Day 63: I Wish I Had Never Done a PhD

Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.” – Oscar Wilde

“To live is not to breathe but to act.” ― Jean-Jacques Rousseau

This is an afterthought, which, sadly, occurred to me six years after I had started my Ph.D. This thought came to me when I was answering a series of questions required by the graduate school toward the end of my thesis submission process. One question was:

“If you could make a decision on whether or not you would do a PhD again, would you have done your PhD?

“Of course, I would have.” That was my initial reaction. “What a stupid question,” I felt. And then, when I was about to click the button to submit the answer, I had a second thought. I suddenly began to have the feelings of doubt. Some of which were self-doubts, and some were doubts, in general, about my answer, about how I think about, and about whether or not “of course” was the right answer. This was the kind of questionnaire about which I did not think anyone would care. The graduate school probably wanted to come up with a set of report to show that most students were happy with the program. But have I ever been one of those students? (That said, it seems to be the case that the graduate really wants to know the value of its PhD program owing to a series of harsh critiques on the enterprise as a whole.)

What makes someone want to do a PhD?

I am sure that many people have different reasons. For some fields of study, however, not getting a PhD is not an option, as the PhD is in itself those fields’ professional degrees, needed by graduates in those fields to qualify to join the workforce. So, let’s keep this conversation to the PhDs that are optional, rather than required, such as in humanities and social sciences. I want a PhD because ultimately I want to teach, and to be qualified to do so, having a PhD helps although it is not always required. Many people think of PhDs as a pathway to job security. Many people, strangely enough (at least to me) think of PhDs as ways to kill time.

Let’s say there are generally three things that people aim for in life. Let’s simplistically put them in three broad categories: money, respect, fame, and perhaps, knowledge.

First and foremost, for people who want to be respected, they should not get a PhD. In the society today, the chances are that you will be respected if you have money (or fame). Also in the world today, there are many more ways of becoming innovative entrepreneurs making money at a very young age than ever. This is a trend set by many in the technology fields, giving rise to an entourage of millennials who see going to college as a complete waste of time and opportunity. Time is money, and youth cannot be reversed (trust me; been there). It is, in fact, easier to be respected in the world today by first making money, and then using the money to raise one’s fame, and then using the fame to spread the words about what you think you know – in that order. People tend to listen to your words that way rather than from your words written in academic books. So, if getting a PhD is for the respect. The answer is no.

What about those who cannot find a job and therefore want to buy time from spending time getting a degree, since universities are such safe places? From my multiple personal encounters with people who have this attitude, there’s a high chance that they would get out of the program both indebted and empty-handed. As many types of research have shown, too, if buying time is your goal, getting an internship with businesses and learning from amazing Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) we have available for free today are much more effective methods to learn the transferable skills that you’d need to get yourself going or get back on your path.

Getting a PhD as a way of making money, either through having a job or having a job security, then? You have got to be kidding me. The answer is also no, which leaves us only one reason for wanting a PhD: To seek to know very deeply about something. How about that?

Well, if the time and money are not your concerns, then yes. But if they are problems; Then no. That’s exactly my problem with my own PhD

A few years back I met a student applying for a PhD program at our department who shared with me her admirably frank view about getting a PhD: “It’s a fast-track to receive respected from other people,” she said. At the time, I had already started my research, so I knew that PhD was not all about that. In fact, as I always thought PhD was largely about research, I felt that it would also be important to ask her idea regarding her research. “I don’t have any ideas about my research; I’ll do anything that my future advisor would want me to do,” she said and then continued:

You know, Non, all I want is somewhere to spend the next 5-6 years of my life getting paid just to build my cultural capital; at the end, I don’t really care about the output of my PhD, and as I said, I see it as a fast track to “get people to respect you.”

Those who know me well can probably guess what my reaction was toward her attitude toward PhD. I never spoke to her again ever since. The sad part is that this conversation was the beginning of a whole new perspective that I have on why many have decided to do a PhD. She might  be right after all. We are living in search of respect. I had, then, begun to look around and found that many people, even those who were my comrades-in-arms were no different. “Don’t be too idealistic, Non,” one of them said to me. Turns out I could only think of a few people who have gotten themselves into the PhD program for the same reason: The love for research.

In the past ten years, I have been working in one geographic area, and almost exclusively on one issue: Shanghai, and how to bridge the gap between architecture and other academic fields. This way of thinking has been with me ever since I was exposed to anthropology and realized the potential of such field in enriching architecture, which could make a different in the real world. Good architecture saves lives, incubates good social relations, and transforms a society through its built quality – whether that be monumentality or else. This was the sole reason for me to leave my home in Thailand and to depart from my family, relatives, and friends. The time spent on learning things about which I have been passionate has a price that has to be paid. After ten years of living abroad, I barely know any of my friends anymore. Good friends and lovers are now just acquaintances who I only know of through their Facebook pages, and lovers have gone on to establish their own families without me. I also did not get to stay close to two of my grandparents, to whom I was very close, when they were terminally ill. The saddest part was that I could have spent those ten years with my father, who also passed away during the time I was doing my PhD.

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Contrary to many people’s perceptions about PhD, my PhD did involve a lot of reading and writing, but also a lot of physical hardship living in a dilapidated housing unit in order to understand the life and social relations of the people to whom I would like my work to be useful. Photo credit: Sue Anne Tay

Now, I can’t think of a better way to take my argument regarding the useless of the Ph.D. to the next step than to answer some of the questions that I have had recently received from colleagues, friends, and former students who were curious about what I thought I had learned from doing a PhD.

Q: I want to teach so I want a PhD What do you think?

Non: Teaching in a higher educational institution often requires a PhD, but that is not always the case. There are many people who do not have PhDs but are teaching at universities. Good universities, in fact, are going out of this conventional method to hire people without PhDs: thinkers, movers and shakers in emerging fields, writers (especially those who have awards in hand) and so on. It is true that getting these accolades take as much sacrifice, but from an investment perspective, one might as well shoot for that from the get-go. Most of them are famous and therefore they are being hired to teach. Because they write books or have worked in established companies and firms, their experience and skills are sought after by the universities who want their students to learn from the professionals rather than academics who often do not understand the real world. Also, there are many PhDs who will never get to teach because there are simply not enough jobs for them in academia. That is to say, getting a PhD doesn’t guarantee any teaching job — there’re too many PhD graduates when compared to available teaching jobs so this problem has to do with basic notion of demand-supply.

Q: Apart from the demand-supply problem, why do you think many PhD graduates don’t get jobs in academia?

Non: That has to do with the nature of many PhD programs, which do not teach PhD students how to teach. Most of those programs are research-based. Also, most of them focus on getting the students to do work for their professors and then graduate. Second, even PhD programs that were once known for training their graduates to teach are encountering financial problems, making it more sensible for them to reduce the period of time once made available for teaching training. So, many PhD graduates are having problems with how to be good teachers, and for that reason they are not that employable.

Q: Getting a PhD makes people respect you?

Non: Perhaps, having a PhD may have the potential of drawing a pool of superficial people toward you. These are people who are likely to respect you because of your degree and not because of who you are. By accepting respect from these people, you are making yourself an accomplice to social inequality because you are simply accepting the idea that a random status marker (i.e., Ph.D.) could, in actuality, change you to a respectable person. That is to say, only people who do not respect themselves enough think that way. I personally never respect anyone just because they have PhDs and would be very mad if that which is the only reason why anyone would respect me.

Q: Getting a PhD is not a dinner party. It is hard, right?

Non: I like how you are quoting Chairman Mao there (“revolution is not a dinner party”)! No, nothing is a dinner party. If you ask Jean-Paul Sartre, even the dinner party itself is not a dinner party. It’s a weird thing that we human beings have invented to ritualize our way of socializing, but that’s a topic for another time. I think getting PhD is not as hard as I thought. In fact, as a financially struggling graduate student, I have learned quite a few things. I had to teach to survive, so I did, but I also used that opportunity to master of my teaching skills. I never turned down the opportunity to teach or to assist in teaching even if some of the opportunities were unpaid. In my mind, having someone listening to what I had to say about what I wanted to be able to teach well was already in itself a great opportunity. I should be paying my audience for having to listen, sometimes, to my complete nonsense! I had to juggle two or three tasks to make ends meet. During the first few years of my doctoral education, I worked as a resident advisor at a fraternity house (not the easy kind where you get a free housing just by being there), taught part-time at a local university, guest lectured at universities abroad, wrote articles for popular magazines, and so on. All of this was to pay my bills and to have some money to send home to my mother. Our awful financial situation at home (it was actually never good) made my life as a PhD student quite difficult, but thanks to the fact that members of our extended family in Thailand have always supported each other — and supported me — I was able to get to the end of the process

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One of the few things that is enjoyable about being a researcher is working on issues of which people are interested in learning deeper aspects in order to make a difference in their life  In the Essays (1580), the philosopher Michel de Montaigne writes: “If man were wise, he would gauge the true worth of anything by its usefulness and appropriateness to his life.” Photo credit: Shanghai Jiaotong University

Q: So, was it hard getting a PhD?

Non: I can only speak from my personal experience, which is no. In fact, it was not hard at all. I got my PhD in six years. The minimum length for a PhD in anthropology, I believe, was three to four years, which is reserved for those who do not need money from the school and therefore do not have to spend a year teaching just to receive stipends, and those who conduct research in their first language, who therefore do not have to spend time learning the second or, to many, even third language. A “fast-track” PhD for those who need to learn another language and need money is five years. I got mine in six because I had to take a year off during my fourth and sixth year to work in order to survive. Otherwise, I believe, I could also get my PhD in five years or less.

Q: Do you feel as though you have made a difference in the world with your work?

Non: No. Not at all. That’s the biggest problem I have with my PhD. I could have gone into journalism or architecture and do the same. With the advent of technology, free online courses, MOOCs, etc., I could have taught myself what I needed to know. Most of the time I have learned about what I wanted to learn by myself anyway though reading and watching my favorite MOOCs (if you wonder which ones they are, I have quite a few suggestions on my blog). I could have spent the six years in the field, doing things, and making the differences in the world felt by the community that I cared, and by myself, already. Of course I cannot possibly know for sure if that would be the case. One thing I know, though, is that I am persistent and I would have made my life and my work meaningful to myself, and to others, with or without being enrolled in a PhD program.

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Me in my youth, trying to find out how to save the world through education — defined by me later on as “what I mistakenly and naively believed then to be one of the few reliable solutions to the problems we had in the world.”

Q: Would your life be different had you not done a PhD?

Non: Absolutely. In a way, I would have questioned traditional values less. I would have been much more conservative. I would have also be much less critical about how I think about the meaning of it all. I would have been like Mike, a former colleague who I often quote whenever I need to refer to someone who doesn’t give a damn about critical thinking, who believes that his only purpose in life is to follow his parents’ path, which is to get a degree (any degrees), get married, and have a kid. Seriously. I dislike Mike so much, I believe, partly because he is a reflection of who I was. I hated that part of myself when I was in my 20s — the part that seems to be critical only insofar as the conservatives would be approving of me and therefore giving me easy time. Had I not done my PhD, I would have been like that.

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“My youth,” which is what I want to define as something that a PhD has already taken from me way before I realized that I had it and had gotten to use it. Photo credit: My youngself and the tripod — this may have been among one of the world’s first selifies.

I would have mindlessly gotten married because I thought it was about time, that I needed to, and that I thought I would not be able to live my life being cast aside as a leftover. I would have tried to create another human being to suffer in a world of which I myself do not even know the meaning. That said, I would be swimming with the mainstream, which would probably make me content. I would just like most people living in Plato’s Cave, living with limited lighting, looking at the world through shadows of objects, and believing that they were real and that the Cave itself was the world and that there was no way out. All of this might not seem like a negative thing and seems rather to suggest how enlightening it can be to do a PhD That said, the point is that there is always comfort in conforming. Doing a proper PhD will expose one to unconventional ideas and will therefore make one’s life more difficult. It’s your choice. I have a hard life today because I am questioning everything thanks to having done the PhD. Is it a good thing? The answer: I really don’t know. It’s like having opened the Pandora’s Box. It is impossible to imagine what it was like before it was opened.

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One of the few moments, also, that make me proud of being a researcher (which I could have done without needing a PhD) is when those in charge of the process of change wants to hear what I have to say about what I have spent time studying. Photo credit: Global Times

 Q: Was it fun, though, I mean, doing a PhD?

Non: Yes, despite the ups and downs in terms of my financial situation, these past six years have been like a work-holiday for me. I got to meet many people. I got to read so many books. Some of them have changed the way I think about life. I got to travel to places to which I otherwise would not have any reasons (and invitations) to go. I learned how to teach, how to express my ideas, and how to write with grace and clarity. That said, this might actually be just me. Many PhD graduates, in fact, write with muddling complexity and obfuscating prose and shamelessly call it “academic.” For me, academic work is what people can communicate with, and I expect nothing less.

 Q: Getting a PhD is super cool, right?

Non: Are you f***ing serious?

I began by thinking about my personal reasons. Why not having done a PhD. would have been a better choice for me. Ever since I had earned an undergrad degree in architecture, I have always been hungry to learn more, which might have been because I was young and I did not have a good undergraduate education thus I wanted to see how far I could push myself. Many of my heroes and heroines in life have PhDs; hence, as I was looking up to them, I also wanted to see if I could get one. So, with that in mind, a young and reckless youth in his early 20s begun his quest to get a PhD, which began with an advanced research master’s degree.

At that point, I was still happy with studying. In fact, I would love to take more courses and graduate even later from that first master’s program at MIT had I received more financial support. That master’s degree left me hungry, so I had decided to embark on another one. By the time I was finishing that second one, it seemed that the only sensible path for me was to get a PhD — I had a project that I really wanted to pursue and a prospective advisor who thought that such a project would make a good addition to his program at Harvard. Looking back, it was not all that easy emotionally. During the past decade of my intellectual endeavor to get three master’s degrees and a doctorate, I have lost three grandparents and a father; all of whom I had been very close to. As I had been living abroad, I could only weep in silence and alone. Every time I heard the news I felt as though it would be fine if my life were to end that very moment. What kept me together, away from home, were the words and support from my extended family.

During the past six years, there have been, of course, times that I felt as though I was realizing that I was on the wrong path, but I preferred trying different methods to trick myself that I was on the right track than to accept it. Now, with a Ph.D. in hand, I have never felt so sorry about how I had spent my last six years: Six years that I could have spent to make a difference in the world; the six years that nature had equipped me with youth and its productive persistence and recklessness; the six years during which I had so much time to cultivate many natural and practical thoughts about how I would like to live the rest of my life. But nothing has been worse than the fact that I had not learned any other transferable skills during the last six years because all I had been doing was technical reading and academic writing. I have lowered my expectation of academia thanks to the voice of my colleague that has never left my ear: “You are too idealistic.” But even that – even after I have lowered my standards – I still see academia as being a place in which it is utterly hard to get anything started let alone do something groundbreaking off the ground. In other words, I have lost my hope. Formal education, just like any other businesses from which I had been running away, is no different and as hopeless as the mode of elitistic reproduction about which Oscar Wilde and Jean-Jacques Rousseau once warned us long time ago (and the irony is that had I not entered academia I would not have the opportunity to read Wilde’s and Rousseau’s).

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What is the difference between a hyphen and a comma? The picture above should clarify. Yet, I started the joke, but the joke was one me..

During the past six years I have been training myself to think like a scholar, and also to act and write like one. It’s unfortunate that I have made myself into someone even I myself never wanted to be. The kinds of scholars that I like are those who live in the real world and write in the way that is, rather than scholarly, humanistically engaging. I like the kind of writing that cuts right to the chest, poetic, and simple. None of these, sadly, are the writing styles encouraged in academia where I have spent six years. Although many would like to argue that academia is still one of the few places where merit works to people’s advantage, I can hardly think of an instance that I got what I got because of merit. Like any other industries of which academia tends to be critical, it’s all about connections – who is who in which groups, clans, tribes and so on. I can, however, recall quite vividly how many times I was turned down with no reason simply because I was on the wrong side. To put it bluntly, I was turned down for grants, fellowships, etc., because I did not have the right connections.

Now, at 34, I neither have the energy and persistence of the youth, nor the skills needed to be useful in the world today. I wish I have never done a Ph.D.

 

Non Arkaraprasertkul, PhD
Boston, Masschusetts
May 15, 2016

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3 thoughts on “Day 63: I Wish I Had Never Done a PhD

  1. To be honest I’m in the PhD 30% for research and 70% to teach at University level. I believe that getting a PhD increases my odds of getting a university teaching job. If I was not doing a PhD I would not be able to be a GTA at the department where I do my PhD, which has been immensely rewarding and enjoyable, and I believe I have also impacted on some of my students’ lives. The PhD has cost me financially more than other alternatives, but the journey so far has been way more rewarding.

    You say that you don’t need to have a PhD to teach in university, which is true. But that is the exception rather than the rule. You need a PhD to teach in many departments, and my understanding is that having a PhD is the rule rather than exception for teaching in universities. I have applied for teaching positions in universities that say the minimum requirement is a master’s degree only to be told that they’re actually looking for someone with a PhD.

    You talk about universities recruiting famous thinkers to teach. The example I am most familiar with is famous chefs teaching food studies classes. The time and sacrifice to achieve that level of fame may well be more than that required to get a PhD. Becoming a famous chef is just as hard, if not harder, and requires at least the same amount of sacrifice as getting a PhD. Someone like Jose Andres who teaches at Harvard has spent years getting to where he is, and working in kitchens, especially in junior positions, is most definitely no dinner party. Also who provides the readings for his course? Mostly academics with PhD’s.

    As for the issue of respect, most people only respect us on the surface and not for who we are regardless of whether we have a PhD, a Michelin Star or a Golden Globe.

    A professor, who is quite pragmatic, once told me that a PhD is a licence to do independent research. A PhD (in the absence of a research master’s) fulfils meets this criteria. The skills it took for you to do your dissertation research and your ability to be spend such a long time and endure an unfamiliar environment are evident of your strengths as a qualitative, ethnographic researcher. These are skills and experiences that can be transferred to private sector research e.g. marketing. Connections aside, it’s just a matter of how you pitch these skills to a prospective employer or a recruitment agency.

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  2. You’re still young, as Oscar Wilde said “After 25, everyone is of the same age.”

    Find ways to reinvigorate the spirit, and you’re gonna do many more marvelous things in life!

    Like

  3. Pingback: Day 66: On a Failed Relationship (I Thought I Was Lucky) | 100 days of writing

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