Only 50% of doctoral students graduate.
Having gone through the process, this is no longer surprising.
I wrote once before about knowing what you are getting in to when you go to graduate school. I’m not going to repeat what I said there. If you are thinking about graduate school, go back and read that post. I would add that if you are going to graduate school to change the world / do good / make things better [and you are not going into specifically medical research], join the peace corps or go work for a non-profit. A doctorate is rarely the right path to do those things.
I would add a few more things however.
- Money. Living as a graduate student is a type of painful, debt-incurring poverty. Many of those who stop do so because they can’t deal with being poor anymore, and they discover that they have options.
- Doing a dissertation is hard work. It isn’t impossible, and doesn’t require you to be a genius, but it DOES require you to be stubborn and play the game according to the rules of the academy. These rules apply nowhere else and are often detrimental to success in the “real world”.
- Most of this work is done on your own. While this was moderately easier for me as an experienced professional, it is still sometimes overwhelming and full of doubt. Then you get two cross-examinations by experienced people in your field who will grill you on all sorts of things, at least some of which you never considered and many not even care about. You are put through a confidence-destroying process in the hopes that you will come out strong and confident on the other side. Then they wonder why many people don’t finish and others graduate with “imposter syndrome”.
- There is little structure, which allows you to drift aimlessly for a long time. As I did, earning 12 extra research credits because I couldn’t pick a topic and changed my idea a half-dozen times.
- It is easy to feel that your work has no impact on the world. Especially because it doesn’t. Most of what is written by academics equates to a strange form of verbal masturbation that involves writing things few people will ever read about topics so specific that no one cares or so obvious to a practitioner that they make the writer sound too stupid to qualify for “Big Brother”. There appears to be a point during the dissertation process where that futility hits you, and you either have to muscle through it or walk away.
- It is usually at this stage that you find out what a starting associate professor gets paid, what you have to do to get one of those jobs (such as pack up your life and move to East Nowhere to work at Bottom-of-the-Barrel University), and just how much work goes into getting one of those jobs in the first place. [The academic hiring process is like nothing I have ever seen outside of the executive offices of fortune 500 companies, and even those places rarely go to the same extent or take half as long as a small department will take in hiring a lowly new prof.]
Sometimes it’s all of the above.
I wanted to quit a dozen times during the process. I didn’t because it was drilled in to me by my good German father that we finish what we start. Despite the fact that he’s been gone for a good 20 years, that is still part of my psyche. But as I have admitted on here before, the degree adds little to my career and I blush every time someone calls me Doctor.
In hindsight, starting the PhD was a mistake. I shouldn’t have done it. I should have dropped out early. I should have dropped out anytime before I started the dissertation. Once started, however, my personality wouldn’t let me, and now I have a cookie. But that cookie cost 6 years of hard work, a great deal of stress on my marriage, 60lbs gained and a lot of a good bit of money.
I went to graduate school and it was a great experience. HOWEVER, there were a few factors that may not apply to everyone.
1. I received a fellowship every year, which meant not only did I incur no debt, but they paid me to attend. When I graduated, I owed $0.
2. I was married and my spouse made a good enough salary that I could work part-time at the university doing research that interested me and we still had enough to pay for a full-time housekeeper, a mortgage and two cars.
3. I had three young children while in graduate school – started with one and gave birth to two kids in my first two years. Obviously, I did not get a Ph.D. in family planning. For me, even though graduate school was a lot of work, it was work I could do while the babies were sleeping (most of the time) and I had a full-time nanny for when they weren’t sleeping. Graduate school gave me more chance to be with my kids than my prior job as an engineer did BUT I DID NOT HAVE TO WORK FULL-TIME.
4. I graduated over 20 years ago when there were far more full-time, tenure track positions as professors than there are now. I was a professor for seven years full-time and then went into consulting. I think I graduated ahead of the curve. There are far fewer full-time positions now and I believe it is harder for people to get started.
I would say IF you don’t have to incur any debt AND you can afford to do it without working full time AND you can attend a really good Ph.D. program (not some diploma mill), it is a great opportunity just to learn about the world. I’m glad I did it. Would I have gotten a Ph.D. if it cost me $100,000 or if I was not passionately interested in the subject? No.
Hi AnnMarie (I love your blog!) – This is all great advice. I think had it not cost me anything at all and I hadn’t had to work full time during the process my view might be somewhat different than it is now. In the end it didn’t cost me as much as many students (I had a research assistantship that covered tuition and a stipend that, realistically, covered books and conference travel. I am perplexed at how people live on those things.); maybe $10k out of pocket, and the full time job allowed me to put that on credit cards and pay it off in a reasonable time frame. I am just reasonably sure that we are the exceptions! However I feel as though I missed some of the experience of graduate school in order to work, and that makes me a little sad.
I’m about 1/3 of the way through my PhD program. The two pieces of advice that keep me going are:
– publish early, publish often (especially as a part time student), and
– it’s an apprenticeship, i.e. the process of doing the research is more important than the outcome of said research.