Thursday, June 16, 2011

So you want to get your doctorate....

I find myself with a rare thirty minutes of complete and total freedom right now, and since I don't have any video gaming devices handy, that means it's time to blog. Gather round, boys and girls, for a topic that you may be very interested in (unless you're not)... reasons why you should (or shouldn't get yourself a Ph.D.

See, since I started the doctoral program here at Georgia Tech... and especially in the last few months... I've had a lot of people tell me that they're thinking about going back to school to get that ultimate degree. They generally ask me what it's like and ask me if I think they'd be a good fit. My answers vary - usually I ask my questioners a few questions to try to figure out if they're a good fit or not, and then we get distracted talking about something like cheese or raccoons or whether Optimus Prime could beat Trypticon (he totally could), and they never get an answer to their question. So let me try to be as helpful as I can, while staying as on-topic as possible, while giving my own humble opinions on the truthiness or falsiness of certain things I've heard lately.

- "This seems like a great time to go back to school and get a Ph.D., what with the economy being what it is." False. There are so many things wrong with this statement that I don't really know where to start. If you're one of the people who has said it to me, I hope I kept a polite look on my face as I listened to you say it. Economic conditions are no reason to get a Ph.D. - a drive to study something for the rest of your life is a much better reason. And getting into a quality doctoral program is no easier than getting a job in today's market; in fact, I'd say it's harder.

- "I'd have to go back and get my Masters degree first, right?" False. It never ceases to amaze me how many people ask me, after learning that I'm in a doctoral program, where I got my Masters or MBA. I don't have a Masters or MBA - I was never interested in one, and they're not necessary for a doctoral program. It may make you look more impressive to an admissions committee if you have one... but on the other hand, I've had a business school dean tell me that she preferred candidates without MBAs, because they don't have to be retrained. A Masters specializing in whatever you want to study in your doctoral program certainly isn't a bad idea, but an MBA is fairly irrelevant to Ph.D. training. Where an MBA is a general education in how to be a successful businessperson, a Ph.D. in a business field is a highly specialized education in how to think, teach, and research. They're two completely different things, with two completely different desired outcomes.

- I did really well in my classes getting my bachelor's degree, so this shouldn't be too hard for me. False. Believe it or not, doctoral programs... at least in business fields... don't come with a lot of class requirements. In the top four- to five-year programs, requirements for classes tend to be somewhere in the vicinity of 20 to 50 hours. Compare that with the average undergraduate degree, where the required courseload is closer to 130. Unlike undergraduate and masters programs, doctoral students spend most of their time in research and teaching, both of which are very different skillsets from sitting in a class, taking notes, and doing well on tests.

- "I can't afford to leave my job; maybe I could do a Ph.D. part-time or online." False. There is no such thing as a credible or reputable online doctorate. It's just not possible. A doctorate isn't so much about taking classes as it is about reading papers, involving yourself in peer-reviewed research, sharing notes, and being part of faculty studies and experiments. That's not exactly the kind of stuff that lends itself to online participation.

- "I want a doctorate because I think I'd like to be a professor." Well, that's not really a true or false statement, but it's one that deserves some attention. First, you need to ask yourself if "thinking you'd like to be a professor" is a strong enough motivation to spend the next four to six years of your life working toward that goal. Second, you have to consider what kind of professor you'd like to be. In business areas, there's a big shortage of business professors, so there's a good chance that a new Ph.D. can grab a quality position. This is not the case in some other areas where my friends have approached me, such as English and History. There are lots of Arts and Sciences Ph.D.'s currently working in coffee shops and retail sales, because there just aren't any jobs out there. A business or engineering Ph.D. could find a job in the corporate world if there were no academic positions available, but there's much less demand in the corporate world for people who specialize in things like English, Philosophy, or Diversity Studies.

- "I'd really like to get a Ph.D. I think I'd do well - I love research, I love teaching, and I got a perfect score on my GRE. Do you think I'd do well? And by the way, have you heard that great new Kenny Chesney single?" There is no place for you in academia. Go away.

I see I've only got about five minutes left in my free time, so let me conclude with a thesis statement. Don't pursue a Ph.D. if you see it as a road to riches (it isn't), if you can't find a job (it's harder to get into a doctoral program), if you think a professor's life is easy (it's not), or if you enjoyed college classes before (it's nothing like them). The reason to get a Ph.D. is because you're fascinated by one specific area of study and wouldn't mind spending the rest of your life digging into it. You have to be a skilled autonomous multi-tasker who enjoys reading, writing, and having your work torn to shreds by reviewers (in the latter case, the question is, do you see it as a negative that they didn't like your work, or a positive that they gave you some ideas to make it better?).

That's why you get a Ph.D. I love what I do, and think I have just about the best job in the world. But it's not for everybody.

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