To PhD or Not to PhD: That is the Question

by Daphne M. Penn 

I remember when I first decided that I wanted to pursue a PhD. It was two weeks from my 25th birthday, I was in the middle of a quarter-life crisis after my childhood bestie suddenly passed away, and as a third year elementary school teacher approaching testing season, I was a bit disillusioned with my current career.  I was feeling both weary and restless, and I knew I needed some type of change. I had spent the 12 months prior wavering back and forth about whether I wanted to apply to law school – despite the fact that I didn’t really want to practice law. “Why?” you ask. Because credentialism. Essentially, I knew that I was getting older, I wanted to pursue further schooling, and while I was passionate about education and absolutely LOVED my students, I was not completely satisfied with my experiences as a K-12 teacher.  Based on cursory research and a few conversations with my roommate who had been applying to doctoral programs, I felt that a PhD was my ticket to pursuing my ultimate purpose – which, if I’m being completely honest, I’m still trying to figure out. With being said, I decided to do what millions of other Americans do when they aren’t sure about their path – I applied and accepted an offer to graduate school.

Like many of my colleagues – fellow Black grads in particular – I entered my program with grand ideas about what I would be able to accomplish during my program and after I had earned my PhD.  In my mind, my Sociology PhD program was going to provide me with the knowledge, skills, and ability to change the world and contribute to communities of color.  Yes, I knew that a PhD program was about research, but to be honest, I had very little research experience before attending graduate school and could not fully appreciate the methodological variety associated with social science research.  When I began my studies, I simply assumed that I would be in the field, directly learning from and talking with individuals  whose experiences could shed light on social and educational inequality in America.  My bubble was burst the moment someone introduced me to nationally representative data – where names become randomly assigned id numbers and people’s thoughts, beliefs, and experiences are recorded as zeros, ones, and twos – and told me to write a research question based on predetermined variables.  Additionally, any ideas I had about pursuing a PhD explicitly for the purpose of community change were quickly squashed when my cohort and I were told bluntly, “you’re training to become a sociologist, not a social worker.”

Needless to say, I was once again disillusioned about my career choice, but it was my own fault. I had ultimately embarked on a 5-8 year journey without completely knowing what I had gotten myself into and without really examining whether I was taking the most efficient path to my ultimate destination. Therefore, I spent the first year of my program deeply reflecting on whether I’d continue to pursue my PhD or whether I would “master out.”  Thankfully, I figured out that I enjoy teaching and research – when conducted on my own terms – but that could have been a very expensive lesson given that I had depleted my savings moving from Atlanta, GA to the corn fields of Indiana. Given that I would hate for you, yes you, to spend thousands on applications and moving, quit a stable job, and potentially delay pursuing your purpose in life, it might be a great idea to take time and reflect on whether you truly want or even need a PhD.  Below are a few questions that I had to ask myself before confidently saying that a PhD would, indeed, be useful for me; I encourage you to ask yourself the same questions:

  1. Do I really need a PhD to pursue my goal of changing the world as I see fit? Will this really help me fulfill my purpose or am I simply seeking three additional letters behind my name?
  2. Do I really need a PhD to obtain the job that I want in the future? Will my future employer find this degree useful or  will I end up overqualified (or lack the job experience)  for what I really want to do?
  3. Do I enjoy teaching?  Do I want to teach at a postsecondary institution?
  4. Do I really want to spend the next 5-8 years of my life, and potentially my entire life, conducting research on a specific area of study?
  5. What are the different research methods? What type of research do I want to conduct (qualitative research, action research, quantitative research, and etc)?
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