September 24, 2018

Why PhD experiences are so variable and what you can do about it

People who do PhDs seem to have either strongly positive or strongly negative experiences — for some, it’s the best time of their lives, while others regret the decision to do a PhD. Few career choices involve such a colossal time commitment, so it’s worth thinking carefully about whether a PhD is right for you, and what you can do to maximize your chances of having a good experience. Here are four suggestions. Like all career advice, your mileage may vary.

1. A PhD should be viewed as an end in itself, not a means to an end. Some people find that they are not enjoying their PhD research, but decide to stick with it, seeing it as a necessary route to research success and fulfillment. This is a trap. If you’re not enjoying your PhD research, you’re unlikely to enjoy a research career as a professor. Besides, professors spend the majority of our time on administrative and other unrewarding activities. (And if you don’t plan to be a professor, then you have even less of a reason to stick with an unfulfilling PhD.)

If you feel confident that you’d be happier at some other job than in your PhD, jumping ship is probably the right decision. If possible, structure your program at the outset so that you can leave with a Master’s degree in about two years if the PhD isn’t working out. And consider deferring your PhD for a year or two after college, so that you’ll have a point of comparison for job satisfaction.

2. A PhD is a terrible financial decision. Doing a PhD incurs an enormous financial opportunity cost. If maximizing your earning potential is anywhere near the top of your life goals, you probably want to stay away from a PhD. While earning prospects vary substantially by discipline, a PhD is unlikely to improve your career earnings, regardless of area.

3. The environment matters. PhD programs can be welcoming and nurturing, or toxic and dysfunctional, or anywhere in between. The institution, department, your adviser, and your peers all make a big difference to your experience. But these differences are not reflected in academic rankings. When you’re deciding between programs, you might want to weigh factors like support structures for mental health, the incidence of harassment, location, and extra-curricular activities more strongly than rankings. It is extremely common for graduate researchers to face mental health challenges. During my own PhD, I benefited greatly from professional mental health support.

4. Manage risk. Like viral videos, acting careers, and startups, the distribution of success in research is wildly skewed. Most research papers gather dust while a few get all the credit — and the process that sorts papers involves a degree of luck and circumstance that researchers often don’t like to admit. This contributes to the high variance in PhD outcomes and experiences. Even for the eventual “winners”, the uncertainty is a source of stress.

Perhaps counterintuitively, the role of luck means that you should embrace risky projects, because if a project is low-risk the upside will probably be relatively insignificant as well. How, then, to manage risk? One way is to diversify — maintain a portfolio of independent research agendas. Also, if the success of research projects is not purely meritocratic, it follows that selling your work makes a big difference. Many academics find this distasteful, but it’s simply a necessity. Still, at the end of the day, be mentally prepared for the possibility that your objectively best work languishes while a paper that you cranked out as a hack job ends up being your most highly cited.

Conclusion. Many people embark on a PhD for the wrong reasons, such as their professors talking them into it. But a PhD only makes sense if you strongly value the intrinsic reward of intellectual pursuit and the chance to make an impact through research, with financial considerations being of secondary importance. This is an intensely personal decision. Even if you decide it’s right for you, you might want to leave yourself room to re-evaluate your choice. You should pick your program carefully and have a strategy in place for managing the inherent riskiness of research projects and the somewhat lonely nature of the journey.

A note on terminology. I don’t use the terms grad school and PhD student. The “school” frame is utterly at odds with what PhD programs are about. Its use misleads prospective PhD applicants and does doctoral researchers a disservice. Besides, Master’s and PhD programs have little in common, so the umbrella term “grad school” is doubly unhelpful.

Thanks to Ian Lundberg and Veena Rao for feedback on a draft.


  1. L Jean Camp says:

    The word “family” might appear here somewhere. Choosing to have a child in a PhD program, finding an advisor that supports that, and dealing with caregiving are issues in choosing to spend five years of your life in a PhD program.

    Balancing life and family is an immense part of the doctoral experience.

    Don’t disappear caregiving. An absence of harassment is not the same thing as the presence of support.

    A shout out here to my advisors, Doug Tygar and Marvin Sirbu, as well as my department, EPP for meaningful financial and emotional support. Look for families in the doctoral programs, and their experience will clarify if the values of the program.

  2. It’s certainly nice that you want the PhD experiences to be less variable, but the system ensures that it won’t happen. If you read the Taulbee report, you can see that only 1 out of 7 PhD students will end up in university positions. (Note also, how they call a PostDoc a real position!!!) In my unscientific survey, I’ve found that the proportion that want a university positions is much, much higher than this. There is guaranteed to be disappointment given this imbalance.

    The universities could change the structure around by admitting fewer grad students and creating more permanent positions, effectively moving the rejection sooner in peoples’ lives. But they don’t. The adjunct system works well for those in power.

    So it’s nice you do some hand waving and it’s nice that you care about these things but the structure pretty much guarantees that some will find success and many will end up in failure.

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