to do or not to do a PhD, it is therefore critical that you appreciate these pointers and do your own further research about your intended research journey. It is a deeply personal choice as it is a big commitment. It is also quite a different experience for everyone. For instance, despite the longevity in duration associated with the course, I personally completed mine in under three years while simultaneously pursuing a masters degree and partying like a university freshman. So in the immortal sentiment of Ubawomkhulu Nelson Mandela, my ultimate prayer is that your eventual decision (to pursue the PhD or not) is shaped by your hopes and not your fears. Have fun while at it and use this contemplating process as an introspection into who you are, what you want and where you want to be in the foreseeable future.

simon.mutungi@yale.edu / Twitter @shakamara / IG @smutungi

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