The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts noticed that last week’s “Cult of the PhD” essay generated some feedback, in the form of comments, reply tweets, message boards, columns and, wittingly or not, the Onion. Today, the Spoiler Alerts staff responds!!
[Note: the following are composite questions grafted together from the myriad responses I’ve read. They might be at variance with your particular response — which I’m absolutely doing out of personal spite toward you.]
Q: So you, a professor, are telling potential entrants into your labor market to not get the degree required to become a professor. Aren’t you just limiting supply so you can make more money?
A: If I were 20 years younger, this would be a completely valid criticism. As it is, I’m a full professor at a really good school of international affairs. A bumper crop of newly-minted PhDs seven years from now has no appreciable effect on me.
Or, to put it another way: I. Am. Bulletproof.
Q: Why did you only advise people to get a PhD if they were accepted into a top-20 program? Why not top 25 or top 30?
A: That’s a fair rejoinder! Top 25 might make more sense, or perhaps top 30. But my point is that the odds of getting an academic position that you’ve been conditioned to want if you are in one of these programs start to decline precipitously the further you move down the rankings. So just be aware of that correlation.
Q: I went to a really low-ranked PhD-granting institution, and now I’m tenured and have a great job. My personal narrative therefore single-handedly falsifies your argument. FEEL SHAME!!!!
A: Good for you! That’s a tough road to travel, and you’ve traversed it successfully. But I would ask you to think about your cohort of peers and consider whether you are the exception or the rule to that cohort.
This is a real problem, because everyone in every PhD program thinks that they are exceptional. You could tell an entering class of PhD students in political science: “Stand up, look to your left. Now look to your right. Only one of you will have a good tenure-track job at the end of your degree program.” Every student will think to themselves, “I will be the successful one!” Every. One. And if you’re foolhardy enough to go for a PhD, you need this degree of confidence. But the ethical thing to do is at least inform potential graduate students about the odds that they face.
Q: I want to pursue a policy career. What if, instead of getting a PhD at a traditional political science department, I get a PhD at a public policy school? Or a British school that has fewer requirements?
A: This is also a fair point, and these are viable career options for aspiring policy wonks. I teach at a public policy school, and certainly the vast majority of our fine graduates have gone on to pursue successful careers in international affairs.
I would offer two cautionary warnings, however. First, these options will restrict your ability to pursue the academic option in the United States. The simple fact is that both British and public policy PhD programs do not offer the same degree of methodological training as traditional departments. Furthermore, U.S. departments of political science are fully aware of the distinctions among a PhD from, say, The Ohio State University, SAIS and Oxford. If you don’t want to pursue an academic career, then this is not that big of a problem. But if you’re entertaining that as an option, think hard about how much you want to preclude it.
Second, the funding at, say, public policy schools is usually not as generous as at traditional PhD-granting departments. So you might want to factor that budget constraint into your cost-benefit analysis, as well.
Q: I want an academic career in international affairs, but I’m primarily interested in the teaching, not the research. So do I really need to care about the ranking of my PhD department?
A: As I said initially, if you want to be a professor, you have to get a PhD. If your career aspirations are to teach at a small school in eastern Washington state, then it’s true that a PhD from a lower-ranked institution might have an advantage because the school believes that they will have a decent chance of hiring you.
But I’m honestly unsure of the validity of this hypothesis, for a few reasons. First, I cannot stress enough the cult-like powers of a PhD program. Doctoral programs can have a strong influence on the weak-minded. Even if you’re pretty sure what you want going into a program, that can change as you’re surrounded by peers who want something different. You might think you’re strong-willed, but day after day of hearing how a top-tier research university position is the be-all, end-all of life can have strange effects on your psyche.
Second, the post-2008 dearth of tenure-track faculty lines and subsequent glut of PhDs in international affairs permits even small, not-well-located schools to be pickier and choosier about the professors they hire. And since even these schools often aspire to become better ranked, develop their own doctoral programs and so forth, they also might, all else equal, be inclined to hire people from more prestigious PhD programs.
Q: No matter what you say, there is still a strong wage premium for well-educated workers. So even if I don’t become a professor, this still feels like the right choice to make.
A: You might be right, but first read Noah Smith’s Bloomberg column for an excellent breakdown of this very question. And again, my point is that while a PhD can contribute to a successful career, it can also warp your definition of a successful career. If you believe yourself to be able to resist these socializing pressures, that’s great. But make no mistake, these pressures are very real and very powerful.
So, again: You’ve. Been. Warned. What you do with this warning is entirely up to you.