On Getting a PhD

Since becoming a PhD candidate* mid-April (hence the long hiatus on this blog) I have been asked multiple times why is it that I am not specifically going into an academic career. I would like to take a moment to respond to this and to address what I believe to be the more pressing issue – that of PhDs in the USA.

PhDs and Academic Work
I am not saying that being an academic is not attractive to me. Nor am I saying that I would not take an academic position were it granted to me. What I am saying is that I have already been in job markets related to my degree for over a decade. In fact, my work experience actually matches if not exceeds my academic experience. This means I look for positions where I can apply both my experience and education rather than just one or the other. To accomplish this, I often go for positions I have never officially held simply because they seem to offer a challenge and the opportunity to learn something new.

So, while I am not against an academic career and would not balk at one if one were to be granted to me, I am also under no illusion that it is the only thing you can do with a PhD. This means I did not enter my program with the thought that an academic career would be my only end-game (and neither should you!). The fact of the matter is academic positions with tenure tracks are few and far between. Most of them seem to be going the way of the dodo bird as those in them retire and not replaced. Additionally, associate professorships are becoming exceedingly competitive for little to no money simply because the supply exceeds the demand.

Then Why Get a PhD?
So, you may ask, if you’re not going into academics – why get a PhD? Speaking from personal experience, I was given the opportunity and money to do so. Secondly, I am one of those busy bodies that always has to be learning something**, so why not put those efforts toward a degree? Thirdly, and I hate that this is partially the case, as a woman in technology I am automatically paid less money and attention. Though a PhD isn’t going to ensure I get more of either one of those, pair it up with my work experience and the words “Cyber Anthropologist” and it does tend to turn a few heads.

Fourthly, I enjoy school. I enjoy the academic world. I love the “ding”*** I get at the end of every semester when my A’s roll in (yes, I am a 4.0 student who works full time). I enjoy learning about new subjects. I enjoy new understandings and light bulbs that go off as a result of my studies. I enjoy finding gaps in current research and knowing that I can fill those gaps and how to do so.

Lastly, I like it. I am good at it. Doing the work and achieving that level of education pleases me. I did it for myself and I am happy that I did. If you can’t be satisfied with doing something because you want to, then why do it?

PhDs and the Job Market
Though those on the PhD track may not find positions in academia, this does not mean we cannot find jobs outside of it. In fact, many of the skills we have gained in working toward the PhD as well as the education itself are perfect opportunities to market ourselves to the public sphere. We, as PhD students, need to learn how to market these things better so that employers can truly understand what it is that sets us apart and what we can bring to the table that others can’t.

That said, rest assured I am under no illusion that I am more qualified or better because I am a PhD candidate. Rather, it’s because I am a PhD candidate that I can back up what I do and how I do it with the reasons why I do it as well as provide other ways it can be done. It is because of my education I know I do not know everything, however, I also know how to figure out what I do not know. It’s the ability to know both how and why, or at least the ability to figure those things out, that has always appealed to me and always will.

Considering a PhD?
For those considering a PhD – if you are not going to continue to contribute to your debt to do it and if you are doing it because it is something you want, which would satisfy you even if you were not addressed as Professor, I say GO FOR IT! Go into it with the understanding that PhDs aren’t only useful for a career in academics. They carry as much value as you give them. So, give it all you have and make it count for you out there in both the public and academic spheres. If you start out that way, you can tailor your education to be as open as possible making you more marketable. To that end, I have always written papers and sought projects outside the world of academics as a part of my academic studies and I suggest you do the same.

Hiring a PhD?
For those who are in the position of hiring someone – don’t let the letters PhD mislead you. Just because someone has these letters on their resume or at the end of their name, it does not mean they are only suited to do academic work. These are true go getters with a heightened sense of autonomy and responsibility for their own work. They have the ability to do independent thought and research, which means if they don’t know the answer or how to do something – you can rest assured they can figure it out. And, last but not least, they are willing to put the work into what ever the project is in order to see it to its completion and will do so by elegantly and diligently overcoming any barrier or impasse that may come their way. Give them a chance, they won’t disappoint you.

A Few Shout Outs:
To my fellow students who have recently completed their quals – congratulations and good luck!

To those in the job market – broaden your scope, the opportunities out there may surprise you!

To those hiring – consider the broader implications of the degree and what it took to get there!

*PhD Candidate (aka ABD) – I have completed all of my coursework and passed my qualification exams. I will begin my dissertation research this summer and hope to complete my PhD by 2015 (within 5 years of having started it). You can see my ramblings about this process here.

**Continuous Learning – other learning opportunities on my list at the moment include learning Spanish, bettering my German, learning Piano (I played other instruments in school), and getting back into programming a bit

***Ding – this is part of what I call the “ding effect” (I referred to it in my previous research). It is that sense of accomplishment that people get from playing video games that causes them to want to continue to play the game even if it means doing a lot of the same repetitive tasks over and over again.

– Side note on this for all of you agile people out there, it can end up being very hard to achieve this ding effect in an agile work environment where people continuously work on ongoing projects and that may lead to faster developer / designer burnout. You MUST give your team a ding every once in a while to encourage them to keep going. Otherwise, ongoing projects just end up resembling the ever rotating mouse wheel with no end and no carrot in sight and you will lose your best and brightest over and over again. (Yes – speaking from experience from working on a team that has turned over at least 6 teams over the last 3.5 years.)