In response to our most recent "how can we help you?" post, 'Potential PhD' wrote in:
I'm applying for a PhD, but now starting to wonder whether I really want to do it. To provide some background/context, I'm in the UK, so doing the PhD would mean writing the thesis without having any taught courses. I already have a master's, which I graduated from last year. The PhD would start next September, but if I want to apply for funding, I need to submit my PhD application, including research proposal, by January.
I love philosophy. I think there are lots of reasons why we need more philosophy in the world (or perhaps not more philosophy as such, but more public philosophy). I understand that academic jobs are incredibly difficult to get, and I don't have my heart set on going down that path. However, I do want to be a philosopher, i.e. devote a significant amount of my time to productive philosophical activity, even if that doesn't mean becoming an academic, or even doing something philosophy-related for a living. For that reason, and also for my own satisfaction, I want to become the best philosopher I can be, and a PhD seems like the obvious way to improve my skills.
On the other hand, I'm not sure if I want to spend three years focusing on one narrow topic, and if I don't really plan on becoming an academic, I'm wondering whether it's worth doing that. Though I'm not equally interested in all areas of philosophy, there are lots of issues I'd be interested in working on, and I don't want to become a narrow specialist if I don't need to. Or is spending that much time working through one problem the best way to improve my philosophy skills? The advice I've been given about the research proposal is that, although it's provisional and they understand that the project will evolve, it needs to be as specific as "I'm going to argue that P" with an explanation of how I will defend P that situates it in a significant body of literature.
Realistically, then, I need to do something related to my master's dissertation because that's where I know the literature the best. I'm also under the impression that that's what's expected. I'm still interested in my dissertation topic, and I've made contact with a potential supervisor who is keen to work with me on it.
However, I feel very ambivalent about the topic on a personal level, because it's about a demographic group that I belong to, and I don't want to fall in to the trap where people think that, because I belong to group x, I must work on issues pertaining to x. Some people (not academic philosophers specifically) have told me that x would be the particular thing I'd have interesting things to say about, and I do resent that a little because I don't want my life or identity to be reduced to it. I have other interests, too. I thought about steering it away from how the problem of y applies to group x and just focusing on the problem of y in general; I brought up this ambivalence with my potential supervisor, who said that writing about group x might help me to get funding.
Apart from issues with the topic, I'm not sure anymore whether it's worth the costs (not just financial) for someone who isn't necessarily aiming to become an academic. I might try to get into a non-academic role within a university, and I'd thought that becoming a student again might help me to get some more relevant work experience as it would open up opportunities for casual/part-time work that's only available to students. I did a little of that sort of work as an undergraduate, but during my master's I didn't have the time or energy for anything but my degree, so now I'm thinking a PhD might be the same way. Also, although I'm not in full-time employment, I have a few interesting projects on the horizon (not philosophy or university-related) and I don't know where they might lead, but if something good came of them I might have to turn them down if I wanted to do the PhD. I could do the PhD part-time, but I'd guess that dragging it out like that would make it very easy to become demotivated.
I know you can't make my decision for me, but any help with working through these issues would be very much appreciated.
Potential PhD raises a number of questions here, including:
- Should they pursue a PhD given that they (A) love philosophy, and (B) want to become a better philosopher, but (C) do not currently have their heart set on being an academic, and (D) are not sure they want to specialize in some narrow philosophical area?
- Should they pursue a PhD in the UK?
- Should they focus on an issue related to their demographic group for the sake of better funding/job-opportunities?
- Are the costs (including financial costs) of doing a PhD worth it, when they have other opportunities available?
- Should they pursue a PhD part-time?
As I'm not sure I'm the best person to answer these questions, let me make a few brief remarks and then open up things for discussion.
...you should also be warned that in the process of pursuing the PhD, you may come to really desire an academic job. I certainly did. Your desires may be transformed substantially in the course of the programme. And it may put you in a position where you will be far less happy not getting an academic job than you would be now (think "transformative experience")...
One further consideration is money. Do not go to graduate school unless you are being funded. That was the norm when I was applying, and it should be the norm. The last thing you want is 5 years of lost income, no PhD (if it does not work out), and a large debt.
My experience is that both of these things are well-worth bearing in mind. Time spent in a PhD program can dramatically transform a person and their priorities--and while it is surely good to try to avoid debt, my experience has been that a good many graduate students who receive funding end up in some amount of debt anyway (due to bad financial management or their program stipends not being sufficient to cover living costs). Consequently, I would suggest that it might be best for Potential PhD--and anyone in a similar position--to not only study the APA's Grad School Guide carefully (to learn of different schools' attrition and placement rates), but also be aware of and take seriously different possible outcomes:
- Starting a PhD program but not finishing the degree, leaving the PhD program for non-academic work.
- Finishing the PhD, wanting a permanent academic job, but not obtaining one, leaving academia for non-academic work.
- Finishing the PhD, not wanting an academic job, and choosing to pursue non-academic work.
- Finishing the PhD, wanting a permanent academic job, and eventually getting one.
Given that I don't think one can know with much accuracy which of these categories one is likely to fall into (in my experience a person's interests and career trajectory are very hard to predict), I think it might be helpful if readers who fall into different categories shared how they would answer Potential PhD's questions, including most of all whether in their view--given the actual outcomes they experienced--pursuing a PhD was worth it, all things considered. I think it would also be interesting to hear whether there are any differences between the experiences of people who pursued their PhD in the UK compared to North America (Canada & the US) given the many differences involved (e.g. shorter time to degree in the UK, more breadth of study and teaching experience in North America, etc.). Do people who pursue UK PhDs have good experiences on the whole? Bad experiences? Do they face unique challenges on the academic job-market, given the different approach to grad training in the UK?
Obviously, whether you choose to share is up to you, but I suspect sharing different experiences might help Potential PhD and others in a similar position make a more informed decision. I may share more of my thoughts and experiences in the comments section, but would like to open things up to community discussion (particularly discussion by UK PhDs) first!