PhD or No PhD. That is the Question.

Discerning next steps in the ‘academic chain of being.’

Although Kate’s a professor in the Humanities and as such adds to the archive of material addressing Why Get a PhD in the Humanities?, she also opens up the question to PhD or No PhD? In response to her excellent post, I desire to take the opportunity to extend a call more broadly to faculty across higher education to share their reflections on the topic by leaving a comment/reflection below or by contributing a post of their own. To learn more about posting on the blog, click here. Note: if you are a student who has a significant faculty mentor who you desire to recommend as a contributor, please email me. Thank-you. — Thomas B. Grosh IV, Editor


Every year, as a new crop of seniors realizes that the end (of college) is in sight, there are those who consider going straight on to a PhD. For some of them, college has been a time of growth through exposure to new ideas. They may have conducted independent research or joined honor societies or attended conferences where they had deep conversations with intelligent people who shared their interests. They don’t want to lose that. I don’t blame them! Others, perhaps, don’t know what to do with their lives, but figure they’re pretty good at school, so they may as well continue. For others, there are simply no job opportunities in sight, and further education lets them defer student loans.

There’s no consensus among faculty whether to encourage or discourage these often idealistic dreamers in their quest for higher learning. It’s popular these days to discourage them, pointing to their (often) unrealistic expectations, the inadequate funding of higher education, and the poor job market. By encouraging them, are we setting them up to fail? I’ve encountered the argument that, given the limited resources for higher education, it should go to only the very best, who will advance the discipline. And even they aren’t guaranteed employment.

But there’s also pressure to encourage our students to pursue PhDs. At my university, we have an entire office devoted to helping students apply for prestigious fellowships. If our students get into recognized graduate programs, our rankings go up. Our department looks good if our recent graduates are pursuing PhDs. It certainly beats the alternative, which may be moving back home and working at Starbucks.

But frankly, as a Christian, I believe in higher education. Not that it makes us more valuable as people. And it certainly doesn’t make us any better Christians. Not everyone is called to do what I do. But understanding God’s world and the people God created is important. And frankly, I have devoted my life to my field because I think it matters. We need more people trained in the kinds of issues my discipline addresses. I sincerely believe this.

What do you enjoy? What are you willing to sacrifice?

So do I encourage my students to apply to graduate school? Often I do, although I ask them some difficult questions first. My advice to them would often go somewhat like this:

  • Are you most interested in the career or the education? If the career is most important, then you may wish to think again. Professional programs, not PhDs, provide career training. Graduate school is not a hoop to jump through to get to what you really want to do. It’s a commitment that will last for many years, probably changing the direction of your life. And there’s no guarantee you’ll find a job when you finish, a job within your field, or a job in a location you like. Even if you do find a job, there’s no guarantee that you’ll like it. My predecessor in the department did not; that’s why the position opened that I have now. (I remind my students that I applied for approximately 70 academic jobs and only got one offer. If I hadn’t been willing or able to move across country or teach outside of my specialization, I would have joined the ranks of the unemployed Humanities PhDs).
  • So you’ve decided you really want the education. What are you willing to sacrifice for it? Are you willing to give it many years of your life? To live at or below poverty level? To possibly go into debt? To live with roommates into your 30s? Marriage and family are not impossible, but difficult while in graduate school. Are you willing to relocate to go to a good grad school? Are you willing to be separated from your spouse or significant other, temporarily while conducting research, or perhaps for the duration of your coursework? A former student of mine was recently accepted into a top graduate program, but turned it down to take part-time work near her fiancé, delaying or even giving up her own academic career. While she would have been a great academic, I’m impressed that she knew her priorities and put the relationship first.
  • Have you tried something else? Almost anything else is good. Don’t go to graduate school because school is all you know. Do something else for a while. This is a great opportunity to see the world (try Peace Corps, teach English in Japan). Or what about Teach for America, or the Episcopal Service Corps? If you have student loans you’d like to take care of quickly, try working on an oil pipeline or fishing in Alaska (I have students who have done both). The experience will serve you well in grad school. After being away from academia for a year or so, if you’re still interested in writing papers and spending long hours in a library or lab, then you’ll know you’re ready to move on.
  • What do you like to do on your Friday nights? That seems like a ridiculous question, but ask yourself that. Frankly, the person who makes it in graduate school is the one so passionate about his/her research that s/he works on it on Friday nights simply because it’s so cool. On a related note: What do you talk about with your friends? What’s on your Facebook wall? Do you seek out people who share your enthusiasm about your research? Not every Friday night, of course. That wouldn’t be a healthy lifestyle. But if you resent devoting time and energy to your field, then think twice about a career in academia. It seldom is a 9-5 job.
  • Finally, what do your parents say? I know; you’re an adult now, and don’t have to ask your parents’ permission. But frankly, your parents know you better than almost anyone else, and they care about you. If they discourage you from applying, they may have good reasons. They may recognize traits that you don’t see in yourself. (Overconfidence? A tendency to make rash decisions that you regret later?) Or they may recognize the drain it would be on you, or on your family, if you move far away and can’t visit regularly. If you don’t feel comfortable discussing your future with your parents—and I know students who do not—a PhD program is unlikely to be a solution. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pursue it, but if you’re looking for something to do to avoid difficult questions from Mom and Dad, there are easier options. Be really careful.

But in the end, I generally tell my students not to stress about it. I personally really liked grad school (most of the time), and I like being a professor (most of the time). But I really liked being in ministry as well, and I really liked the job I had for several years before becoming an academic. I know many people who have found fulfillment in life as a stay-at-home parent or working freelance or starting their own businesses. I’ve even had jobs I didn’t like so much, but they paid the bills, and I still had fulfilling things to do on evenings and weekends. A fellow church member pointed out to me recently that even unemployment can be a blessing in disguise. (Of course, that’s not what I tell students to strive for!) In the end, what matters isn’t how well we’re educated or how successful our career is, but who we are – human beings created in the image of God, whom God loves so much that He sent His Son!  And that won’t change no matter what we decide.

Don’t stress. Take one step at a time in Christ Jesus.

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Kate Peterson

(pseudonym), an assistant professor in the humanities at a Christian institution of higher education.

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    John Hundley commented on May 1, 2013 Reply

    Kate, thanks for this post.

    As a graduating senior in the Humanities and a lover of academia, I’ve faced most of the dilemmas you’ve addressed here. I thought about going straight for a PhD, but then pretty quickly realized that my motivation had nothing to do with Jesus and a lot to do with worldly success and pride. I don’t know about you, but among my academically-minded friends I’ve noticed that being a Christian has very little impact on the decisions people make for their future plans in the academic world. I don’t want to sound hyper-spiritual, but don’t you think that as Christians we ought to at least consider doing things with our lives that reveal the kingdom of God on earth? Not to say that God doesn’t give people desires for academic careers, because there surely are such people, but when I read the N.T. I don’t get the sense that we should use the same criteria for our life-changing decisions as everyone else.

    Sorry to be critical, but I’m a graduating InterVarsity leader and have been saddened by how few of my peers are choosing careers for the sake of the Kingdom and how many have made decisions without second thought of what Jesus might be leading them into.

    Kate Peterson commented on May 2, 2013 Reply


    Thanks for your response. You’re absolutely right. I cannot agree more. And it’s a bit embarrassing that this didn’t (doesn’t?) come through in the advice I give my students. I’m trying to figure out why not…

    What I posted is in fact what many of my conversations with students look like. And I can think of two reasons why that might be. First of all, when they come to me (as their academic advisor, not pastor or spiritual mentor), they’re not asking for advice about listening to God. They’re asking for the advice of someone who has a PhD and academic career, and who knows their academic work, not their prayer life. But also, if the student is a committed Christian, won’t (or shouldn’t) following Christ—being His Kingdom on Earth—be the motivation for EVERY decision anyway? Isn’t that a given?

    So yes, I agree with you 100%. And there are those students I develop a close mentoring relationship with, and if they are Christians, we will probably talk about what it means to follow Christ in all sorts of areas. But for those whose faith commitment may not be so solid, or with whom I relate primarily as an academic, I’m not sure that telling them to listen to God’s leading would be very helpful. Besides, I really do think God can use us in any number of careers or life paths. What matters most is who we ARE in Christ, not what we DO for Him.

    But I was exactly where you were as a graduating senior. (And did go into a more traditional “ministry” position, rather than going on to grad school right away.) What is Jesus leading you into after graduation?

    Thanks for the challenge. I suspect this will be on my mind for quite a while.

  • Kevin Birth commented on May 2, 2013 Reply

    Thank you for the great post. I have very similar talks with my students. I teach at a secular institution, so most of my students are not Christian. I still impress upon them that grad school is part of a calling and vocation. Indeed, the Christian idea of calling and how it is different from the idea of a career is often extremely useful in advising non-Christians about grad school.

    Ben Shute commented on May 2, 2013 Reply

    Thank you for such a thoughtful article that beautifully handles the intricate relationship between calling and practical wisdom. There’s a lot I can take away from this article beyond the scope of the specific question it was addressing. And it has gotten me thinking about the issues specific to my own field (music), but I think I’ll need to address that in a separate post… Thanks again for this!

    David O'Hara commented on May 2, 2013 Reply

    Kate, thanks for a thoughtful, clear, and helpful post. I usually distinguish between going to grad school for a Ph.D. and going to grad school for an academic job. The former can be its own reward, if you can get a funded position in grad school; the latter can be the pathway to stress and despair in some fields, and shouldn’t be pursued lightly. I’m happy to correspond with people considering graduate work in my field, philosophy. I have written more about this here:

    Niki commented on May 2, 2013 Reply

    I work with InterVarsity predominantly with undergrads but also some grad students and I agree with you. A lot of my students go to grad school because they see it as a race to win, not because there is a love of academia. I try to encourage students who see grad school in that way, to work for a year in their desired field. I am amazed when I talk with grad students. You can totally see (Generalizations being made here) the students who approached Grad school as a race. They seem more jaded so early on. But those that worked in their field for a time and then came back are so excited to see the possibilities and to learn about something at great lengths. Thank you for honestly pointing out the good, the bad and the ugly of grad school. I will be passing this on to my undergrads who are considering grad school, and my grad students who are seeing grad school as merely something to be achieved.

    Andrea commented on May 2, 2013 Reply

    Hi Kate,

    Thanks for an insightful and interesting post! I’m graduating (tomorrow!) with a master’s degree in Survey Research and Methodology, then will be beginning a Ph.D. program in Marketing in the fall, so these issues are definitely ones I have been thinking hard about for the last few years.

    I agree with most of what you’re saying, and I appreciate your advice – especially with regard to asking what you’re willing to give up, talking with people who know you well, and the fact that through Jesus, we are accepted by God no matter career path we follow.

    In my case, however, the career v. education question has a different answer than was posted here. I have felt called to be a professor since the time I was in high school – to teach, to research, to help understand this world that our God has made, and to help others see Him in it. The only way you get to be a teaching and research professor, however, is by earning a Ph.D. I have been told by my professors here at the Big 10 university I attend that “by your third year in a Ph.D. program, no one actually enjoys it. We put you through hell – the way you get through is by keeping your eyes on the prize at the end.” While this may or may not be true, I have also spoken with a number of current and just-graduated Ph.D. students who look back, saying, “it was tough and I wanted to quit a lot of the time, but I’m so glad I finished this Ph.D. because of the career I’m going to be able to have now.”

    This is probably a significant difference between business Ph.D.s and humanities Ph.D.s: while it is certainly not easy to be placed into a Tier 1 research school with a Ph.D. in business, it is expected (at least at my school) that newly-minted Ph.D.s in marketing will be able to get an academic job in their field at a respectable university, where they will be able to earn a decent salary.

    While I am looking forward to earning a Ph.D. for the education it will provide me, then, I am also eager to get this degree for the sake of the vocation to which I feel that God has called me: being a marketing professor. I know this road is definitely not for everyone, and I feel the greatest respect for those of my friends who are pursuing God’s calling in the non-academic workplace, in overseas missions, and wherever else they are being led. However, for me, earning a Ph.D. is a necessary step to the vocation that I know that I want to perform for the rest of my life, and given my field, I have no doubts that I will find an academic job in marketing when I graduate.

    All in all, however, I do completely agree with your main point: God’s plan for our lives and His love for us is in no way continent upon our education or career, and He is equally well-pleased with His faithful servants in academe, in the business world, who are unemployed, who are home-makers, and who serve Him wherever He has called them to be.

    Hannah commented on May 2, 2013 Reply


    Thanks so much for a really helpful and thoughtful post. These are great questions, and great suggestions! I especially like the point about trying something else first. I took a year off school before my M. A. and another before the Ph.D., and in both cases it turned out to be a helpful decision.

    Kate Peterson commented on May 2, 2013 Reply

    Andrea, thanks for pointing out how humanities-specific my assumptions were. I was trying to think of principles that applied more generally, but you’re right that in some fields–those that are in demand in business or industry–there are plenty of jobs available. And yes, if someone is clearly called by God to become a professor, then a Ph.D. is the logical next step. Unfortunately, the majority of students I talk to who want to be a professor aren’t doing it because they’re convinced it’s God’s calling on their life, but because they think it looks like an easy or fulfilling career (or because education is the only thing they know they’re good at). And there are some, I suspect, who think it’s God’s call, but may end up questioning that when they start applying for grants or jobs. Congratulations on your graduation, and good luck in grad school!

      Andrea commented on May 4, 2013 Reply

      Thank you very much! Again, I appreciate your post, and your insights. Blessings.

    Andy Walsh commented on May 2, 2013 Reply

    On the topic of what one is willing to sacrifice – I might add that one possible sacrifice could be your notion of the limits of your particular discipline or field of study.

    To illustrate: I went to grad school to study biology. I understood this to mean working in a laboratory, growing cultures, running experiments, etc. However, such activities tend to demand long, or at least odd, hours. That had the potential to put strain on my brand new marriage. So I wound up transitioning into a more mathematical approach to biology. Numbers and computer programs are much more content to wait on your convenience, or to work while you are not around, or at the very least to be more portable when long hours are necessary.

    Now, I was very fortunate to find an advisor within the same department willing and able to oversee such a course of study. And I did have to take a lot of classes that my colleagues didn’t, and I gave talks in departmental seminars that bore little resemblance to anything anyone else presented. All of that had consequences for the kind of collegial rapport I could have within my department. But it turned out to be incredibly fulfilling personally, and continues to permit me to have the kind of career that makes it easier to be at home with my family on a regular and predictable schedule.

    Kelly commented on May 11, 2013 Reply

    I have been thinking about this post for the past week. In my case, I definitely feel that I was called to graduate school and the Ph.D., although I did not realize it at the beginning (and was blissfully naive about what grad school entailed!) But it has been neat to see how God used that experience to grow me in ways that I couldn’t have imagined, both personally and professionally.

    I think an important component is that sense of calling – either to a specific location or to education that will allow you to fulfill a calling, whether that is teaching, a career as a researcher, or as someone who can influence public policy or business.

    I also had to laugh at “what do you like to do on Friday nights”… One beautiful Saturday afternoon in the fall I found myself in lab taking care of my cell lines. At that moment I realized that even though it was a beautiful Saturday afternoon, I was perfectly happy sitting in lab for an hour or two taking care of my cells and writing up my data. Granted, I did go hiking later and enjoyed the rest of my afternoon, but it was definitely a confirmation that I was in the right place 🙂

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