Daniel Lemire's blog

, 5 min read

Should you get a PhD?

Most people like to learn, some like it more than others… and they decide to focus their life on learning. They become scholars. I think it is a mistake to pursue a Ph.D. for its own sake but it is not a mistake to pursue scholarship.

In the good old days, people received a Ph.D. as a recognition of their status as a scholar. To industrialize and normalize the process, but the Ph.D. is just a badge or a signal, not what makes a scholar.

The Ph.D. represents, or at least represented, a core badge of honor for a scholar. Veblen, in the theory of the leisure class, argued that we are not driven by utility, but rather by social status. Thus many people to pursue a Ph.D. for status. We must not exaggerate this prestige however. Going to a bar and telling girls or boys that you have a Ph.D. won’t improve your odds. And there are deeper issues:

  • The Ph.D. effectively delays your entry in the real world by 5 years, give or take. You will learn a lot, but you learn a lot in the real world too. Such a delay in your life may soon look a bit more like a temporary escape from reality. It is an easy way out.
  • Since the seventies, but more acutely since the eighties, and partially by design, there has been a glut of Ph.D.s. This means that once you get your Ph.D., you will be in a sea of other Ph.D.s, with relatively few desirable jobs, and even fewer desirable jobs where you would want to work. Increasingly, foreign countries like China are awarding reputable Ph.D.s as well, so the glut is not going away. Why do I say that it is by design? Because instead of letting the market regulates the number of people going for a Ph.D., governments are working hard to entice more young people to go for the Ph.D. (despite the poor job market) by awarding scholarships or other support. Hence, unlike accountants or M.D.s, your Ph.D. does not grant you an exclusive access to a lucrative job category. Rather, you enter an overcrowded market. (There are exceptions. But do not go on instinct.)
  • Getting a Ph.D. is typically not a huge accomplishment if you are smart. It has more to do with proving you can conform than anything else. This explains why there is a glut and why the “prestige” associated with the Ph.D. is relatively fragile. That’s why we ended with books like Getting a Ph.D. is not enough. The Ph.D. is more like an initial badge: it only looks like a big deal when you don’t have one.
  • To derive any financial benefit from a Ph.D., you must join a large organization. This means that to be a “true” Ph.D., you have to become a bureaucrat. A professor at a research institution might spend 30% of his time seeking funding. Forget about spending your time daydreaming about great ideas: you will be filling forms, networking, attending meetings, and so on. Oh! You might be a prestigious bureaucrat, but that’s what you’ll be nevertheless, a bureaucrat. You might think that you’ll be free, but this freedom is narrow. To get funded, you must play the game. It used to be that one in a thousand researchers was as prolific as Einstein: we now have a few Einsteins per department. It is not that people have been getting smarter, is that they game the system by publishing and citing work entirely as a pursuit of prestige. And that is if you are successful: if you fail to secure a research position, you may end up going from post-doc to post-doc until you settle on a regular position that you could have gotten without the Ph.D.
  • To continue deriving prestige from your Ph.D., you should stay away from utilitarian work. The problem is that working on real problems makes you smart. The German philosopher Heidegger famously made this point with a hammer. To paraphrase him, it is not by staring at a hammer that we learn about hammers. I have spent most of my adult life around Ph.D.s, and they aren’t very smart on average. At best, they are focused. Many of them have culture. But they aren’t smart on what matters, they are just experts at an academic game.

My practical recommendations:

  • If you are young and smart, and you want to be a scholar, and must pursue a Ph.D., at least make sure to select one of the few forgotten fields where there is no glut of Ph.D.s. Be warned that there are fewer such fields than you think.
  • In all likelihood, even if you want to be a scholar, you are better off finding a good job of some sort even if it is not what you dream about and spending some time on your research. Initially, you won’t be able to spend as much time on your scholarship as you want. But over time, after a decade or two, you might earn the freedom to spend more and more time on it. You may even get paid for it eventually. Lots of people with regular jobs write books and articles. Eventually, they acquire as much and more prestige than people who went the “Ph.D. way”. Whatever prestige you acquire will be due to your contributions, not some game you played. It will keep you honest. Some people will argue that without a PhD, or a formal research position, you cannot realistically be a scholar. What they mean is that you will not be able to pursue the academic game without such positions. But there are plenty of very successful scholars outside of this scope. In computer science, we have people like C. J. Date or J. M. Bach who made lasting contributions to their respective fields without any help from academia.

Source: This post is an edited version of an answer I gave on Quora.

Further reading: Secrets of a Buccaneer-Scholar