Should I get a Ph.D.?

by PM

9 March 2012, 1451 EST

Matt Groening’s Life in Hell comic strip is required
by federal law to be posted in all grad student
lounges. There’s a reason for that.

By now, acceptance and rejection letters (or emails) have begun to filter back to graduate school applicants.

I want to offer some advice for people who want to be graduate students. I begin by making it clear: I’m loving graduate school; it’s been on balance the best time of my life; and nevertheless there have been times when (to quote a colleague) I’ve wished I’d taken the blue pill and kept my job. (Most of those times were during coursework.)

Erik Voeten at The Monkey Cage has a useful post for students who have been accepted and are weighing competing offers. I agree with almost all of his points, and all of the major ones. You absolutely should choose a program, not a professor. You shouldn’t focus on irrelevancies during the search process. If the graduate students at admitted students’ weekend are miserable but the food is nice, then you shouldn’t go there. Similarly, if everybody at Prestig University is deeply into political economy and you’re big into critical theory, it’s a waste of your time and theirs to enroll there. And you should absolutely examine the methods training that a school offers. The more methods training, the better. And that means methods in a wider variety of subjects than you knew existed, unless you were an undergrad at one of the handful of universities that actually teach research skills to undergrads.

On the other hand, I disagree with Erik on his last point: “Think carefully about where you want to live. This is six years of your life!” I don’t think that most students should consider “where you want to live” as an important variable. The calculus is simple: Grad school is professional training; better training means you have a better chance of getting a job; and getting a job will contribute to your quality of life for decades. So go to Gloomy University instead of Sunshine U if Gloomy is higher ranked. (True, if you’re a superstar and you get to choose among top-ranked programs, then you can let this back in, but otherwise your decision rule should be easy: go to the best program for you that gave you funding.)

The other point is that Erik is right that grad school will probably take six years. This matters a lot if your program only offers five-year funding commitments (as mine does). So, plan accordingly. You should also realize that this means that at least one Major Life Event–marriage, childbirth, death of a close family member–will take place during this period, which is a sobering realization.

But let me offer a few additional pieces of advice. First, if you’re still thinking about accepting any grad school offers at all–or you’re thinking about applying next year–you should read Tim Burke’s Should I Go To Graduate School? and More on Going to Graduate School.

Second, you should think really hard about money. I’m going to repeat something that Tim wrote: “With rare exceptions, no Ph.D. program that is primarily or exclusively aimed at an academic career is worth pursuing if the applicant is not given a tuition waver upon admission.” Taking out loans for a Ph.D. program is a dicey proposition. Those loans are nondischargeable in bankruptcy, which means that although the federal government would have helped you make your debts disappear if you’d spent $100k buying clothes on your MasterCard, they will never release you from your obligations to pay back the $5,000 in tuition for that extra seminar on The Politics of Exotic Birds, even if you’re adjuncting for the rest of your life. (A corollary to “think hard about money” is “think hard about what the job market for academics is like.”)

This is more important than you think now. If you’re 23 or 24, then the notion of “home equity” or “retirement savings” are pretty distant from what you’re doing. But when you arrive at 29 or 30 and all you have to show for years of effort are a few lines on a CV while all of your friends who got jobs (you know, maybe the ones whose homework you used to do, or the ones who learned keg stands while you learned econometrics) are living in really nice places in really fun cities and unselfconsciously talking about their vacations in countries that you only know from datasets … well, all I can say is that, you’ll notice then. After a point, genteel poverty is still poverty.

Third, you should think really hard about what makes you happy. Do you only want to be a professor if you can be a hip prof in New York or the Bay Area? Then don’t go to graduate school. You are statistically almost certain not to get that job. So unless you’ve come to the conclusion that you’d be just as satisfied working for years to take what your mentors will refer to as a “Good Job” in a state that voted for Santorum instead of getting the Best Job in the discipline, then you’re pretty much setting yourself up for failure.

Fourth, if you’ve been admitted, you almost certainly have the raw talent necessary to play the game. You’re likely to be deeply depressed at some point in your first semester, though, because it will seem as if everyone in your program knows more about everything than you did. That’s extremely unlikely to be true, but it will nevertheless feel that way. So make friends quickly. The best advice I ever got about grad school was on the first day, when a senior Ph.D. student informed our entering cohort that nobody can write a dissertation on their own. So be friendly, be nice, be charitable, and be generous. The dividends are well worth it.