I read this article on Slate the other day about “Quit Lit” where “Soon-to-be former academics are taking their grievances public.” Apparently, there are plenty of disgruntled academics, and their stories make good articles. (Just see most of Rebecca Schuman’s writing.) But these experiences don’t hit home for me at all. I am a very gruntled (opposite of disgruntled, right?) academic.
But if all you read was Slate, you’d think that getting a Ph.D. was a disastrous, mentally scarring experience, which then results in devastatingly disappointing lack of jobs and having wasted years (sometimes over a decade) of your life. So the conclusion seems to be: A Ph.D. is not worth it.
So, Greg, should I get a Ph.D.? Well, as I like to tell my students, the answer to all statistical problems is: it depends. And that answer also applies here (and to nearly everything in life). First of all, speaking about a Ph.D. as one thing is highly suspect. Ph.D.s differ vastly by discipline and institution. A literature Ph.D. is no where near the same thing as a statistics Ph.D. A Ph.D. from Harvard is much different than a Ph.D from Phoenix University (yes, you can really do that!).
And as for the job prospects, those also differ wildly by discipline. My friend who has a Ph.D. in English refers to the academic job market as a “lottery” where hundreds of applicants will apply for a single tenure track position (He did get a tenure track position though!!!). In statistics, there are plenty of academic jobs.
I think one of the biggest problems with academic jobs is that there are a lot of people in those positions who don’t really want to be in them. It was just the logical next step. (They are smart, go to college, work hard, go to grad school, do a post-doc, and…….then obviously an assistant professorship (tenure track only of course)).
And they may feel that if they leave academics that they are a failure and that they couldn’t hack it. For some people this is surely true, but for many others, they definitely could do it, but would hate every minute of bring a professor. Here’s the thing: People are different. Academics isn’t for everyone. Industry isn’t for everyone. People are different.
I think one of the problems with academics is that the people you are getting advice from when you are doing a Ph.D. are people who chose the tenure track academic route. So they often seem to encourage their students to pursue that path because it was right for them even if it’s not right for the student. So I’m here to tell you, if you go and get a Ph.D. and decide not to go into academics you are not a failure by any means. Academics may just not be for you. And that’s ok. People are different.
So should you get a Ph.D.? It depends. What field do you want to go into? Why do you want a Ph.D.? Do you want to be in academics? Do you want to be in industry? Is there a field that you love? Can you handle 4-10 year of it?
If you want to know what it’s like to get a Ph.D. in statistics or biostatistics, check out “So you want a graduate degree in statistics?”
P.S. Here is a critique of Schuman’s writing from last fall by Charles Green who “teaches writing as a lecturer at Cornell University, where he asks students to do bicep curls on the first day so they can lift his syllabus”.