Getting a PhD is the stupidest decision of all time? (100 Reasons not to do it?)

There’s a blog, 100 Reasons NOT to Go to Graduate School, which has unleashed the most negative “don’t go” reasons you could imagine. It makes me have nightmares just to think of going to graduate school. Everytime I think of that blog, I thank the Good Allah that I am blessed without a PhD.


Can anyone comment on how true it is? Is it really THAT bad?

And are there any good (as in you will get a good job, $$$$$ / job security) i’m talking here) Ph.D. programs left? Engineering? Business? Is it just the Humanities that is FUBAR’d up the wazoo?

I don’t get it.

It’s only a stupid decision if you make it for the wrong reasons. The worst reason to get a Ph.D. is because you want money. Getting a Ph.D. is almost always a negative expectation decision, as far as lifetime earnings go.

Good reasons to get a Ph.D. (speaking as someone who has a Ph.D. in a field that largely doesn’t demand one):

  1. It’s necessary for a particular job you want (e.g., academia). That job probably doesn’t pay as well as not getting a Ph.D. and doing something else might, but if you feel that you’ll only have a fulfilling life if you have that career, then a Ph.D. is required. In most fields, academia is the only career path that will require a Ph.D. That’s less the case in the life sciences or engineering, if you want to work in an industrial research lab (or, at least, if you want to work in such a lab and have opportunities to advance).

  2. I’m out.

That being said, graduate school can be a very rewarding experience (if only in retrospect for many people), and it certainly does give one a sense of accomplishment to have a Ph.D. But those should be secondary reasons for getting a Ph.D., in my opinion.

I’ll chime in. I have a PhD in a biological science. I had this idea that I would cure cancer when I was young and oblivious. Now as an old man of 35, I can say it is a rough road.

I should point out that this is not out of sour grapes. I’m one of the very lucky ones. I have a great job with my own lab and am well compensated. Most of my friends can’t say the same.

I’ll start with outlining the process (at least in biology). First, obviously you need a Bachelor’s degree (4 years). You need to get lab experience. If you haven’t had it during college (and I’m not talking about labs during your classes, but real hands on experience working in the lab of a research scientist at the institution) you will have to work for several years in a lab as a technician. At this point, you are 22-24 years old. Graduate school, last time the numbers were done which was nearly ten years ago (to show you how much anyone cares) takes an average of 7.5 years now to get your PhD, and has a very high attrition rate. Used to be that it took around 4 years, but has been steadily increasing over the past twenty years. So, you’re around 32 years old and are now “doctor”, so the world is your oyster, right?

Not so fast.

Now you have to do what is called a “postdoc”. This used to be an optional year or two to fill out your experience and work in a new atmosphere on something different from your graduate work. However, since there are not nearly enough jobs, and way too many postdocs (more on that later) this has become a holding pattern. To become an academic scientist will take a minimum of another four years of postdoc experience, and in all likelihood closer to ten years before you will be considered for scientist positions. The average age to receive your first independent grant is around 42 years old. Postdocs are paid somewhat lessthan the people who wash the glassware, by the way. Again, there is a very high attrition rate. The people who actually make it that far are either, extremely driven and bright (increasingly rare), or are the type of people who just go with the flow and take the steps because they lack the creativity to come up with an alternative (increasingly common) [possible overgeneralization alert!].

I can count on zero fingers the number of my graduate school comrades who are still directly involved in science or are persuing such a career other than myself. And, I only got my PhD 7 years ago! This is not to toot my own horn; I wasn’t the smartest of them. But, I left academia for a biotech company which is a difficult transition to make, but I was VERY fortunate and VERY driven away from academia.

The problem is that in academic science, unlike say law or medicine, the incentives are to train as many graduate students/postdocs as possible. They are cheap labor that allow labs to run with lower than free market paid, highly skilled workers and the more there are, the easier it is for the established scientists to run their labs. Doesn’t matter that they are “training” for positions that will never exist. Think about law and medicine where the incentive is to train fewer “replacements” to keep the demand high. There is no need to do that in science. There are already a limited number of positions, and a steady supply of underpaid labor supporting them helps.

The numbers are such that there are actually enough postdocs to replace every academic scientist if they retired tomorrow. Since most don’t plan on retiring for a decade or three, and there are more and more graduate students and postdocs, there is no intention that the vast majority of these “trainees” ever actually get a chance.

Being a scientist is a great job in the sense that being short stop for the New York Yankees is a great job. I love what I do (as I’m sure Derek Jeter does!), but I was very fortunate to actually get here. We are screwing over a great number of our best and brightest, who are increasingly going into other fields.

My intention in school was to eventually become a university professor in the sciences, so obviously I needed a Ph.D.

Things changed, and now am an engineer at a software company instead. However, in an unusual situation, I work with a team of engineers who ALL have Ph.D.s in math or science, like me. We have a kind of R&D role in the company, working on advanced software prototypes for systems that will come online in products a few years down the line.

They pay all of us very well for our expertise.

So in my case it has been worth it, but not in a way I could ever have predicted.

The graduate school experience definitely varies from place to place, and from discipline to discipline. Some of the negatives really are that bad, others are not universal. For example, the USA tenure-track system creates all sorts of class-system disadvantages for everyone without tenure, but at least if you win the tenure lottery you have job security. Elsewhere the tenure v non-tenure status thing is absent, because no-one has job security.

The worst case is to have a foot in both camps. If you spend time in industry, academia will not reward you for this time regardless of whether it makes you a better teacher and researcher. If you spend time in academia, that’s job-experience and seniority you don’t have in industry.

I loved every minute of grad school, am proud of my degree and use it in my work. It will be something I cherish and am glad I did for the rest of my life.

I dropped out of my doctorate when I realized that the sole reason I was there (other than simple progression through Bachelors and Masters) was that I wanted to be in a theatre when someone shouted “is there a doctor in the house,” so I could run up on stage and reply “yes, but I don’t think my DPhil in Industrial Relations will save this man’s life.”

I don’t get how there could be a surplus of Biological science Ph.D.'s, unless the standards are so easy that I could do it by figuring out how a bunson burner works.

How are they getting so many high IQ nerds to be able to even get the PhD? I woudl have thought the number of people able and willing to be chemistry experts was limited. Where are all the eggheads coming from that they are hordes of unemployed PhDs?

PhD in art history I can imagine is less scientific, but jeeze louise

My PhD is in biochem and genetics. The term “surplus” has more to do with expected job opportunities than the number being generated. Most PhD students are expected to go be university professors running academic research labs. That is what your experience in grad school generally prepares you for, and the message you get is that you’re less-than if you don’t land a plum faculty position. But for every lab there many be 2-8 grad students (in different degrees of completion- from first years students to nearly done). So over a career, a lab director with a robust lab can turn out dozens and dozens of newly minted PhDs. Now multiply that by dozens of labs at each uni and all the unis in the country… And of course those lab directors needed all the grad students and post-docs to do the majority of the research they are funded to do. Which is great- that’s what was fun about it, but with respect to the job market, it sucked.

The year I was in my post-doc I watched a more senior post-doc go on the job market. Over 600 applicants for every faculty position that year.

It’s only been fairly recently that PhD programs have recognized that there is more than one way to define success for a PhD program- working in industry, teaching colleges, patent law etc etc. They’ve had to broaden their advising and opportunities to help prepare grad students for alternative careers.

Getting a science PhD isn’t that hard. Given some of my coworkers, it’s more about persistence than raw smarts. I was more stressed in undergrad.

My point of view as a PhD in statistics.

You should only get a PhD if you have a true passion for your subject matter, such that you could eat, sleep and dream about your subject matter for months on end without getting burned out. That was the way I was with math/statistics. By the time I got done, I had been burned out to some extent. I still like the subject but I’m no longer passionate about it. If I didn’t have that passion there is no way I would have made it through. Even then there was a time in the midst of my dissertation that I crashed and took a 3 week break of doing nothing but playing Baldur’s gate.

I distinctly remember in the last year or so before I got my degree wondering whether I would ever look back and think it was worth it. But as it happens time heals all wounds, and I have a great job doing what I like, so I look back and think it was definitely worth it for me.

So true. I was a second year and watched a fifth year take a terminal master’s. I couldn’t imagine why he didn’t just finish his thesis and get the degree! Until I was writing mine, years later. You can’t do it of the passion wasn’t there. As it was, I barely got through! I handed in my thesis and cried for two days straight. Every last drop was expended.

But I look back now, with pride.

Bingo. Why wouldn’t they let you into the program? I mean, you’re willing to do grunt work for next to no pay, so why not admit you. It’s not like medicine where the profession is policing itself by limiting the number of slots avaialble for training; it’s exactly the opposite. The more the merrier. Eventually, if you show up every day, you get a PhD. Intelligence is nice, but persistence is better. Classes are for maybe only the first year or two, and are quite easy. The rest of the time is just lab work.

Also, it isn’t like medicine where you take X classes and pass Y exams and you are an MD. You get your PhD when your advisor declares you are ready to. Which he or she has no incentive to do, because you are now highly trained and producing data for him. Why give that up? Ideally you get a good guy and he helps you, but these guys didn’t climb that ladder by giving up cheap, productive labor.

They get you when you are young and idealistic. It’s nice when you are 24 and thinking you are helping mankind. Not so much when you are married and 38 and can’t support a family. Remember that most of the great places to do science (and you have to work for a “big name” if you want the pedigree to make it) are in very high cost of living areas. New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco et al.

Ivorytowerdenizen has it too. Each “scientist” is training dozens of “apprentice scientists” over his or her career. But, since the job market is not expanding at nearly that rate, dozens of “apprentice scientists” are left out in the cold while one of them eventually replaces his advisor.

I’m in a luxurious position in industry where I can be high minded. I don’t accept postdocs into my lab. It’s not that I wouldn’t love one, but I don’t think it’s fair.

But industry is still looked down upon in academia. I was pulled into several offices and guilted mercilessly when I announced that my covert plans to head to industry were a go. I was wasting tax payer money, and had wasted their time. It’s akin to a priesthood.

I have a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering. At the end of undergrad, as Matt Groening stated so eloquently in his Life In Hell comic on grad school, I felt “a deep need to continue the process of avoiding life.” I was in no hurry to join the adult world, so I went for a master’s. Toward the end of that, my advisor asked if I had a plan; I said no, he invited me to stay for a Ph.D., and I accepted.

If you don’t mind continuing to live like a student - cheap housing with no air conditioning, crummy car, particle-board furniture - then that’s one less obstacle for you. Similarly, your office accomodations at work will be equally meager. My office was in the basement of the engineering research building, where a bunch of engine test cells were in operation. My own office was in my own test cell - along with two other grad students. I was OK with it, and so were they, but someone who is status-conscious or anxious to acquire the fineries of life might be unhappy in these kinds of settings.

I was involved in internal combustion engine research, which was a well-funded field, so money was never an issue. The same is not true for all areas of research. Funding issues can cause a lot of anxiety.

My advisor was pretty good. Sometimes a little too hands-off, but c’est la vie. He was very friendly and sociable, and once or twice a year had us students over to his house for a nice party. Most of the advisors in my department were well-liked by the students; I don’t think I ever heard anybody complaining bitterly about their advisor. YMMV.

For the most part, I enjoyed the classwork. OTOH, my research was up and down; some days were good, some days it was like beating my head against a wall. I mostly worked a 40-hour week, not including homework for classes. That changed during the final six months, when I was working more like 80+ hours a week to get data out of my project, boil it down, and write a thesis. I actually enjoyed writing. My roommate was writing his thesis at the same time, and for a few months we established a daily rhythm together, pausing in the evenings to watch The Simpsons and then eat a bowl of Jello on the front porch before going back to writing.

Since graduating, I have been gainfully employed by the federal government at a national lab for the past 10+ years, doing engine research and related things. Most of my colleagues have Ph.D.'s, a few have M.S. degrees. I doubt I would have been considered for employment here without having gotten a graduate degree. As has been noted upthread, money is not a sound reason for going to grad school. Someone with a B.S. and six years of job experience probably would be commanding the same salary I was when I started after grad school with zero real-world job experience. Moreover, they would have been earning significantly more money during those six years than I did in grad school.

Having a Ph.D. does tend to make you pretty specialized. The OP mentioned this blog, which mentions the “two-body problem.” Like me, my wife has a Ph.D. (NOT in mech engineering). I graduated, got my job, and relocated, then met her while she was a grad student. She graduated, we got married, and although we are both still employed, it would be seriously challenging for us to find a place to live that could offer both of us a job in our chosen fields.

Funny, I was talking about this last night with my girlfriend. She’s a final year PhD student in neuroscience, and I’m a postdoc in CS. We’re both subscribed to many mailing lists for academic job notices in our respective fields and there’s orders of magnitude more advertisements for PhD positions than there are postdocs and permanents. I think the funding councils really need to start getting a grip and funding more postdoc positions on the projects that they fund, as opposed to more and more PhD positions.

Also, stop with the damned targets, ffs. Cancer research is killing all other research. Something like 75% of all open positions that I see advertised on CS job mailing lists are related to cancer research or related bioinformatics jobs. It’s completely strangling the field.

Can’t overlook the satisfaction, after a good meal or a stiff drink, of leaning back with a big grin and saying, “That’s just what the doctor ordered.”

And I’ll second what Buck Godot said.

I went to graduate school because I had a BS in biology but there only seemed to be a few alternate avenues out there. Medicine, which I knew I didn’t want to go into. Lab technician, which is a fine profession, but I felt I had done a long enough stint as a lab grunt to know that I wanted something more. I could have become a HS science teacher, but I was arrogant and thought my college had prepared me to do much more with my life. So, not knowing exactly what I wanted to do but knowing I knew what research was about, I decided to enter a PhD program.

There are aspects that I regret about it. Like, I should have really worked harder building relationships with the professors on my committee, rather than doing everything all by myself. And I could have beefed up my skill base by not actively avoiding courses in advanced statistics (ironically, I was considered a stats guru in my lab, but everything I knew was self-taught). I could have also learned SAS and a bunch of other things. But I was so focused on my esoteric research topic that the outside world–the one where you must be marketable to get a job–did not exist.

Amazingly, I did get a post-doc. There, I did learn a bunch of things that I helped me get the job I currently have and enjoy.

But you don’t need a PhD to have my job. Oh, it impresses my boss that he has a PhD to show off, and having the degree has created a halo effect, in which people automatically think I’m “scary smart” before I even open my mouth. But the guy who had my position before me didn’t even have a Master’s degree. I’m just a couple of Excel macros away from being a beaurocrat. Which is fine, really. I didn’t get a PhD to save the world or make a lot of money. I did it, in short, to get a job with some level of prestige, that wouldn’t involve picking up animal poop, washing test tubes, or loading electrophoresis gels all day…while prolonging the free-form life of a student. If you know what you’re getting yourself into and don’t expect too much afterwards, then getting a PhD is not necessarily a stupid decision.

So considering the low bar I set for myself, I’ve achieved what I set out to do. Even though I wouldn’t have been able to articulate what I was doing at the time I started on the adventure.

(It would have been a stupid decision if I had racked up hundreds of thousands of student debt. But because tuition was free and I lived off a government-funded stipend, with no teaching requirements, it was just like having a really challenging, stressful job. Even the psychic wounds that were inflicted on me through those five years have healed. I like to believe have tougher skin now.)

There is a bit in the book “The World According To Garp” about graduate school being called “gradual school” because you gradually learn that you didn’t want to go to school after all. That is what happened to me.

Eh. I browsed that blog. It basically boils down to, “getting a PhD takes effort, and you’re not magically guaranteed large rewards.” Well, duh. You can pretty much say the same thing about most anything else in life, including getting an undergraduate degree, taking a job, getting married, having kids, taking up a major hobby, doing volunteer work, changing careers, joining the military, and probably a ton of other things I can’t think of off the top of my head.

Just like anything else, you need to approach graduate school with eyes open, with a particular goal in mind and knowing what the risks are. But you can’t control or forsee everything, and sometimes you’re unlucky or gradually fall out of love with it, or maybe it’s more difficult and less exciting than you thought it would be. And sometimes everthing works out OK, or goes off in unexpected directions. Is there anything in life that’s not true of?