In order to answer this question, I’ve surveyed six people who started PhDs – friends of mine – from the following fields: physics, biology, computer science, chemistry, economics and history.
Five emerged from their programs with a Doctorate, one turned theirs into a Masters. (Given the PhD completion rate in Australia is 60-61 per cent, this sample is biased towards survivors.) One works in academia.
Their answers make a very interesting set. But before I let them speak for themselves, a confession: I was accused of asking leading questions. It may be true, but it’s the zeal of the convert.
As an undergrad, surrounded by lecturers with PhDs, I wanted one too. Then I got a job offer at the end of my degree. Starting that job I met plenty of public servants with doctorates. We were doing the same jobs, making the same pay. I came to see my desire for a PhD as the result of sample bias: Most powerful people in universities have PhDs, but most people with PhDs are not powerful people in universities.
With that noted, let’s hear from the experts!
BENEFITS OF A PHD?
Physics at Australian National University: I’m a researcher/lecturer, which I fundamentally couldn’t do without my PhD of course. I haven’t had any other profession since graduating. On a personal level, I really enjoyed it. I learn’t much more than just the topic of my thesis. I really learnt a lot about problem solving, logic, and life from being in close contact with world class researchers. During my PhD, I had the pleasure of interacting with four Nobel laureates at various times.
Biology at Melbourne University: I became a specialist in a very narrow field of study, possibly even an expert in said field. I also gained valuable generalist skills in experimental design, data analysis, working independently and as part of a team, critical thinking and the effective oral and written presentation of data and ideas. A PhD is also an exercise in persistence and perseverance, not necessarily intelligence, so I consider that most people who have completed aPhD are good at troubleshooting and are quite resourceful.
Computer Science, RMIT: I (arguably) got my foot in the door of my first job in industry from my PhD, and some of the domain knowledge I acquired there was useful in my job. My written and verbal presentation skills were also improved during my PhD, and I learned to have a healthy disrespect for authority. I also had a lot of fun! I found my PhD years to be quite relaxed (despite the odd moment of stress) and it was actually quite a nice transition between undergraduate spoonfeeding and the “real world” of the workplace.
Chemistry Masters, ANU: Benefit is a fancier CV. Without a masters I wouldn’t have gotten either my first or second job in consulting. In terms of education I am far more adept at seeing the ulterior motives and ugly manipulative side of people after working for my pitiable (but totally hatable) supervisor.
Economics, Oxford: Time to read and develop deeper / broader domain knowledge. For me, that was Chinese language, China’s economy and history, econometric techniques. Got supervision re: use of econometric analysis and thinking through data, and technical skills. I also played a lot of squash and improved my cooking. Those are the main benefits!
History, Melbourne University: For me, the three years doing it was probably the biggest benefit. I had a scholarship which is a privileged position to be in because it enables you to study something that fascinates you without having to work full time. I had a clear idea of what I needed to achieve each day, and if I got it done more quickly I gave myself the rest of the day off. More recently there have been career benefits I think, but like many people when I finished the thesis I wanted to do something totally different from research.
Physics at ANU: More than once I felt like quitting. In hindsight, the pay is tiny compared to what you could be earning, but I didn’t really think about that at the time. You have no guarantee that you will finish. There are people who try as hard as they can for over 4 years and come away with nothing.
Biology at Melbourne University: The downside is that you are very cheap labour at the bottom of a pyramid scheme. You know that chapter in Freakonomics where drug dealing is compared to a pyramid scheme? Well, I’d change the “drug dealing” to “research” and “academia” and the chapter would still be quite accurate (minus the crack cocaine and guns). Everyone’s ego is complimented when they are asked to do a PhD. What hindsight has taught me is that there is very little money in Australian research and really not enough for most senior researchers (lecturers etc) to hire employees (such as postdocs or research assistants) so there is a huge reliance on the cheap PhD labour that the federal government (or uni) pays for.
Computer Science, RMIT: I didn’t earn that much money (although I found my stipend to be perfectly adequate) and, obviously, my entry to the workforce was delayed by a few years. In terms of climbing the career ladder it was probably not great bang for buck, but I don’t care too much about that sort of thing so don’t consider that a downside.
Chemistry Masters, ANU: Downside was three years of near-suicide misery and lost opportunity. I could have done a law or engineering degree in that time. I still feel that sense of loss – I am always years older than my peers.
Economics, Oxford: Long distance relationship. I’m not sure Oxford was the best place for me. 3-4 years out of workforce and foregone income and job experience.
History, Melbourne University: Honestly, the main downside was the public speaking obligations and pressure to publish along the way.
WHO SHOULD START A DOCTORATE?
Physics at ANU: I believe that you shouldn’t do a PhD because you want a piece of paper that says “I have a PhD“. The people who I know who were trying to prove something, either to themselves or to others, always had a terrible time. If you have had a taste of research, and still feel like more, then you should consider a PhD. There’s also the question of talent. There are people who love science, yet just aren’t cut out for research. Fundamentally, if you’re not driven by curiosity, and have a hunger for discovery, specifically towards your project, you probably shouldn’t be there.
Biology at Melbourne University: I actively discourage most people from starting a PhD. For most professions, the experience you gain in the workplace will be better. For anyone wanting to do scientific research, then permanent positions in Unis or CSIRO are few and far between (see pyramid scheme comments above). With this in mind, I know plenty of people who I did my science PhD with who now work outside of academia, in the public service, as patent attorneys, as technical sales reps, and in private biotech/pharma firms and consulting. Someone contemplating a science PhD should realise that these non-academic jobs are actually where they are most likely to end up and then determine whether a PhD is really still necessary. And realise that their PhD supervisor is always going to encourage the singular academic trajectory (ie they are much happier to be a reference for further academic appointments than anything else).
Computer Science, RMIT: To consider doing a PhD you will need to be convinced you have the necessary skills and temperament to undertake a prolonged exercise in independent research, and at least one of the following should be true:
Chemistry Masters, ANU: The only people who should do PhDs are either saintly types who just love their subject and have no expectation of any type of employment related advantage or psychopathic sadists who will enjoy destroying promising young people.
Economics, Oxford: Almost definitely do one: if you want to become an academic; its paid for; have world leading supervisor who has top track record of placing their students into great academic jobs; at world class research institution, great city, great classmates etc.
Never ever do one: in the opposite scenario: Unsure if academia is the path; not at top ranking place and doing a major where job placements are super tough; where PhDs take 6-7 years; or living in a shit city.
History, Melbourne University: The peers I had that struggled the most were those who set themselves additional challenges such as designing research involving lengthy ethics processes and multiple methods, including undertaking lots of complex interviews and all the responsibilities that come with that. This type of research makes a huge contribution to the evidence base but goes well beyond the three years you sign up for and requires a significant time investment in project management.
WHAT PROPORTION OF SMART UNDERGRADUATES SHOULD SERIOUSLY CONSIDER IT?
Physics at ANU: Only those who tick the boxes in the above question. How many PhD grads do we need? Well, that’s a different story. In the Australian employment market, a PhD isn’t really valued. From an employment point of view, the only reason to do a phd is if you want to become a researcher. The number of permanent research positions that open up every year, divided by the number of phd graduates is bugger all squared.
Biology at Melbourne University: A large proportion of smart undergrads will contemplate it, and even be asked by lecturers to do a PhD. As above, I would suggest that only a very few should take it up. There are too many easily available PhD scholarships in this country and not enough investment in other parts of the research infrastructure, hence the pyramid scheme. If they are smart, they can get the benefits I mentioned above from plenty of other roles.
Chemistry Masters, ANU: Maybe 5 per cent of undergraduates? We need to rethink PhD candidature. There are things to be learnt, but should acknowledge that phd students teach each other and are self taught in what can be an educationally nutritious environment – it all depends on the calibre of your fellow students. With ten students to a professor this will always be the way. The idea of charging tuition for a PhD is outrageous. My only hope is this will decimate the ranks of the fools who sign up for one.
I see PhD years as a type of national service, where you accept below minimum wage for contributing to the R&D pie for the nation. We should acknowledge this and stop pretending it is training for an academic or other research career – those jobs don’t exist. Also we should acknowledge that growing the R&D pie is of national importance. Slave student labour will be cheapest.
Also I would like to see universities sued for misleading students regarding their employment prospects. Or scolded for false advertising. A PhD contract (because you sign a contract) should include a disclaimer with real graduate outcome figures. And then you should have a counselling session to determine if you’re likely to kill yourself.
Economics, Oxford: I’m not going to tell anyone they shouldn’t do it if they’re interested. I just think they should be fully aware of the academic labor market conditions and that it is in supervisor’s interests NOT to be fully candid / upfront about this. By this, I mean how tough the market is, especially in humanities, etc.
History, Melbourne University: Lots. It’s important to have a great topic and a good supervisor and that you like to work alone a lot. I worked part time doing something completely different which was a good balance for me.
I feel like we got a great range of answers there, with evangelism from both sides and plenty of middle ground. No matter your pre-existing biases, there is something to grasp onto!
This is a fascinating topic at the moment, with the Budget proposing charging fees for PhDs. If you have other thoughts please leave a comment below!