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To PhD or not to PhD

Craig Zelizer

September 13, 2023

This month’s career series is sponsored by Rotary’s Peace Fellowship program (more information is below

As part of our Career Series' focus for September on to Grad or not to Grad, I'm pleased to write this (long) post for those who are crazy or inspired enough to consider doing a PhD. This blog shares part of my story on the bumpy road to doing a PhD. (and thankfully completing) combined with key lessons that I strongly suggest potential doctoral students consider before embarking on this journey (or possibly better yet not doing so in many cases).

Before getting into my experience, first it is important to discuss what a PhD. is and a bit on the current economic climate. It is essential that anyone considering investing years of their life, their energy, potential sanity and finances (even if one has funding it may not be sufficient) to be aware of some key macro-level trends.

A PhD according to the  Miriam Webster Dictionary can be defined as " 1) an earned academic degree conferring the rank and title of doctor of philosophy; 2) a person who has a doctor of philosophy." In most cases a PhD is a terminal degree at the highest level possible (not in all cases) that confers a degree of academic credibility and respect in an exclusive club (although not as exclusive as in the past). Once one has a PhD conferred it is as if one has graduated from Hogwarts (in Harry Potter speak) and is now qualified (at least theoretically) to practice academic magic (research, teaching and more). Of course it is important to emphasize that completing a PhD doesn't necessarily lead to a job in academia (this is fundamental misconception many people have).

According to one of the best global studies on PhDs, The Changing PhD (2013, from the Group of 8, Australia, it is a great read and encourage people to skim through the report) a PhD means the following:

Obtaining a PhD by research is the pinnacle of formal educational achievement and in principle PhD graduates have experienced an unrivalled opportunity to realise, cultivate and unleash their intellectual potential. Anyone achieving this qualification has demonstrated not only their ability to understand  and use specific and specialised knowledge requiring the highest intellectual capabilities, they have also demonstrated their ability to go beyond what was already known to create new knowledge, new ways of thinking and potentially new opportunities for humankind. (p.7)

There are an increasing number of doctoral students and graduates around the world, coming out of a wide range of programs (although natural sciences /engineering tend to have the largest %). I could go on and on about what a PhD program contains, how some programs are trying to adapt, why others are becoming increasingly irrelevant, but will stay focused in this post on the nuts and bolt of deciding to jump into a process or stay out.

But first a few macro-trends.

Globally there are an increasing number of graduates of doctoral programs (supply has been increasing in many fields).  But at the same time tenure-track opportunities (a position in which ones works for a # of years and if the professor meets all the qualifications can advance to a tenured, meaning permanent position) are decreasing. Thus there is a fundamental gap here, with doctoral enrollments having increased in many areas, but the main desired job of graduates (at least the picture many people have) is decreasing. As explained in a recent Economist article,

There is an oversupply of PhDs. Although a doctorate is designed as training for a job in academia, the number of PhD positions is unrelated to the number of job openings.

This is basic supply and demand economics, too many potential faculty and not enough full-time faculty openings, means greater competition. Even more importantly to emphasize is with the increasing gigification of the economy that there are an increasing number of part-time, adjunct positions. That means that for many people completing a PhD who want to be an academic getting a tenure track job is very challenging (although there are full-time contract position options as well. More about that to below), and there are tons and tons of adjunct positions.  According to the American Association of University Professors, "non-tenure track positions account for 70% of all instructional staff appointments in American Higher Education." It is important to note this includes full-time contract, graduate teaching assistants, adjuncts and related categories. While adjuncting can be a great option for someone who has a full-time job and is teaching to help inspire future generations and advance his/her own learning, it is a horrible way to make a living. In most cases adjunct salaries pay atrociously and there are no benefits (more on this below).

Okay now that some key facts are covered, time to move onto a bit more on my story and key recommendations. I should point out my perspective is as a US resident who did a doctoral degree in the US. For individuals doing doctoral studies in other regions the experiences might vary in terms of the academic training, job market or funding. While for international students seeking to do a PhD in the US I think the experience for some can be even more challenging as in addition to all the academic components, there is the extra layer of visa, adapting to a new environment and country. Moreover, this post, my reflections and the data are relevant for people doing doctoral studies in the social sciences (and likely humanities). For those doing a further studies in the natural sciences, math, engineering or similar fields, the experience and timelines (usually the process is shorter, stipends tend to be higher) are quite different.

Why I found myself in a PhD Program?

Let's start a bit backwards. In the fall of 1995, I found myself starting a doctoral program in Conflict Analysis & Resolution at the Institute for Conflict Analysis & Resolution at George Mason University (now the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution).

How did I wind up in a field that many people hadn't heard of and doing an advanced degree and why?

Let's keep this story very short. Basically, man meets social change. Throughout high school, university and beyond working on making the world a better place has been a central focus of my work. My key interests included: how to help advance peace and build understanding, how to use business as a positive for change, and advancing creativity for change.

My academic path. I did a great interdisciplinary major called Social Thought and Political Economy as an undergraduate student at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst integrating economics, history, sociology, anthropology and more.  As a sophomore, I started looking into study abroad programs and knew I didn't want to go to the places everyone else goes. Thus, I picked Hungary (honestly not knowing much about the country or language). Originally I went for one semester but stayed a year (which was critical to building relations, learning the language, doing field work and more). I had a great mentor who encouraged me to apply for a Fulbright Junior Scholar Award (the right mentors are amazing) and was fortunate to go back to Hungary for two years and do civil society work, research, co-start an NGO and more. I was doing conflict resolution work, got funding to sustain a small NGO (I didn't have to pay myself since I had the fellowship) but felt like what I was doing wasn't very sophisticated.  I began to consider further studies to advance my skills and knowledge. I wound up doing an MA (with a tuition scholarship) at Central European University in Prague (now located in Hungary) and then still felt like I didn't know much so I began researching and applying to doctoral programs (this was largely the pre-Internet age).  I should point out at the same time I got into CEU I was also accepted to a UK PhD Program with full funding. However, I turned this down for a few reasons and instead did the MA first.

Why did I go for a Phd?

While doing my MA I began to research PhD programs as I felt like I still didn't know very much and wanted to get better at applied practice. I did extensive research and applied to six different PhD programs in various social science fields (sociology, international relations and conflict resolution) in different parts of the country. I looked both at quality of programs, how innovative they were and also looked at cities where I would want to live such as Boston, DC, Denver and Boulder. I was accepted and got full funding at several programs at top tier universities. However, I really wanted the program at George Mason as it integrated theory & practice and I knew that I didn't want to do an overly theoretically degree. My whole reason for doing a PhD was to learn how to do better practice. Honestly, at Mason I was put on the waiting list so my ego was hurt and eventually I got in without funding but still decided to go.

Lesson #1) Doing a PhD requires perseverance

A PhD is an intensive and can be exhausting experience (not for all) make sure you really have driving questions and/or a problem you want to focus on deeply understand to sustain you.

For me there were three distinct phases to my PhD. This is outside the normal structure most people think about of doing coursework, going through  comprehensive exams, writing a proposal for one's thesis topic, doing research, analyzing, writing and then ultimately defending the PhD. The first phase for me was questioning if I wasintellectually capable of doing a Phd (as for many the process can be bring up a lot of self-doubt). Once I realized I could then there was a second phase of more disillusionment realizing that I wasn't really getting all the answers I wanted (but at least was learning how to ask better questions), of why in the world am I spending my time doing this (I spent quite a bit of time thinking about dropping out). Then the third phase was am I ever going to finish this. For me it took 8.5 years to do my whole program and defend (more on this below).  It was exhausting having the perpetual student status.  I remember during my first few months we had a dinner with current PhD students in my program. Some of them said they were in their 7th or 8th year of the process. I remember thinking to myself (a bit smugly), these people are a bit crazy. I will never take that long, I will be out of here in four to five years.

When starting a PhD it is important to think about this long-hard slog for the process. Many students (over 40% or more) don't finish and get stuck in the all but dissertation (ABD)Deadly Stage. Moreover, for many in the social sciences a degree can take 8 years more more (see this economist article for more).  Of course, there are people who do finish in three to five years. I have friends who were incredibly disciplined (or focused or smarter than I) who had a clear timeline that they stuck to and finished in a reasonable amount of time. It is certainly possible, but be aware of the potential time frame.

In considering a PhD make sure to think seriously about the potential time (best and worst case scenario) of doing a doctorate. While you may be one of the more talented, focused or lucky people to finish in a reasonable time also consider what happens if you don't.

Lesson #2) A PhD is a Marathon, not a Sprint

One of my challenges as highlighted in doing a PhD is the sense of it never ending. This has many good points in terms of learning, intellectual development, being steeped in a community of learning. But there is also this dread of never being done. At each stage there is more to do. First, with course work, there is always another paper to write, research to do, or conference presentation to attend. It can be hard work developing a proposal or defending one's comprehensive exams. Then with the thesis, there is the research (which at times can be exhilarating and other times debilitating ).  And finally writing, committee review and defense.

It is the best of times and worst of times during the whole process. Best as getting to engage, talk through, understand and work on huge intellectual questions is amazing. The worst of times as it drags on and on. The best is as a student (when I didn't work full-time just part-time) you can take a day off, go on a trip, or be flexible in scheduling. However, the worst is this sense there is always something to do and the constant fight between procrastination and doing can be challenging.

One thing I haven't seen research on (maybe it is out there) is also some PhD students become very self-centered as the process can be very consuming (both the doing) and also even more so the thinking about doing.  Thus, for doctoral students in relationships (particularly long-term romantic ones) one's partner needs to also be aware of the pros/cons of  a partner undertaking this journey. For many this means the partner has to take on more work at home and also be incredible empathetic (but also challenge one's partner) in the process. I cannot remember how many times I would be stressed and girlfriend and then wife) would say just write the thing.  For me this was easier said than done. She also was a doctoral student (successfully completing hers as well in seven years) and as she moved along in the process she began to understand more of the challenges.

I do think while doing a PhD is an incredibly stimulating process, and can open one's mind to the world. There is also an aspect that can make one more stressed, exhausted and depleted, particularly for those of us for whom the process takes a long time. I also hypothesize (not that I will do this research) that a doctoral program can lead to relationship breakups in some cases given the added stress this can put on families as I have seen this be a contributing factor.

Lesson #3) Look Beyond Academia

For me on my journey, I had thought I would wind up doing a PhD is to learn how to do better applied practice. I wanted to deeply understand what makes for effective practice and maximum impact in preventing and addressing violence in the world. My main thought in visioning my future was I was likely going to do applied practice in a NGO, foundation, government agency or similar area. I didn't see myself becoming a professor.  I will not go through my whole career but it has been quite varied and I did wind up being a full-time professor helping to run a graduate program in conflict resolution at Georgetown university for a decade. It wasn't my intended career goal to be a professor. I did love the job although decided to jump into PCDN full time last year (see these two posts for some reflection should I quit my full-time job to pursue a career of social impact & Quit to win, but Look before You Jump)

While doing the PhD since I didn't get funding from the university this actually was a beneficial thing in some areas. The main thing is since I didn't have a fellowship I was forced to work (sometimes full-time, sometimes part-time, and sometimes as a consultant). The pros of this is the work experience I got was amazing and I acquired many new skills, learned so much, helped in a small way to make the world better, build new contacts and was able to float between practice and research.  Although my ego was hurt I didn't get funding, I was able to sustain myself and pay my bills (although I did accumulate debt over the course of the degree which I will discuss below).

The morning after (you are done)

One of the key recommendations for those considering doing a PhD is to consider the range of career paths you can take in doing one. While for many being an academic at a top tier university is their goal it is important to realize that for many a stable full-time academic job with benefits may not happen (of course those who do degrees at top tier institutions are more likely to land positions).  I fully celebrate one's goal of being an academic but also think about the other ways one can use a PhD (or not). It is possible to work in policy in many areas, to work for a foundation, in government, in the private sector, to be an entrepreneur (like me), or many other things. Think about the full range of career goals and if a PhD is needed (or not).

One very positive thing about having a PhD is that it does mean that often others will convey a certain amount of respect to one's opinions and it signifies that one may have a certain degree of expertise (whether deserved or not).  When one is introduced as a Dr. people tend to pay more attention and this can help open doors. Moreover, for some positions outside of academia a PhD can be asset, particularly for policy focused positions, in foundations, perhaps running an organization.

At the same time it is important to note that a PhD doesn't always translate to more opportunities. If one is overly focused on theory building then moving to a more practice or doing position can be challenging.  For some positions when an organization receives applications from PhD holders they may not be seriously considered as they can be seen as overqualified or too theoretically focused.  I know this from experience when I've hired people and from friends who have had similar experiences. For example, one friend almost didn't land a great job working on policy and advocacy as the organization thought with a PhD she would be too "ivory towerish" for the day to day work. Thankfully she had  a wide range of academic and policy experience and was hired for the position, where she thrived and did great work.

Lesson 4) Academia and Salaries, the Good & the Bad

Another thing to consider is the time invested in the PhD can take away for the time one is in a program from full earning potential. There is a premium for earning a PhD in terms of one's wages in but this is not much greater than the premium for a Master's Degree (see this article in the economist). For me this means, although I worked the whole time while doing a PhD. the question if I had stayed on the job market and advanced with my MA degree my salary would have likely been higher over time? As the reader can likely tell being motivated by money is not my primary factor in career choice, but this is still something to consider.

On top of this it is important to be aware of the dangers of extensive debt in affecting one's life choices. For me I was lucky my parents paid for my undergrad, I had a tuition fellowship for my MA (and worked on campus, had some leftover funds from my Fulbright Fellowship) and I did my doctorate at a public university so costs were not that high. But I did accumulate almost $20,000 of debt by the time I finished my doctoral degree.  According to the National Science Foundation's Research about half of all students in the social sciences and humanities had debt. Of those who had debt, students in the social sciences had the highest levels with over 30% reporting $30,000 or more in debt (see NSF's research on doctorate recepeints).

While many doctoral program do provide funding, not all do. For those who provide financial support this usually can include a tuition waiver or fellowship, a stipend or salary, and some limited benefits such as health insurance. In the social sciences in the U.S. I am aware of stipend levels from conversations (this isn't based on research) of $10,000 to a high of around $24,000 per year. While this can perhaps cover one's person's basic needs it depends a lot on where one lives, if one is single or has a family, etc.

Think about this again if one is out of the higher level salary market (not in full-time employment with a competitive salary) because one is pursuing a PhD this can have a huge financial impact.  For example, consider a person who  has an MA degree and makes $50,000 per year. Over six years this would equal $300,000 (not adding a salary raise) + benefits. If one does a PhD degree and gets a generous $17,000 per stipend (maybe this includes health insurance, but usually there no other benefits such as retirement) this would be $102,000 over six years in income. This is nearly a $200,000 difference. This may seem crude to put this in pure $ terms and I am not saying one shouldn't do a PhD (I did) as there are many things more important in life than money, but it is important to consider this and not enter doctoral studies blindly.

Another thing to consider if one wants to pursue an academic position is the potential salary ranges. As an an adjunct professor it is almost impossible to make ends meet.

For a full-time professor (particularly tenured ones)  the salaries can be good, particularly at more elite institutions . Furthermore, one has a great schedule of not having to be in the office each day and holidays. However, the vision of a professor leisurely teaching a class or two a semester doesn't reflect the real life of almost every professor I know. Most professors work a lot (often 50-60 hours a week, see this article and similar to being a PhD student the work doesn't end (although for me I loved the job and not having to put on a tie every day, the freedom and more). Although some salaries can be good for tenured professors or visitors at elite institutions (only in some cases) many contract full-time temporary professors (if one is lucky not get this type of job and not be an adjunct) are paid very poorly.  For example, I know of people with 5-10 years experience getting paid around $40-45,000 in visiting assistant professor positions at good universities and have a heavy workload (sometimes teaching six courses or more a year).

For faculty paid as adjuncts in almost all cases the pay is pitiful. Many adjuncts are paid $2000 to $7500 (this is the high end) per course.  If one teaches three courses (I think average adjunct salary is around $3500-$4000) this means per semester one's income might be $10,500-$12,000 totaling no more than $24,000 a year. Obviously one can teach more but there is a limit and very few adjunct positions provide any benefits (for some salary research on adjuncts see the Chronicle of Higher Education's Data on Adjuncts).

Although there are efforts to unionize adjunct and contract faculty which has and may have positive impact, there is a general tend with the gigification  of employment that things are not going to get better and likely worse for adjuncts.

I would like to share however, one area of inspiration I found from my own experience at Georgetown. I started off as a visiting assistant professor at the university. I found that the institution treated me well personally and although I worked very hard the pay was decent and benefits great.  I did get tired of having a visiting professor status and every few years I had to reapply through a competitive process (and be interviewed and compete against others) to be rehired for the job.  This wasn't a fun process. But the leadership at Georgetown undertook a very transparent and participatory process about how to treat fair process for contract faculty (full-time but not tenure track). They did a review of salaries, setup a committee to provide input, held public meetings and more. Eventually they came up with a process (in consultation with the faculty) that basically said you're a very valued part of the university and we are developing career tracks (and clear criteria) to help one advance. Since a sizeable % of faculty were not tenure track but contract this was a great step. I for one loved the process, engagement and changes. I was happy for the university to provide a path for advancement (I was promoted to Associate Professor of the Practice) and to offer multiple tracks for research professors, practice focused and more. I am not aware of many other institutions that have undertaken such a rigorous process. Some may say this was done in part to help stop any potential union organizing but I am one grateful (the adjuncts on campus did organize and fair treatment/pay for adjuncts is another critical question that very few institutions are doing well on these days.

Lesson #5) Defining a "Researchable" Problem is Key

Another key challenge (and opportunity in doing a PhD is the need to find a laser focused approach to one's research. While many people want to change the world through their research a dissertation and scholarly research in general is about finding ways to test out smaller ideas, look at or collect data on measurable phenomena, etc. One of my big challenges in my path (and for many) is how to take complex ideas and turn them into a concrete and even more important (doable) PhD topic.

I will not go through the many potential topics I explored but some include:

Looking at identity in Roma-Hungarian Conflicts (basically how culture shapes worldview and conflicts)

How Civil society can help mitigate identity based conflicts in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia

Creativity in Peacebuilding

and many more

This was a really fun (but exhausting part of the journey). One of my favorite pieces on narrowing down a thesis topic or any research comes a computer Science Professor called the Illustrated Guide to doing a PhD

A series of visualizations to show how one needs to go from broad to very, very specific without losing a connection to the larger field or goal's of the research. This is a must READ  or see

Lesson #6) Funding, funding, and more funding

Similar to how I applied to multiple programs in different fields. I explored a lot of topics and actually developed different rough draft proposals for different topics for fellowship funding. I then submitted different proposals to various fellowship programs as I knew I needed to obtain support to finance my field research. I was rejected from many opportunities but also fortunate to be offered support from places (on different topics/countries). I did work out the possibility of combining these to have two years of funding.  I turned down one fellowship and took another (which in the end I wound up deferring and being fortunate to switch topics and countries with the permission of the donor). In the end I had a Boren Fellowship and spent 14 months in Bosnia-Herzegovina researching the role of community based-arts in resisting the war and advancing reconciliation post-war. It was an amazing experience.

If you want to do a PhD most of us don't have the luxury of funding ourselves or endless financial resources . Thus, becoming a fellowship master is key. Get into the habit of applying for funding (early a there are often different pots of money for different stages), get mentors to help you, be prepared for rejection but keep applying (as long as your topic/writing/focus is strong). Check out PCDNetwork on a regular basis, see our fellowship guide, forums and use other resources such as ProFellow.com

Even if you don't get funding this can be very valuable process for focusing one's work.

Lesson 7) There are no shortcuts, but there are easier paths

One of my challenges in my doctoral process (I hope you get a sense by now of some of the issues) is that I kept thinking there must be an easier way to find the right topic, finish the thing. At one point I bought almost every dissertation self-help book in the world. But honestly there is no way around the process, one has to go through it.  I can and likely will write more about this in a separate post now that one has decided (or not) to do a PhD how make it at least easier.

Overall this has been a meandering (but I hope helpful) guide for those exploring becoming a doctoral student. Doing a PhD is an amazing combination of intellectual inspiration, monotony, being part of a community of scholars (and also at times very lonely), requires stamina, can be very enjoyable, as well as incredibly frustrating and can potentially lead to an academic job (but increasingly challenging). Before investing the time/resources and energy on this path I hope you will take time to truly reflect on your purpose, goals, talk to peers, and make the right decision for you (as in the end only you can decide).

Doing a PhD is an amazing combination of intellectual inspiration, monotony, being part of a community of scholars (and also at times very lonely), requires stamina, can be very enjoyable, as well as incredibly frustrating.

I still remember as an undergrad sitting with some of my favorites doctoral students (who taught some our classes) and they discussed what aexhausting process doing a PhD is (again not for all) and I had no clue until I embarked on own academic journey. It is a bit crazy to undertake one but for some reason people continue to enroll. Good luck on making the right decision for you.

Also would welcome comments, feedback, disagreements and of course resources. I should say all points I make here are my own opinion (although I provide data in many points) and in the end everyone needs to make his/her own decision. If you choose to do a PhD or not do so at your own risk and please be aware of the pros/cons of your decision.

Finally a few of my favorite resources in this area:

  1. PCDNetwork - Of course as a community of practice, source of finding funding, inspiration and jobs. And of course for contributing your own blogs/writing to a global community.
  2. Advice from Professor Chris Blattman on whether one should do a PhD or not (including great suggestions for making a strong application if one does go for a PhD
  3. American Political Science Association - Resources for non-academic careers
  4. The Ph.D's guide to nonfaculty Careers - Chronicle of Higher Education

This month’s career series is sponsored by Rotary’s Peace Fellowship program. The fully funded Rotary Peace Fellowship increases the capacity of current and emerging peace leaders through academic training, field experience, and professional networking. Up to 100 leaders are selected globally every year to earn either a master’s degree or a professional development certificate in peace and conflict studies at one of six Rotary Peace Centers at leading universities around the world. Learn more today by visiting www.rotary.org/peace-fellowships

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