What is a PhD good for?

I am beginning to think that doing a PhD was possibly the worst career decision of my life. 

I’m attempting to write a job application for a historian’s position at a well known local council.  Despite my PhD, I find that out of the ten essential criteria and the five desirable criteria, I can make a valid response to perhaps five, and the majority of those were the generic ones.  You know, wanting you to prove that you can hold a civil conversation with a stranger. 

It seems to me that the actual historical content knowledge required is rather slim.  Mostly what they want is project or program development, collection management, and digital media knowledge.  None of which is actually part of post graduate historical studies.  Certainly not at my alma mater…

So what did I spend seven years of my precious life for?  What did getting a PhD do for me?

It does demonstrate my ability to find, read, understand, classify, dispute and synthetise knowledge.  However, having run large planning projects before, this wasn’t a new skill.  Merely a reproving.

It demonstrates that I can work on my own.

It demonstrates that I can continue to work on my own despite illness, pain, despair and basic hatred for the project.  This is quite a useful skill in general with work, but again, something I had demonstrated to myself already.

Looking back I feel cheated by a system whose primary goal is to reproduce itself and get money.  It doesn’t care about you.  No one sits you down and says gently but firmly, why do you want to do this?  They don’t explain that you will be stressed, miserable, poor, and cost yourself wages and superannuation which, if you are lucky enough to get a job after, will not recompense you for that.  You will drive your friends and family nuts as your life gets taken over.  If my thesis had been an intimate partner, my family would have taken a restraining order out against it.  So your reason for doing this has to be platinum strong to withstand all that.

It is not good enough to answer any of the following.  Because I’m trying to escape where I am.  Because I can’t make up my mind so I’ll just stick with study.  Because it seems like a good idea and I’ve got no other sources of inspiration for what I should do with my life.

There is only one reason, and one reason only, to do a PhD.  It’s because you want to be an academic.  You are prepared to sign up for fairly poorly pay, uncertain tenures, constant pressure, and constant mobility because you love the pursuit of knowledge and understanding that much.  If you can’t say a big whole hearted yes to that, I seriously suggest that you are about to commit a massive unkindness to yourself.    

Universities get paid for having PhD students.  They are, as one well known historian once said to me, ‘cash cows’.  While your individual supervisor may be a kind intelligent person who cares about students, fundamentally you are there to provide cash for the institution.  No one will ever try to talk you out of doing a PhD because of that fact.  I didn’t know this when I first signed up.  I consider this to be unethical. 

The university will do their damndest to get you and keep you, regardless of whether a PhD is right for you or what you want in life.  For me, in retrospect, I needed a fairy godmother to whisper in my ear that I should enrol in the now defunct Certificate IV in library and museum studies.  If I’d done that I’d have had a job years ago and would be able to confidently answer every item on this current job application.  If that same fairy godmother had also whispered to me what need are you trying to fill here? my circumstances might be very different.  If I’d been able to ask that question, and then think more creatively about how I might meet that, a PhD would have been ruled out fairly early. 

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t do a PhD.  I am saying that it is a gruelling and costly process, and that you should be clear on your motivations.  You need some other things too.  Be as clear as early as you can about your question.  Put off your application until you know it.  It saves valuable time, especially if you have to fund yourself after your scholarship runs out.  Many do.  You need a good relationship with your supervisor.  When I say need, I mean you need a good relationship with your supervisor in the same way you need air.  The only reason why I survived and submitted was because my second supervisor is a truly wonderful human being in addition to being brilliant.  My first supervisor went through students like Kleenex.  If you have a clear idea of what you want to do and why, have emergency funding, supportive friends and family, and the right academic team, you can have a reasonably good experience. 

As for me, what is a PhD good for?  For years I had a list of reasons to complete on my computer.  The first was the hope that a PhD will open doors I can’t see yet.  I still can’t see any doors, but I keep on hoping.