If you’re thinking of a Ph.D., just stop for a moment and say, “Is this really worth it?” Sure, the poverty-level income is appealing, but what really drives a student to get a Ph.D.? It’s certainly not the fame, fortune or even the self-esteem. No, it’s something steadier and more invigorating. Something that drives the passion of nerdy academics to endure the coffee-binging, midnight-oil-burning comas that define the process of getting a Ph.D.
There’s really only two reasons to get a Ph.D.: to have fun or to teach. Some find the rigor of academics invigorating and appealing. “I enjoy academics,” said Dr. Boyd Seevers, a professor of Old Testament studies at the University of Northwestern – St. Paul, “because that’s the way I’m wired.” For example, in the research for his dissertation in Old Testament warfare, he found potentially useful life skills such as how to win a swordfight by being left-handed.
Others would rather die in a swamp than live through the grueling, bloody and sweaty purgatory they’ve heard their colleagues endure. Doctoral supervisors see a number of their students drop out of their doctoral programs, and by the time the supervisors are piling up their students’ corpses, very few students actually finish their dissertations. It took Seevers four years to complete his while living three days a week in his library’s basement. Out of 22 students, he was one of two who finished in four years. “And that was the shorter end,” he said.
Even if students aren’t interested in getting a Ph.D., some are required to get a Ph.D. in order to teach. This is especially true for the liberal arts professors, who earn far less and work much more than the humanities, sciences or professional writing professors.
Others get a Ph.D. just for the heck of it, even if they don’t need it to teach. Dr. Doug Trouten, professor of journalism at the University of Northwestern – St. Paul, said that after he had become a professor, “the obvious thing to do was to pursue the one thing more useless than the M.A. in journalism I already had—namely, a Ph.D. in journalism.”
The only perks to getting a Ph.D. are having a special plaque with “Ph.D.” beside your name (assuming you live in an office) and knowing more than you actually need to know. Trouten said, “As you move along in higher education, you wind up knowing more and more about less and less until, as they say, you know everything about nothing. That’s me.”
But for some like Seevers, there’s real pleasure in getting a Ph.D. despite the insomnia and lack of a social life. So if you’re thinking of getting a Ph.D. and you’re willing to be a hermit, just remember that you might have to live in your library’s basement for several years.