Why you shouldn’t feel bad you didn’t go for (or finish) the Ph.D.

By WMAQ-TV, Chicago, via Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes when I tell people what I do for a living, they tell me they almost got a Ph.D. Sometimes, they say this unapologetically, just as a factoid of interest, but unfortunately sometimes it’s said with a direct or implied apology, and some sort of excuse. As if an explanation is required.

A Ph.D. degree is not the ultimate IQ test.

A Ph.D. is nothing more nor less than a degree required for a particular range of professions (mainly, teaching at the university level). It’s a very narrow degree, and one that is very rarely required. So why on earth would so many people feel bad for not getting one? If you don’t need or want a Ph.D., then you shouldn’t waste your time and money getting one!

Contrary to, apparently, popular belief, a Ph.D. doesn’t test intelligence. True, you probably need to have at least average intelligence to get admitted to any respectable Ph.D. program. But succeeding in a Ph.D. program really depends more on having the drive to complete that particular degree in that particular field than on anything else.

It’s not like intelligence and specialized knowledge are remotely exclusive to people with Ph.D.s. We all experience that in people we meet every day. Yet some people–especially those who are used to doing very well in school–internalize the idea that because they are smart, their success should be defined by achieving the highest possible degree. Well, no, not if that degree is only suitable for one narrow profession, which you might not want.

The people I know who got Ph.D.s (self included, of course) finished the degree mainly because of three factors.

The first and most important factor is that they were obsessed with their field. Some people do finish the degree and decide not to actually practice in the field, but pretty much always, if they finished, they at least had some kind of obsessive devotion to the subject. Sometimes it’s a healthy devotion, occasionally it borders on the pathological, but in any case it’s pretty extreme. Most people just aren’t that into—say—early nineteenth-century Russian women’s mysticism. And that’s okay. We need people with these kinds of interests, but we don’t need LOTS of people with these kinds of interests!

The second factor is that most people I know who finished Ph.D.s aren’t really good at much of anything else. I know that’s true for me. There are other things I can do if I must, but I’m not really very good at them. I’m quite good at researching and teaching the history of Russia, and to a lesser degree, Europe and the western world. Other stuff? I’m average at best, and with most things I’m completely incompetent. I didn’t just end up in a Ph.D. program because I’m pretty smart. Being pretty smart can land you in a lot of different places. I ended up in a Ph.D. program mainly because I wrote a quite decent essay about the upbringing of early nineteenth-century Russian heirs to the throne that had a fairly original argument in it when I was only 22. Not that many people can do that, or more accurately, very few people would want to bother to do that. But, the vast majority of the population can calculate interest rates, change a tire, manage a multi-line phone, and do a lot of other things I’ve singularly failed at (despite numerous sincere and concerted attempts!). We’ve all got our niches.

The third factor I’ve seen that separates those who finish Ph.D. programs from those who leave them or don’t attempt them, is that those who finish tend to have some kind of stubborn, perhaps even stupid, determination to finish no matter what, just because. People who finish psychologically have to finish. Those who do not finish often do not need to finish. And may very well be much healthier and better off for it. Have you read my posts about what academia is really like and what it pays, even when you’re lucky enough to get a tenure-track job?

While I’m talking about those who have the stubborn drive to finish, I would like to mention another phenomenon I’ve seen many times.

In the home stretch of finishing the Ph.D. dissertation, when it’s not quite almost-done but too much done to quit, everyone I know has had a moment of crisis when they decide that they absolutely must quit. It’s too much, it can’t be done, the person in question feels like an impostor, the person in question never really wanted it anyway, etc.

It’s important to distinguish between this very typical last-minute crisis of the almost-finished Ph.D. from the more serious existential crises of an earlier-stage graduate student who truly is uncertain about whether the degree is worth pursuing. When you’ve got multiple chapters of the dissertation written (even in draft from), you’re probably one of the hopeless ones who can’t really do anything else, and you may as well finish, since you’re so close. Just know that this crisis is completely typical. But if you’re not there yet and you really don’t feel motivated to get there, ask yourself why you think you should pursue a Ph.D.

If the only honest answer you can give yourself is that you can, because you’re smart enough, then maybe you shouldn’t bother. Plenty of people are smart enough to complete a Ph.D. Only a select few of us are stupid enough to actually follow through, and only because it’s the only thing we can and want to do. If that’s not you, then unburden yourself of the guilt and expectations that a Ph.D. equals, “what smart people do.”  A Ph.D. is usually a ticket to low pay and constant work. If you can think of an alternative you like better, by all means, get out.

(If you can’t think of an alternative and love what you do so much you’re willing to live on mac-n-cheese so you can spend all your time reading obscure monographs on the subject that makes your heart go pitter-patter, well, hello, kindred spirit.)


Further Reading: On Being Miserable in Grad School

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