To PhD or not to PhD

I have always valued the power of writing to clarify ideas. I don’t mean clarifying them to a reader, but clarifying them to myself. Whether I’m using a vintage fountain pen or a keyboard, the simple act of stringing words together to explain my thoughts and feelings often provides illumination. Such illumination would be very helpful right now.

I’m a pretty practical guy. When I was deciding whether or not to matriculate in grad school, I thought about the potential upsides and downsides. Because my degree is only partly funded (by a generous offer of tuition remission from my employer at BC), I had to consider the financial strain of losing a pretty decent salary as well as the physical and emotional strain of working while in grad school. So far these stresses haven’t been too bad. I have taken three lessons from this: 1) I’m able to be honest with myself concerning my own capacities; 2) I am decent at anticipating my levels of stress; 3) I have relatively frugal tastes. From these three things comes a host of other questions that I won’t get into, but the important part for me right now is how they apply to my next big decision: whether to pursue the PhD or not.

There are probably dozens of reasons, both pro and con, to consider in this decision. I might make a chart at some point illustrating the various risks and rewards of various scenarios, but not today. Today is for one and only one question: “Why do I want a PhD?” The answer this question should be highly circumscribed, and should not rely on estimations of post-grad employment, geography, or feasibility. It could be stated as “What intrinsic motivations do I have for pursuing this degree?”

If I’m being honest with myself, I think the first reason that comes to mind is having the letters after my name, to be able to introduce myself as Dr. Blakeley. This is vain, and I know it. I want people to know that I am capable of attaining the pinnacle of academic achievement. I want to be known as a scholar. 

Other reasons that probably should follow (like wanting to be a college professor), don’t seem nearly as salient. Having known plenty of college professors and observing their lives, I’m not sure I would be happy as a professor. I enjoy research, which I think would make me happy doing my dissertation, and I like reading history, which will help me with coursework and comps. But I think the PhD is a professional degree, just like a JD or an MD – they certify one for a particular type of work. For history PhDs, this almost always means academia, with the somewhat rare exception of government or archival work. 

I’m starting to ramble, so I’ll finish this post with a simplistic but, I think, realistic statement: unless I can find a better motivation for obtaining a PhD, I probably should not aspire to one.


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