There is a lot of debate about whether we are training too many PhD students (given the demand for academic labour) or too few (given the needs of the so-called knowledge economy). At an individual level, plenty of unemployed PhDs are wondering how they ended up in such a precarious labour market position and why no one warned them.
If you are considering a PhD, here are a few things you should consider about the people giving you advice.
Chances are no one has even considered what you might do with your PhD
In my experience, very few academics give much thought to the employment prospects of their students. Sure, when considering the course as a whole, and especially when writing copy for the web site or a recruitment brochure, they might give some thought to what students might go on to do with a degree in their area.
Many academics care about the success of individual students. However, academics usually don’t have any more information about the wider labour market than anyone else. And our knowledge of labour market conditions is always greater when we are looking for work than when we are ensconced in a relatively secure position.
Academics are not alone in this. An engineer friend of mine once told me that when the high-tech sector started to collapse he realized he hadn’t updated his resumé for about 7 years. He only realized this at the point when he, personally, lost his job even though he was not in the first round of layoffs.
Assume that any particular academic’s knowledge of careers is limited. It certainly is not at the front of their minds when they are talking to you about the possibility of entering a PhD program.
What are they thinking about?
If they aren’t thinking about your career prospects, why would they recommend that you consider a PhD?
Your intellectual strengths as abstract qualities
A professor might recommend that you consider graduate study because they are impressed with your intellectual abilities and think you would make a fine researcher.
They might see a bit of themselves in you. They have had considerable satisfaction in their own educational and career path and thus recommend this as something you might also enjoy.
They might even see the potential for you to make important contributions to the advancement of knowledge in the field.
Their own interests
Many academics find teaching graduate level courses more intellectually stimulating than teaching undergraduates.
Graduate students that they supervise may be an important part of their intellectual community. Colleagues tend not to be working in the same areas and graduate students can provide a community of intellectual peers with whom to have in depth discussions about their (and your) research.
In some disciplines, graduate students are essential to the research success of academics. Graduate students assist in the collection and analysis of data, and co-authored papers are a staple of the professor’s own publications list.
In all cases, they want to recruit the best students they can. If a professor is being enthusiastic, take it as a compliment. They tend to be fussy.
Their institutional interests
Departments and universities that have graduate programs are more prestigious. Universities have aspirations and the development of graduate programs is often part of the plan to achieve those aspirations.
Departments sometimes resist these developments but they are not the final decision makers. Once programs are established they are then required to recruit students.
Every student comes with dollars attached, whether tuition fees or government funding or some combination of the two. Balancing departmental budgets often involves recruiting certain numbers of different kinds of students.
Actually, most academics won’t have this stuff at the front of their mind either. In fact many of them really dislike thinking about the budgets at all. Every job has aspects we don’t like but have to do anyway.
You have to look out for your interests
No one is trying to intentionally mislead you. In fact, many academics are conflicted about the various interests at play and worry about the prospects for their graduate students. The “right” response to these conflicts is not obvious. No individual is responsible for the structure of the system.
Before you can evaluate your options, you need to know what you want and need. You won’t be able to wave a magic wand and have all your needs and wants met. But knowing what you want and need is the only sound basis for evaluating various opportunities that arise, and for selecting activities that might create opportunities.
Some lesser known lessons from academia by Daniel McCormack
This post was edited March 30, 2017. Additional related post added April 24, 2017.