Friday, November 9, 2012

For the Sake of Passion … Is a PhD Really Worth It?

I often get questions from friends and undergraduate students who are considering graduate school. Usually, they simply want to know if it is worth it. More specifically, there are two questions that seem to pique people’s curiosity about getting a PhD. The first is the amount of sheer work (and by extension time) that it takes. The other, is the massive amount of debt that I have accrued over the last 10 years.

Let’s start with the most basic fact. Getting a PhD will consume your life.

I do not tend to notice, because I LOVE what I do.

First, the work question is actually difficult for me to explain to others. I am a bookworm and a geek and a dork. I sometimes read until all the blood runs out of my hands and I can no longer hold up the book. I quit smoking inside my house because of the tar buildup inside my computer.* I have wanted to write books since before I could really even read. This does not feel like “work” to me. I cannot imagine doing anything else. At the end of the day I am more comfortable sitting in class than I am anywhere else in the world. I can be debilitating shy in many situations, but it will magically disappear when I teach. I feel that I am made for this. The question is are you?

I could not do this without passion for the subject and for education in general. If you have that passion, then it is a good idea and the debt won't matter to you because you will do anything for what you love. For me this is also about belief. The world is an ugly place and we (humans) face serious problems. Education is our answer. I believe that an educated populace leads to a stronger world. We need people with critical thinking skills to push us forward. We face recessions, corruption, poverty, global warming, racism, and sexism, just to name a few. These are big problems that cannot be solved by a single person, let alone a single country. The world needs an educated base, a joint effort we all can contribute to. But how can we tackle these issues when their very existence is still doubted by some?

I do not believe that I will change the world. I believe only that I can add but one drop of water into a dry ocean bed and then wait for all the other drops to finish filling the hole. This isn’t discouraging. It can’t be. Every drop counts and I will not just stand by. So, is it worth it? I guess that depends on what you mean by “worth.” I feel that it is worth it and I have never regretted the decision to follow this path. It is worth it because passion, happiness, and education are fundamentally important to me. Are they important to you?
I know many people who go to graduate school just to get a higher pay grade. That is their choice, but if that is the definition of “worth” that you are looking for then I cannot help you. Not only did I not choose a field with any expectation of becoming rich, but on a more practical level, I haven’t graduated yet. Will a PhD in anthropology prove to be financially “worth” it? I have no idea.

I feel the need to warn you, though. Everyone always asks me about my debt, but that is not the only problem you will face. I cannot comment on all places, but in American culture there is a stigma attached to being educated. I have been told to my face that my opinion on matters of daily life and politics do not matter because I live in the ivory tower and know nothing of the “real world.” I will get approached by men occasionally just to have them immediately excuse themselves once they hear what I do for a living… and every guy I have actually managed to date has at one time or another gotten frustrated and started an argument with me over matters of school. I love the world I choose to live in, but it can get lonely.

I have been in college now for over 10 years. I am over $100,000USD in debt from student loans. I have fulfilled many of my childhood dreams. Pursuing a PhD is not something someone else can tell you is a good idea. It is something you must decide for yourself. This is your life. It will cost you years and money that you will never get back. You must ask yourself what is important to you and what you want to do with your life.

*I have since quit completely, but at that time my only concern was for my beautiful desktop.


  1. The corollary to this is when people consider getting a PhD for some future career goal, and that goal does not include academia. I'm very cautious to recommend going through it if all someone is thinking about is how it helps them later. If they can't savor the moments and enjoy just learning for learning's sake, it's dangerous to get one. And in today's climate, even if their eventual goal is to go into academia, there's still a whole lot of risk.

  2. I completely agree. Although I know it is much less extreme I feel this way about undergraduate degrees as well. The university is supposed to be a place of higher learning and yet so many students have no desire to learn anything at all. They just want better jobs. Of course doing this for 4-5 years for a B.S. is much less extreme than doing it for a PhD.