Too Many PhDs?

We don’t have any right admitting PhD candidates when there aren’t any jobs for them.

In the past month, I’ve been in this conversation at least four times. It’s a little funny to hear it now, in 2017, when the academic job market has been failing since the late 1970s.  The job market for academic tenure-track jobs is so terrible there is no need to go into it here because it has been written about ad nauseam. I’m only half-joking when I say that after porn, it’s probably the most commonly searched topic on google.

Still, I don’t think that producing fewer Phds is the answer. We want a less educated populace why?

If you think about our nation, or even our planet as a collective, it is in all of our best interests to educate people who are capable of and who want to be educated. The public can only benefit from having non-academic PhDs among its ranks, in every possible sector of work. In my opinion, the more PhDs in the world, the better. It doesn’t matter what the degree is in, only that we produce people who are able to more easily see through bullshit, think critically, excel in analysis, examine the providence of a source,  and create reasonable, thoughtful arguments. These skills are something every workplace could benefit from. So no, I don’t think universities have an obligation to scale down how many PhDs they produce.

HOWEVER, and this is a pretty big however,  I’m not saying that you, yourself, personally should be in the PhD program. It is important to weigh out the benefits of society against the benefits of the individual. And of course, in this situation you get to put yourself first.

As an individual, it may not be in your best interest, financial or otherwise, to do a PhD. There are so many reasons to not do a PhD  that I could never list them all, and for many,  spending time in grad school could be disastrous.

For others though, the PhD can open doors that weren’t previously open.

Although the odds of getting a tenure-track academic job are not in my favor, I don’t regret doing the PhD at all.  It was the best possible way for me to spend my 20s. I got paid a decent stipend to read and write about topics that I’m deeply passionate about (pirates, mainly), and for the first time in my life, became eligible for grants that allowed me to see the world: I did all-expenses-paid research in Ghana, the Netherlands, Germany,  Sweden, and England, and presented my findings at conferences in places like Barbados and Curaҫao. I analyzed historic documents that had been untouched for centuries. I was the first living person to know things. Nothing compares to that rush.

And now? Now I am credentialed. I have a PhD in history from a top-20 University. That has allowed me to have a super-engaging job working with a digital archive, and to do really fun side projects as a historical consultant. I’ve worked on films and now, a pirate-themed tabletop role-playing game. I’m also writing trade history books- the kind filled with pirate battles and blood that you give to your dad on his birthday. I’ve been invited to really fun speaking engagements, both academic and not, and I love getting my pirate on in all of these diverse ways.

So maybe I’m lucky, but I think if you have a passion and can take the possible hit in earning potential, then go for it. If you think about doing the PhD as a necessary step on the road to getting a job as a professor, you are going to have a miserable time of it. But if you think of doing the PhD itself as the prize at the end of the rainbow, it will yield some unexpectedly cool outcomes. No, there are no guarantees, but how many people in this world get to spend half a decade or more doing exactly what they want and love? And then how many more get to take away all of those experiences and find real-life applications for them?

This might be the millennial within talking, but there’s something to be said for following your passion, and I think sometimes in academia we can feel peer pressure that discourages us from doing that. But life is short and uncertain, and it’s just not worthwhile to ignore your heart.

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