Is a Ph.D. Worth It Anymore? Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

We’ve heard from many readers scrutinizing and outright disparaging the long and uncertain path toward a Ph.D. Here’s reader David with a more positive outlook:

Thanks to The Atlantic for several recent articles on this topic, and for the continued discussion in Notes. They really struck a nerve with me.

I want to point out two major elements that are missing from this discussion. First, as I experienced it, there were two distinct cultures in the academic world, starting in grad school. There were “writers” and there were “teachers,” and the writers were supposed to be the elite. Teaching was slightly beneath the writers. The writers were expected to do original research, publish articles in leading journals, publish books, and publish at least one “master” work, hopefully winning the Pulitzer Prize.

I have no doubt that these people provide the highest and most stimulating work in our profession. However, some of us just prefer to teach.

Secondly, there was no mention of jobs at private colleges, community colleges, or state colleges. This omission betrays a prejudice in our professional culture.

At some point the writers expect to achieve a senior position at an elite university with limited teaching responsibilities. This seems entirely right to me. However, as several people pointed out, these positions are elusive and highly competitive.

My experience was different. From my first semester in college I knew I wanted to be a teaching professor. I eventually realized that my life goals could only be achieved by finishing a Ph.D. The Ph.D. was the only way to join the intellectual community, answer the big questions, and sustain a teaching career.

A senior graduate professor recruited me after I had my Masters degree and he offered me a prestigious Ph.D. fellowship to work with him. When I arrived on campus I was given two choices: Research Assistant  or Teaching Assistant. As an RA I would assist a professor in the research and writing of an article or a book.  This position would prepare me for a writing career. As a TA, at least in my department, I would meet weekly with a mentor, teach my own survey classes, prepare tests, and give grades.

I took the TA option. As I imagined my life goals, this was the best choice for me. I realize now how fateful that choice was.

After three semesters of doctoral seminars, and research papers, and teaching duties, I was hired as a professor at a nearby private college on the condition that I continue and finish the Ph.D. The college was impressed by my experience as a TA. My college paid me well enough, including benefits. They also provided some tuition assistance and a reduced teaching load while I finished the Ph.D. (I believe that many teaching colleges have similar policies.) When I informed the university of my new job, and resigned the fellowship, several professors expressed their disappointment that I had “left” the academic life.

I continued to teach through the Ph.D. When I graduated I received a promotion and a hefty pay raise from the college. I loved teaching five classes with no more than thirty students. Any extra time and energy that I had did not go to research or writing. I stayed current with my academic field, I attended academic conferences (subsidized by the college), and I invested in the life of the college community—exactly as I had imagined it as a college freshman years before.

After 14 years at the private college, I accepted an offer from the local community college (now a four-year state college). I missed the community of a residential campus, but there are advantages to working for the state. I am paid well, I have good benefits, I have good students (which is all I ever cared about), and the administration treats its professors like royalty.  

After 14 years at the state college, I have now completed 29 uninterrupted years as a professor. None of this was possible without the Ph.D. Was it worth it? Every penny.

If you also have a positive experience and something new to add to the thread, drop us a note and I’ll do my best to add it. Update from Brandon, who offers an optimistic outlook and some advice:

I don’t think this is really a question of “Is a PhD worth it?” Instead, the question should be “When is a PhD worth it?” I think a PhD is worth it when two things are true: (1) the student enjoys teaching and/or research (loving both isn’t necessary), and (2) the student gets a good academic job.

You have to love either teaching or research, as other readers have noted. Loving both is a bonus but not necessary. Plenty of faculty love research and view teaching with indifference, and vice versa. This is something that’s up to you to decide. An unwavering belief that what you’re doing is interesting and worthwhile will help you through the inevitable rough times.

I focus most of my attention on the second criterion here: A PhD is worth it when you can get a job. Consequently, factors that make it easier to get a job make a PhD more worthwhile. There are two important points that haven’t been addressed in this discussion: mentorship and discipline-specific academic job markets.

First, mentoring. As many students can tell you, PhD advisors have a disproportionate impact on not only students’ emotional well-being, but also their careers. If your advisor doesn’t care about you, or doesn’t provide you opportunities to develop, a PhD is absolutely not worth it.

Why? Because in order to get a job, you must have good publications. This is true even at teaching-focused universities nowadays. In order to get good publications, you must have good supervision. Without it, your life will be very, very difficult.

This point is especially salient when your research is expensive to conduct. When you are dependent on funding and expensive equipment to publish research, you are also dependent on your advisor to secure that funding. As noted, agencies typically aren’t shelling out six-figure grants to graduate student PIs.

Unfortunately, not all advisors take this responsibility seriously. They are under tremendous pressure themselves to publish or perish, and training PhD students is a lot of work. In my opinion, faculty should be more explicitly rewarded for mentorship to incentivize better supervision.

Second, the nebulously-defined academic job market. It bothers me to hear the countless headlines about how terrible the academic job market is (including this NYT piece just this week), when that simply isn’t true across the board. There are many different academic fields, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the job market isn’t the same in all of them.

This figure illustrates the point clearly (more context here):

Bureau of Labor Statistics

If you are in a field that churns out a ton of PhDs, you will have a very difficult time finding a job. However, not all academic disciplines are oversaturated with new PhD graduates. If the figures on this graph seem low, consider the fact that not all tenure-track faculty work in departments with PhD programs.

To give a balanced perspective, it’s also worth noting the trend where tenure-track positions are more and more often being turned into contract positions (i.e., not tenure-track) after tenured faculty retire.

Overall, getting a PhD is a calculated risk. Different factors will make it easier or harder for you to get a job. These points lead to a few concrete recommendations for those weighing the merits of graduate school. These points won’t be equally relevant to every discipline.

1. Find out what the job market looks like before going to graduate school. Talk to newer faculty in your department that just went through the search process, talk to faculty that were on search committees, etc. Use the internet. Does your field do employment surveys? Find them online.

2. Find a good mentor. They are worth their weight in gold. When looking at PhD programs, look at the faculty CVs. Are they publishing regularly? Are they publishing with students enrolled in the program? Does the department have a history of placing PhD graduates in academic jobs? If so, they usually aren’t shy about advertising it. When/if you go for a campus visit, talk to the current students. How are they doing?

If you can put yourself in a field that’s hiring with a mentor that’s publishing, you’ll probably be in very good shape. This isn’t a comprehensive list of course, but in my experience, these are two major points. If you can make it through to the other side with a tenure-track job, it’s absolutely worth it.

My wife and I are tremendously lucky, so maybe my advice should be taken with a grain of salt. We were in graduate school when the economic recession hit, and we left school after the recovery. We work in a disciple that is not oversaturated with PhD students going into academia. We both have PhDs and both have tenure-track jobs that are within one hour of each other.

Our jobs are fulfilling, challenging, and flexible. We’ve paid our dues and are finally seeing the dividends. We finally have enough time and money to make other (non-academic) things a priority in our lives. Our research is up to speed and 60-hour workweeks are a thing of the past. We make enough money to pay both the mortgage and our student loan debt comfortably.

If I could go back in time and choose a different career path, I wouldn’t even consider doing things differently.