Why You Shouldn't Get a PhD by Ijeoma Kola

6 Bad Reasons to Get a PhD

Throughout my PhD journey, I’ve been very frank about my complicated relationship with the degree and my degree-granting institution. On the one hand, it is an honor, privilege, and immense achievement to be among the 2% of the American population with a doctoral degree. On the other hand, I am fairly certain that I could have lived a slightly happier, more financially viable, and overall less stressful life in the past seven years had I not done a PhD when and how I did it. The more people reach out to me expressing their interest in starting a PhD program, the more I find myself repeating these bad reasons to get a PhD.

You Should NOT Get a PhD If… Your Parents Want You To

This is the #1 worst reason to get a PhD. So your parents want you to be a medical doctor, but you don’t like science, so you should just get a PhD because then you’ll still be a doctor and make your parents happy right? WRONG.

Most people who think this way are usually young, still in college, and assume that a PhD is less work than a medical degree. After all, isn’t a PhD just you researching and writing like you did for your research projects in undergrad? NOPITY NOPE. PhDs differ vastly from medical degrees in crucial ways. Your class sizes are much smaller, the programs often involve theoretical versus practical learning, and your success is determined by your ability to produce knowledge, rather than your ability to memorize medical concepts. But the degrees are also similar in that they take 6-10 years of your life, with little pay, little sleep, and little opportunity to have a social life. I’m not saying that an MD degree is easier than a PhD, but the education and job outlook is vastly different.

You Should NOT Get a PhD If… You Want to Learn More About a Topic

Something else I hear often is that “I’m really interested in topic x and would like to pursue a PhD so I can learn and research more about it.”

HONEY. There is a lovely thing called Google. And Coursera. And Udacity. And Udemy. And libraries. If you’re curious about a topic and want to learn more, google it. Read books on it. PhDs aren’t designed for you to only learn but to also produce knowledge. If you’re just interested in a specific topic, save yourself the money, stress, and near decade of life by just looking it up on the computer and reading about it on your own.

You Should NOT Get a PhD If… You Want to Earn More Money

Although PhD holders do earn on average more than masters, bachelors, or high school diploma holders, there are a plethora of vocations that can earn you near six-figures, including pilots, real estate agents, HR managers, air traffic controllers, nurse midwives, software developers, construction managers, and even bloggers. The best part is that many of these jobs don’t require you to accumulate and average of $98,000 in student loan debt as you pursue multiple degrees. So getting a PhD just to earn more money is a pretty bad idea.

You Should NOT Get a PhD If… You Think Academia is a Chill & Stable Career

I distinctly remember college-aged Ijeoma waking up one day and thinking that professors have wonderful work life balance because they just teach during the day and then make it home for dinner with their family, plus have summers and winter breaks off for lush vacations around the world. Very early on in my PhD program I realized that teaching only made up a small portion of most academics’ work responsibilities. In addition to teaching, professors also conduct their own research, publish extensively, apply for grants and external funding, and sit on institutional and professional committees. The only real professors who are straight chilling are those who have tenure, which is incredibly hard to get, especially if you’re black.

And that’s if you can get a tenure-track academic job in the first place. In 2019, ZERO graduates of Columbia’s English PhD program found an academic job placement. ZERO. Many PhDs who do not find a tenure-track job resort to adjunct positions, which are paid per course/semester, and earn on average $25,000 and can face extreme poverty. On top of that, many PhD programs, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, don’t equip students with the skills necessary for non-academic work. So getting a PhD solely as a way to elevate your income or have a stable career is a very risky move, and quite frankly a bad idea.

You Should NOT Get a PhD If… You KNOW You Don’t Want to Teach

For the most part, perhaps with the exception of science and engineering PhDs, a PhD program is designed to teach you to be a scholar, and a large part of scholarship is teaching. If you know for sure you don’t want to teach, or don’t like teaching, then a PhD is likely a waste of your time. If you think a PhD will earn you more income in your current career, keep in mind that you will be missing out on 5+ years of stable income before you get to the point of a raise. While you may be able to work part-time throughout your program, you could likely get to the same place – or better – career-wise by continuing in your job and having more years of experience on your resume versus another degree.

You Should NOT Get a PhD If… You Are In College or a Recent Graduate

If you’re reading this and are still in college or just graduated last year, and are thinking of applying to a PhD program, save yourself the trouble and just DON’T. Either get a master’s degree first to make sure that you actually want to do more school and will still be interested in your current research interests in two years, or work a job – any job – and start saving money so that you’ll avoid having to take out additional loans to cover your living expenses. Yes PhD programs are often fully funded, but in a major city like New York, the $30-35,000 stipend you’re provided can barely cover your rent. Many PhD students end up taking out additional loans to make ends meet, so the idea of PhDs as fully funded is largely a myth. You do get a stipend, but it is often a barely livable one.

Now if you’ve read through all this and still want to get a PhD, then by all means, go ahead and apply! Make sure you equip yourself with as much information as possible. For the record, I don’t think PhDs programs are bad or that PhD degrees are useless, but I do want people to learn from my mistakes and enter them with all the information they need. Knowledge is power!​​​​​​​

If you’re a Black woman and are interested in doctoral degrees, check out the community I created for us, Cohort Sistas.

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Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing your post! I have been approached by colleagues, my boss and my Caribbean family… After researching the possibility it doesn’t seem as prosperous as I had hoped. I would not pay for the PhD program but is it worth my time…I think not. Thank you for writing on this so eloquently after completing yours. I plan to share widely. I decided to focus on creating my family, I recently had a baby, after losing my first. Congratulations on your next journey. Praying for your safe delivery. Breathe of fresh air

  2. Thanks for sharing, Ijeoma! I love your openness in sharing these points with us. However, based on your experience, do you have any reasons to share with us why we should pursue a PhD, given your experience and now, looking back? I’ve kept up with your blogs for a very long time (and love them!), and I’ve been interested for a while in pursuing a PhD. I went to do my masters right after undergrad (so I TOTALLY get what you mean by getting some work experience under the belt and saving $$ for a graduate program) and am currently working full time, but I’d love to get some insight from you as to why someone should pursue a PhD if interested. Thanks!!

  3. Hi Ijeoma Kola,

    I hope you’re doing well.

    My question is at what point in your Ph.D. program did you know that a Ph.D. wasn’t for you and why did you decide to continue in the program?

    Thank you,

    Karis Wilson

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