This is sparked by reading someone’s post about considering whether to start a Ph D,and simultaneously seeing two other people pick up on
I get a lot of students coming through my office asking how they can end up with a job like mine (ie medium-level international politics in the NGO sector). Usually one of the questions is “Where did you do your Ph D?” – the assumption being that it was a key part of my career strategy.
It was not. Until late 1996 I thought I was going to be an academic working in the obscurity of the history of science. My doctorate, available in undersold book form, tracked the reaction of the Irish scientific community to the political turmoil of the early 20th century. My heart, however, remained (and to an extent still does) with my M Phil work on medieval astrology. But, alas, there are few career opportunities in that; and I didn’t really have the application or interest in the subject to invest sufficient time and effort in it. In late 1996 I had an interview for the perfect job in the field; but I blew it due to insufficient preparation, and I knew I had not prepared sufficiently. (I was still the runner-up candidate; they kindly called and told me precisely where I had gone wrong.)
At the time I was working in the early stages of the Northern Ireland peace talks as an assistant to the Alliance Party’s delegation. I went for a weekend in Waterford as a fraternal delegate to the Young Fine Gael conference. This was during the short-lived Bruton coalition, and Fine Gael were the largest government party; half the cabinet was there. I looked around and realised that even if the talks up north went well (and they were not going well) my political future could not possibly lead to anything this interesting if I stayed in Belfast. I came home, found in my email a job advert to do political development work in Bosnia, and the rest is history.
So for the next few years I took a very anti-Ph D line. I’d been working on the damn thing from 1991 – a year as a research assistant, working on the project, then three years as a full-time student, and another year with a fellowship at the QUB Institute of Irish Studies, and all the time the sense that the target was not getting any closer, and a feeling that my heart wasn’t in it, and that even once the f*cking thesis was finished there was not really much of a career to look forward to. This was accentuated by the fact that once I got the Bosnia job, it took me about three weeks to finish and hand in the thesis, three weeks that I could really have put into it any time in the previous two years, if I had wanted to. The effect of having spent five and a half years of my life on this project on my career has been much the same as if I had decided to spend three years in professional politics instead, which I would have enjoyed much more. Whenever any of my colleagues or friends muttered to me that they were thinking about doing a Ph D, my advice to them was simple – “Don’t!”
I’m getting over it now. The fact that I can put “Dr” in front of my name does help overcome the disarming effect of my youthful good looks – though that will not be a problem anyway for much longer! The writing skills one gains, especially for someone like me who never wrote essays as an undergraduate, are useful (though would be equally if not better honed by work as a journalist). The most useful skill is simply to walk away from it half-done – of the three sections I had projected for the thesis I completed only two, but it was acceptable to the examiners anyway.
I also have to admit that of my three heads of office in the field, two actually have Ph D’s in the relevant part of the world and the third has a Master’s. So having a doctorate doesn’t do any harm, if you want to work in jobs where you make a living through non-fiction writing. And if you want to be an academic it is, of course, essential.
But… I think of my two American friends, who both did stunningly original work in their PhD’s in history of science, and both went to work on Wall Street instead, and both are nostalgic for the field they “couldn’t afford” to work in. I think of my good friend Sean who has decided this month to throw in the towel on his Cambridge history Ph D and concentrate on developing a real career as a librarian. I think of the many people I knew in Belfast who started but could not finish their Ph D’s – and the fact that they were not in any way less able than those who did finish. It’s a soul-destroying experience, the chance of failure – after many years invested in the project – is dauntingly high, and the rewards – unless you are committed to an academic career – are pretty intangible.
Still, having said all that, my reaction no when people tell me they are doing a doctorate is no longer “Don’t”, it’s “Good luck!”
Taught masters courses, now, they’re a completely different matter…