Considering a Doctorate?

If you like university life and academic work, pursuing a doctoral degree seems the next logical step, but it is also a challenge that’s different in nature to getting a bachelor or master, and has substantial effects on your career and your life in general. I have written up some of my own thoughts on the risks involved in this decision, and have included pointers to discussion by others for your consideration if you are presently pondering whether to apply for a doctoral program. They are in no particular order and I don’t make a claim to universal validity – these are my opinions based on my experience, your mileage may will vary.

You need to consider a Ph.D. if you want to work in academia. If that’s you, read all of Chris Blattman’s advice, he covers virtually all of the relevant issues. There are also cases when a Ph.D. is helpful or even needed for career development outside of academia. If you plan on getting a Ph.D. the traditional way by going through doctoral school as a (more or less) full-time endeavor, the below is applicable to you as well. Getting your Ph.D. extra-murally while working is a rather different undertaking.

I want to reiterate a piece of advice that you will find in numerous other sources (including the above): I strongly urge you to seek out doctoral programs that fund you, rather than doctoral programs that you fund. Of course, this is not a dichotomous choice: there is a continuum with some institutions and programs charging no tuition and paying an actual salary sufficient to cover health insurance, pension contributions and social security on one end of the scale and universities that charge tuition and pay nothing on the other extreme. Most programs are somewhere in between.1 The difference in the cost of a Ph.D. program can have a substantial impact on your life during and after the doctorate: in the worst case, you can build up substantial debt during your doctoral studies or extend your studies by several years because you need to pick up jobs as TA, junior researcher and so forth in order to fund your yourself, whereas in the best case, you can build up savings and social security entitlements during your studies.

Some doctoral positions are tied directly to a research project or a supervising professor. This can have benefits and draw-backs. I went to doctoral school in a well-funded, well-structured project and reaped substantial benefits including:

  • an enthusiastic, dedicated and supportive set of supervisors who were there from day 1,
  • the ability to work with colleagues working on similar issues, and
  • the privilege of contributing to larger research projects.

However, the benefits to locking yourself into a topic and research group are based on the assumption that your interests do not differ too widely from those of your future supervisors and colleagues. If you find that you are uncertain as to what you would like to work on, or if would like to first test the water, a program that allows you some time before committing yourself to a topic and assigning a supervisor is preferable.2

If you are aiming for a career in a specific world region, you probably want to do your Ph.D. there. For example, if you are looking for a career in the North American market, getting your doctorate at a European institution tends to put you at a disadvantage. This is not because of discrimination, and you can make similar observations about plenty of other combinations of world regions or individual countries. While a doctorate is meant to be roughly comparable globally, there are sufficient differences that graduates from one part of the world will often not fit the expected pattern on another continent. Getting a Ph.D. in the US usually takes longer than in Europe (approx. 2 additional years), and doctoral students in the US tend to be more active when it comes to publications, conference presentations and so forth. As a result, they will usually have a longer and more extensive track record upon graduation. Compare this with students from countries or regions where Ph.D. students are expected not to publish until they graduate. Graduating in the region where you want to work minimizes cultural misunderstandings about how the system is supposed to work, while maximizing your chance that you will able to make yourself noticeable prior to graduation. To emphasize: this is a statement about a general pattern. Going to institutes with brand recognition in your area of interest or carefully building your network and profile during your doctoral studies should enable you to overcome such difficulties. The choice here is between making it easier or harder on yourself.

The labor market in academia is tricky, and the pitfalls differ from country to country. Alexandre Afonso published an well-written blog post that highlights how difficult it is to make it to the top in academia and how comparatively easy it is to get sidelined into positions that offer little reward or opportunities for advancement. Fortunately, this is less of an issue in the field of public policy, where the boundaries between research, public service, political work, not-for-profit advocacy and corporate employment are weak. It can be a useful exercise to look at the track records of role models in whose footsteps you would like to follow: in the policy field, a CV that features reseach and analysis next to project work and civil service is fairly typical. That means that you don’t need to worry too much about being “locked into” academia. Choose to pursue a Ph.D. on the basis of your desire to do research and your attraction to your topic and the community of scholars and practitioners engaged with it. Moreover, treat this like an investment decision where you trade years of your life (during which you have a lower chance of making a decent salary and a higher chance of developing gray hairs) for a probability at entering certain career paths. Be aware of your chances.

Also be aware that the pay-off can vary in unfair ways unrelated to your performance: for example, Wendy Stock and John Siegfried showed that getting married within 5 years of graduation generated a salary bonus for men and a salary penalty for women (via: Duck of Minerva, Slate, Inside Higher Ed). Hopefully, at least this particular result changes as women begin to outnumber men at the post-doctoral level across the social sciences… Depending on where you are working, other patterns will exist and can form around language, age, race or appearance, personality styles and so forth. I would argue that academia isn’t less fair than the rest of life — but don’t expect it to be more fair, either.

Doctoral studies differ substantially from your experience in bachelor and master programs. Courses end when the time is up. If you fail them, you may have to revisit them, but everything in bachelor and master degrees has a clear end point in the near future. The constant, recurring promise of salvation keeps desperation in check and makes it easier for people to have a regular life. Quick head-count: how many of you have been thinking something like “argh, Econometrics is driving me nuts, but it’s only two weeks to go” or “courses come and go, but pub night is every week (day?)” at least once during your career as students? The nature of a doctoral degree is very different: by definition, this is about a piece of research that is yours and yours alone. The mountain does not go away until you climb it (or are judged to have climbed it by others). Set-backs along the way are guaranteed and will feel very personal when they occur. For most of your doctoral studies, graduation is outside of your present reach. The combination of a project that is supremely personal with a pay-off that is determined by others years down the road leads to Ph.D. projects dominating one’s life. Most of you are already familiar with Ph.D. comics – an excellent source for understanding how life in academia feels. I believe the first cartoon of 2014 is particularly poignant. Also consider: Work Output, Motivation Level, Vacation Relaxation?, Your Thesis Committee, and How Professors Spend Their Time.

Of course, this post is supposed to be cautionary in nature, so I risk sounding negative. Perhaps this is natural: everyone is an expert on the draw-backs of their own job. But the point is that embarking on a doctoral study is a decision that should not be taken lightly. Instead, be fully aware of the quirks, idiosyncrasies and draw-backs involved in this deal. This being said, there are many benefits to staying in academia. This is a career path that not just encourages but challenges you to think about issues close to your heart in detail for the rest of your life, and surrounds you with a seemingly never-ending supply of young, ambitious people in an environment where being smart is valued highly. You get to read, study, debate; you have the benefit of being challenged in your thinking regularly (this may not feel like a benefit when it happens), and you get way more control over your day and your life than most other career paths afford. Just make sure you know what you are getting into when you make the leap…

  1. For doctoral fellows without outside funding, our institute waives the tuition fee and pays a scholarship of €1’175/month plus €40/month for health insurance. This is good in the sense that your living expenses are covered and you aren’t likely to build up debt during your doctorate. But it’s a scholarship, not a salary.

  2. If you are curious, the MERIT/MGSoG doctoral program falls into the second category: you start out with course work and develop your dissertation proposal over the course of the first year. So you don’t have to come in with a fully formed research project in mind — but it is up to you to successfully defend your proposal at the end of the first year before you are assigned to a supervisor.

Lutz F. Krebs's Picture

About Lutz F. Krebs

I'm a political scientist with a focus on international relations and conflict research. I serve as academic program director for the master of science in Public Policy & Human Development at Maastricht Graduate School of Governance and United Nations University MERIT.

Maastricht, the Netherlands