Forget the Footnotes

Talking to prospective PhD students

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Two undergrads just asked me what it’s like to do a PhD. You are trying to get me in to trouble again, aren’t you? Well, how much worse can it get? This is what I’ve been telling prospective PhD students for years — and I might as well tell you.

  • don’t do it! Life is too short, a PhD is too long. There are a million other ways to spend your life which are more rewarding both personally and financially. Check out the drop-out rates from PhD programmes: why do you think the students are leaving? Consider the opportunity cost: by doing a PhD what is it that you are not doing? When you turn 32, your friends will start to make mega-bucks while you still will struggle to get money for a bus pass.
  • a PhD is for life. Doing a PhD is not just getting a bit more education, it is a long arduous journey that will profoundly change you in a number of ways. You might not like what the PhD turns you into, or your girl/boyfriend might not like it. In fact half-way through he/she is likely to leave you. Take another look at people who already have PhDs. Do you really want to become like them?
  • funding. It costs some 10,000 pounds per year to do a PhD in the UK, plus living costs. Nothing a university does is worth this money. I certainly don’t want you to work part-time stocking shelves in the Bodyshop in order to pay my salary. Make sure you have full funding before you begin — or better yet, make sure you are born independently wealthy.
  • don’t expect any worldly rewards. There won’t be any, at least not any worldly rewards that justify all the hard labour. Over the door to each PhD seminar room there is a sign which says ‘Abandon all hope ye who enter.’ Few people will read what you write, or if they do they read only in order to tear you apart. If you are unlucky this will include your supervisor. Once you have the doctorate you are unlikely to get a good job, or a job in a place where you want to live, or in the place where your spouse already works.
  • all the rewards are intrinsic. They are the rewards associated with the reading, thinking and writing itself. Do you get a happy, glowing, feeling when the computer starts up in the morning? Does your pulse quicken when you walk through the gates of the library? Will your heart momentarily swell with pride when you’ve conceived of a particularly pregnant sentence? If these simple, everyday, pleasures aren’t good enough, don’t bother.
  • go West young man/woman! The best American universities are far better than the best European. This is particularly true for PhD programmes. In the US PhD programmes have two years of course work during which you interact closely with the professors and discuss real intellectual questions with your peers. And above all, American universities usually pay you rather than you paying the them. Difficult to beat!
  • as a PhD student you will for the first time produce knowledge rather than just consume it. To produce knowledge is hard, lonely, exasperating. It is also the most noble activity any one can engage in. Thought, refection, critique is what makes us human. As a PhD student you will belong to the select few who have an opportunity to take a step away from the world and to study it with the tools of science and philosophy. For a little while you will find yourself responsible for the perpetuation of human civilisation. If that sounds fun to you — if you cannot think of anything more exciting — welcome, you are one of us.


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