Would you consider yourself a failure if you had a one-year Diploma followed by a two-year Master of Project Management, only to find a job outside of a university environment? Of course not.
I’ve recently read two blog posts that had somewhat conflicting rationales in them. The first: “Not doing the PhD (and being ok with that)”, by Eleanor Malbon hosted at the Thesis Whisperer, and the second: “Why it is not a ‘failure’ to leave academia”, by Philipp Kruger hosted at Nature Careers.
The first post by Malbon describes a situation where the author was involved in academic work and was then offered an “easy” PhD: keep doing the same thing, get paid with an additional PhD scholarship, and earn a PhD degree. Sounds good, no? But, Malbon declined the offer. She was unsure of whether a PhD is for her, and she was not sure whether the topic of the PhD is indeed her passion. Fair: you don’t have to do a PhD. Undertaking PhD research is stressful and nerve-wrecking, a huge time sink, and full of dead-ends. The worst part of it, in my opinion, is the uncertainty that comes afterwards. Indeed, you should not feel compelled to pursue something with so many negative aspects. The comments on that blog post were supportive of Malbon, and rightfully so. However, I felt like there were three assumptions underpinning the decision to decline the offer:
- The notion that you will be stuck with a research project you will not enjoy (e.g. “I don’t yet know what my academic direction is, I know that it isn’t social policy”),
- Negative impact on mental and physical health (e.g. “I don’t think the PhD process is very nourishing for one’s mental or physical health”—This one is from the comments),
- The expectation to pursue an academic career after graduation from a PhD (e.g. “I don’t want to be a Professor by the age of 35, and maybe never at all”).
These assumptions may not apply to everyone. I’d like to share my perspective on the subject, from my own personal experience. It is a sample size of one, and my experience is perhaps not representative. However, I do feel it is of value.
I started my undergraduate studies at the age of 22, after serving in the compulsory national service of my home country. It went along pretty well, so I started my 2-year MSc immediately afterwards. As I was getting close to the two-year mark, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. Industry? Academia? Maybe government? Maybe something completely different? I managed to get a job interview in one of the leading companies in the sector. They took me. It was a dream job: they paid better than others, the other employees were highly professional. I often conducted (enjoyable) field work where I met other people who said they were jealous of me – it was a job they wanted for themselves.
There was one caveat to this: I was miserable. I did not like it. I felt like a failure—how am I not enjoying this wonderful gift that I got? If I were to leave, will a second chance ever come again? I was observing what my supervisors were doing. Maybe I could survive there for a few years and then get promoted? But they were not going something that I felt like I want to do as well. My mental health was at an all-time low. So, I left. I left industry, and moved to academia to pursue a PhD. This path is quite the opposite of the more talked-about path that PhD students take.
I could not have been happier. One of the reasons was related directly to point 1 above: I had freedom. I had academic freedom. This is a common misconception: the feeling that “once I finish my degree, I will be free”. No. Having a job means that you have to do whatever your boss tells you, whether you like it or not. Malbon was not sure whether she wanted to do social policy. A PhD gives you the freedom to discover other things (assuming you don’t want to go completely different and do neuroscience or geophysics). Of course, this depends on the supervisor: sometimes supervisors can treat PhD students as pawns or lab monkeys, and this is wrong. But, assuming you have a good connection with a supportive supervisor, this should not be a problem.
Lately, the impression one could get from reading blog posts, articles, social media, etc., is that PhD = mental problems. And indeed, a recent study found that PhD students are six times as likely to suffer from mental health problems than others. But, six times as likely does not mean everyone. I think—and I may be wrong here—that part of the anxiety Malbon was feeling when considering whether to accept the offer was driven by those messages we get. We are constantly bombarded by messages such as “PhD students are poor/unhappy/etc.”, and even if one’s circumstances are favourable (like Malbon’s case seemed to be), it seeds doubt in the mind. Personally (and as mentioned above, I know I am a sample size of one), starting a PhD project greatly improved my mental health. So yes, I am poor. Yes, I have some sort of unhappiness driven by uncertainty about job security, but this is not unique to academia. But overall, I’m better off mentally with a PhD than without.
The last point I would like to address is about leaving academia. Traditionally, PhDs were trained to become academics: researchers, lecturers, professors. In the 60s and early 70s PhD students were hired as academic staff straight out of a PhD. A post-doc position would be considered as failure (“What?! You were not hired straight away?”). Those times are long gone, but somehow we are still—at least subconsciously—expected to become academics. The article by Kruger is a great example of an attempt to change that attitude. I have a good friend who worked in industry for a while, and unlike myself, actually enjoyed it. He enrolled to the same PhD program I am in, and he has no expectations to become an academic. He is just here to skill-up. If he ends up in academia, that’s fine in his view. If he doesn’t? No worries. I am at a slightly similar position. Whilst I had a terrible experience in industry, who is to say that working in a different industry wouldn’t be a positive experience? I do have ideas for potentially impactful (whatever that means) research projects, these can be accomplished in a year or two beyond the time I have left in my PhD. But in the long-term—I would not consider not being an academic a failure.
Malbon writes: “I don’t want to be defined by my job” and “I’d rather be defined by my relationship to…ecosystems around me”. That is indeed the case. There is fear that if you graduate from a PhD on “social policy” you will have to be an academic dealing with social policy. But that is not the case. A PhD is not only about the research topic. It’s about the transferable skills that you gain while on the journey. It’s not about knowing how to pipette precise amounts of liquid, or being the only one in the world who knows how to read an extinct language. It is about being able to read and write, being critical of others and your own work, being able to manage projects. Would you consider yourself a failure if you had a one-year Diploma followed by a two-year Master of Project Management, only to find a job outside of a university environment? Of course not. In my opinion, a PhD is even better. You learn that while doing something creative and interesting, instead of sitting at lectures and being assessed according to a rubric. You can develop those skills your own way. The fear of “not wanting to be an academic” should not discourage people from doing a PhD. Often people talk about the oversupply of PhD graduates. How about an undersupply? Sectors other than academia need those skills. Do a PhD to skill-up on a variety of transferable soft and hard skills, not to become the world expert on some-topic. This will settle the expectations you have from the PhD, and lower the amount of anxiety. Anxiety is a lot about fear of the unknown future. By not expecting to become something that’s close to unattainable, this uncertainty is lowered.
I used Malbon’s blog post as a guide for my own, but by no means I am questioning or challenging her decision, which clearly had a positive impact on her well-being. I am, however, attempting to provide another perspective from my own personal experience. It is always worth to consider one’s circumstances in the context of PhD projects. YMMV.