J.L.Lemke On-line Office

Why Get a PhD ?

Note:  Students just starting a PhD program may find some of the advice in this Guide dis-spiriting. Take heart. There are also good reasons to participate in the kind of scholarly community a good Ph.D. program ought to be. But what may seem cynical by contrast with your initial idealism will, I hope, come to seem coolly realistic and useful information about the wider world. May your own program and experience be better than what I describe here.

Officially, you get a PhD to demonstrate your competence at research, and this is partly true. But in fact we all know that people get PhDs because they are a required credential for most academic jobs and carry a certain valuable prestige in many contexts. They are a commodified form of cultural capital, and they can be converted in the right circumstances into financial capital. This is also why they usually cost a lot of money.

You do not need a PhD to do good research. You may need one to get people who have theirs, but are not very thoughtful, to take you and your research seriously.

Most people with PhDs are not good researchers. They are competent researchers, not very original, and often not even particularly interested in their fields. They are not even intellectuals. They belong to a professional caste that guards its privileges. On the other hand, there are many widely respected researchers who do not have any doctoral degree, and some even have university faculty positions, though this is becoming rarer because of the attitudes of university administrations.

There are PhDs and PhDs. As with any commodity, there is a market and differential value on that market. PhDs from prestigious research universities are worth more. PhDs earned under the supervision of noted researchers are worth more still. Both these conditions matter far more to the value of your degree than does the intrinsic merit of your dissertation (unless it is truly exceptional). By and large U.S. PhDs are worth less than European ones (and are easier to get). In Europe, PhDs from older universities are worth more than those from newer ones (this is also true to a lesser degree elsewhere), except in technical fields.

Most of the courses you will take to earn a PhD will be of no help whatsoever in your research, now or later. PhD requirements usually represent a political compromise among the senior faculty designed to ensure that the program appears to have "high standards", that all subfields get a crack at potential dissertation students, and that the program reflects someone's ideas of what's important in the field (usually out of date).

On the other hand, a good PhD program will offer you the opportunity to find a thoughtful and caring mentor, to learn from other good students, to sample the ideas of the faculty, to get to know the prevailing wisdom of a field, and to take at least some courses that are genuinely interesting and exciting for you. It will give you the technical skills and some of the intellectual strategies needed to do creative and significant research. Any program can give you a degree; look for a program that can give you more. And if you are in one that doesn't, considering moving elsewhere. A lot of doctoral students today do move. You should not need to lose more than one year in your progress towards the degree from making a move, if you do it right.

But should you seek to earn a PhD at all? Apart from mercenary motives, or ego gratification, or the desire to be taken more seriously by others for not altogether relevant reasons, go for a PhD only if you really want to do research, or teach in a university, or take a leading role in developing policy based on research, or some combination of these goals. The best reason of all to enroll in a doctoral program is because you want to become more intellectually engaged with and more critically sophisticated in the study of some issue or field.