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Why Can’t We Stop Doing Phds?

I was raised religious, and as a kid there were two career paths that appealed to me more than any others: missionary and minister. I felt that I’d been put on this earth for some higher purpose, and what higher purpose could there be than turning my back on a 9-5 job and set my mind in pursuit of a higher good? I wanted to be the one standing at the front with all the answers and confidence, or else I wanted to be an adventurer going off into strange places around the world and helping people. 

Why these things?

I’m not totally sure. But I was a first-born 12-year-old who liked to please adults and who wanted to do things that were both impressive and meaningful,

Decades later, the PhD seemed to be a much more appropriate answer to that voice in my head that told me I wasn’t going to live a hum drum life as a plumber or miner (sorry plumbers and miners). I was drawn in by the life of the mind, by the apparent pursuit of some higher good.  


I’ve tried to talk a few young people out of doing a PhD over the years.  I’ve sat over a coffee with a young person and laid out step by step why doing a PhD probably isn’t a good idea.

I tweeted about this last week and started a great conversation on Twitter.

For those who disagreed with me on talking students out of a PhD–there’s some comfort. I’ve never been able to talk someone out of doing one.

When I arrived in Ottawa, I landed a job at a think tank. It thrust me into contact with people leading the education policy in Canada. And opened a window for me to see into the other side of the PhD problem–the supply side. Most of these people weren’t aware of the difficulties facing PhDs. They dealt with the economic equation–assuming that a higher concentration of PhDs would somehow pay dividends to the economy (without any clue how or why this might happen). I’ve got my own ideas about the supply side of the PhD equation.

But the other side of the equation is just as important, the demand side. Why can’t people, especially young people, stop doing PhDs? Less than 20% will get a tenure track job, 1 in 3 will be no further ahead in their career than if they’d stopped at a masters degree, and still we enrol. We run a gauntlet of mental health challenges. We feel worthless. We deal with those insecure people who populate academia, whose own self-worth hangs on by a threat and demands cruelty to others. We waste our best earning years, digging deeper into debt for degrees that don’t have marketplace demand.

And those who do limp across the finish line with their degree will end up having to go through the heart-wrenching process of having to reinvent themselves into altac and turn their back on the dreams that led them into academia in the first place.


Given my youth, I can’t help but feel that the PhD is a sort of like a modern day clergy-path. It’s the equivalent of a higher calling in some nebulous and un-articulated way. It seems important and fancy. As my supervisor used to say—“this is about the pursuit of knowledge.”

But like most PhDs. I graduated feeling like I knew less than when I started. My confidence was shattered. And I got to run one last gauntlet of worthlessness as I competed on the academic job market, pouring hours and days into applications that usually warranted a “send-to-all” form rejection.

I was forced to face a reality I’d pretended didn’t exist for 5 years. I had to rebuild my career. I had a lot of debt.  Although my PhD ended up being pretty fun in certain moments, I’d still wasted 5 of my best earning years. And as I write this, I am sitting on the bus schlepping into a government job—ironically living the exact existence I was trying to avoid as a naïve youth.

The academic letdown

I know a lot of first-year PhD students who are idealists. I don’t know a lot of fifth to ninth-year students who are. The dream that drew you into academic devolves into a cycle of teaching to pay the bills, which never leaves you enough time to write your thesis. Upper-year academics enter a sort of liminal space between grad student and professor—poor, exploited, and usually disenchanted.

Many would love to get off the bus, but they’ve come this far. It’s sunken costs. What’s one more year? Those who squeak across the finish line with no academic position hold out hope by jumping into a post doc—most of which pay less than restaurant workers make. From the ages of 35 to 45, many people give academia just “one more year” to see if it pans out, one more 12-month job cycle that traps you in indentured service for a while longer.

This is where this journey ends for many if not the majority of PhDs.

Back to the start

Let’s go back to that 20-something year old who’s thinking about doing her PhD. Her professors all tell her she has a great chance of making it in academia (after all, they did). And since she doesn’t know what to do with her masters degree in history or biology it seems like a good next step.

For most altac careers I’ve encountered, a masters degree is more than enough—and yes, you can get a great job with a masters degree in history. But it takes some time. Not a lot of people get jobs thrown at them. Those who do get jobs might be saddled with the reality that the real world isn’t always as fun. The company doesn’t always provide the same sense of meaning that academia did. And so the long list of terrible reasons to do a PhD gets formed:

  1. I have nothing else to do
  2. It’s meaningful
  3. It will open doors
  4. It’s a logical next step
  5. My supervisor said I’m good
  6. I got in
  7. I want to be a professor

And the cycle begins.

The end

In the end, I don’t know what will make students stop doing PhDs. I do think the education system needs to either cut their production way back or else work with the government to develop a clear strategy for connecting them into the economy. I happen to also think that if master’s-degree holders had better understanding about how to enter the job market with their skills we’d be much better off.

But at the individual level? If we keep dangling the carrot on the stick in front of a lost, idealistic grad student—they’ll probably keep chasing it. Like I did, they’ll tell themselves that it will be different for them. And it won’t be. But it will take a few years to learn that.

This blog is about all the great things you can do with a PhD. And I really believe you can turn a PhD into a great altac career. But that’s not enough reason to do a PhD in the first place. The departments which are now trying to recruit PhDs with the promise of “transferable skills” and the stories of their successful altac graduates perpetuate the nonsense that a PhD helps you be uniquely successful outside of academia. It doesn’t.

You can succeed with a PhD… but unless you work in a job that specifically requires a PhD (and there aren’t many of those), you’d probably be better off with a masters degree and five years of experience.

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