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In my opinion

Why do PhD students persist?

Getting a PhD is not about money or tenure - it is about the love of learning.


Ever since I declared my intent to pursue a PhD I have been inundated with articles by academics and disgruntled graduate students warning me of the dangers of a doctoral education. I’ve read all of the editorials from all of the major academic publications. Yet regardless of how many “there are no jobs,” “you’ll be a poverty-stricken adjunct forever,” “MOOCs are making traditional academics irrelevant,” and “you’ll be brainwashed into thinking all non-academic jobs are a failure” are thrown at me, here I stand, stubborn and starting a PhD in political science at York University this fall.

Granted, the situation is not quite so dire here in Canada as in the U.S.. According to a recent report by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (PDF), student support is more accessible, the job market is less saturated, funding is granted for longer periods, and sessional faculty are paid more—an average of $5,000 to $6,000 per course versus $2,500 to $3,000 in the United States. However at last count, fewer than 20 percent of PhD graduates in Canada manage to secure full-time academic positions, and that number has been dropping annually.

Why bother with a PhD? Why, regardless of all the warnings from well-meaning faculty members and former PhD students, do my peers and I continue to dive headfirst into a field that by all accounts will age, bankrupt and ruin us all? It’s tough to say, as no one has really bothered to ask us. Few publications have really ever sat down with incoming PhD students and said “okay, you know the risks, it doesn’t look good, so please, tell us, why do you persist?” Instead, everyone prefers to speculate, to speak for us, down to us, over us.

You can label us foolhardy, naïve, even delusional, but the reality is that I, and many other incoming PhD students, are too passionate about our research to imagine doing anything else. Sure, we worry about the feasibility of it all, but for us, PhDs are not about money or tenure — academia doesn’t afford either to most graduates anyway. For us, a doctoral education can’t simply be quantified in terms of economic viability because the pursuit of knowledge purely for knowledge’s sake is greater than bottom lines and profit margins.

As such, viewing every PhD student as either a future tenured academic or an utter failure is equally as problematic as gauging each Canadian citizen’s value only in terms of their purchasing power. And while we may have too many doctoral candidates competing for a shrinking number of professorships, can we really say that we have an excess of highly educated people being creative and pushing the advancement of human understanding?

Irrelevant PhDs? Many experts argue that there’s no such thing. Increasing economic and political inequality, aggravating climate catastrophes, technological revolutions, issues surrounding food security, population growth and disease transference —we need more people specialising in fields such as urban geography, engineering, sociology, health science, biotechnology, international relations, computer science, the list goes on.

We persist because we have to. Be it some theory we want to investigate, some disease we want to cure, or some conversation we want to be part of. And maybe someday we too will become jaded and bitter, writing editorial pleas to new generations of PhDs warning them not to get sucked in. But just as we choose to forge on, so too will they. We are all chasing knowledge because that’s what inquisitive minds like ours feel they need to do.

Adam Kingsmith is a PhD student in political science at York University.

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  1. Dr. Anthony Robinson / October 31, 2013 at 04:34

    And guess what, sometimes it doesn’t end when you defend your thesis. For some of us we continue with postdoc appointments and then a career in academia. I am a professor in engineering and by the time I finished my postdoc the friends I had graduated undergrad with had been in the ‘real world’ for nearly a decade…they had houses, cars, cottages; I had a PhD. Now even as a tenured academic we still pursue knowledge, not money. As one of my colleagues says, “If I wanted to make money I would work for industry”. Ain’t that the truth.

  2. SheriO / October 31, 2013 at 13:59

    I’m glad you used the word, persist, which comes from the work of Lovitts. Lovitts researched the causes and consequences of departure (Not dropping-out) from doctoral study.

    Her research with 816 degree completers and non-completers, faculty, and department heads clearly points not to the love of research, as a sticking point,as romantic as that notion may be, but problems with the social structure and cultural organization in graduate education that are lampooned in cartoons like Piled Higher and Deeper

  3. Jen / November 4, 2013 at 16:56

    For me, doing my PhD was an exciting job! And it came with 5 years guaranteed income and certainty. At 24, it all sounded awesome. And some of it was. “Love” was part of it but there was lots more, too.

  4. Fay Williams / November 7, 2013 at 05:36

    Allow me to contribute to this discussion. I have been in academia for over 20 years ,however, I received my PhD degree just three years ago. Seeking to obtain a PhD degree is a costly venture and when you have achieved the degree you will still be grasping because there is research to be done, conferences to attend and papers to publish. Pursuing and obtaining the doctoral degree is for special people who are seeking for new knowledge. Many times you don’t even think about employment until near the end. There are many academic jobs available but many times we research and study areas based on passion rather than based on the needs of academic community. Additionally, having pursued a course of study to its highest level we need to be flexible, go where the jobs are. There are lots of openings all over the world that need to be filled.

    Hang in there PhD students, I know it may be rough going, but I think that the progress made by countries in a large measure, is based on the level of research produced by academia. Can you imagine how tremendous it would be if we had larger numbers of PHD faculty and students contending about societal issues and challenges? My thoughts are that there would be much better decisions made.

  5. K Gies / November 8, 2013 at 12:29

    Thanks for writing this. In my view talk of ‘Love of learning’ gives the pursuit of a PhD that element of virtue. It sounds good and provides moral validation to the long hours and deferred gratification that comes with taking part in a program of intense study. Yet, it’s also viewing with rose-coloured classes a much more nuanced and complex matter. Other more practical motivations can be paramount, be they a desire to enter the professoriate, to find (albeit temporary) escape from a dire labour market, or because one simply does not know nor has had any guidance as to what else to do. A strong interest in a given subject matter certainly plays a role, but I suspect that it’s only one–and not even the utmost–among a number of factors.