Is My PhD worth it?

A friend on Twitter just asked me why I chose an archaeology PhD? Career? Passion? Job prospects? He wanted to know if I would recommend it? Pros? Cons? The answer is far too long for Twitter so I said I’d write a blog post.

Its a long story, so if you want just the recommendations, skip to the end.

I should start by saying that I chose to do and Archaeology PhD a long time ago, I expect that I made the choice sometime between 1984 and 1987 when I was still an undergraduate, so most of what motivated that choice has changed completely, but I still think there might be something useful in considering my experience of the process.

I chose to do an PhD because I really liked archaeology, and academia (especially in 1980’s Canada) seemed to be the primary home of archaeology. If I wanted to be an archaeologist, that was the route. I didn’t take any advice on this, nor was I offered any. It seemed a natural conclusion.

I remember very clearly being at a conference at the end of my M.A. and being told by two senior academics that the best career route was to get a PhD and then ‘hang around’ the academic department I wanted to be in – short term contracts, bits of teaching, keep in the club. It was what they’d done themselves, they were being kind.

Another (more useful) piece of advice I got before starting was, don’t do it if you aren’t funded. In fact, my department didn’t accept you unless you had some funding or they were prepared to offer you some. The idea was that a major part of being an academic (even then) was securing research funding. If you can’t get your PhD funded, you may not be on the right path. In the event, I was able to secure full funding – which meant I could focus fully on my PhD for 4 years – such luxury.

And I got loads and loads of things from my PhD: practice in funding applications; research skills including GIS (rare in the 90’s); confidence, critique of my peers; but best of all 4 years in which I could follow my own research with some academic support. I’m not sure that I spent any time during those 4 years thinking about my career. Partly this was because I was committed to living in Ireland, and this was before the Tiger, so career seemed like a pretty high concept.

I moved back to Ireland, due to family circumstances, with about 1 month’s work left to do on my PhD. Big mistake. Working in field archaeology I had no hope of keeping the focus for those last bits of work and life rolled away. Three years later I picked it back up, pushed it through and finished.

By that point I was working as a Lecturer at the Irish Equivalent of a Polytechnic. When I finished, it was clear they had no more space to support my doing research. So, probably for the first time I thought about what I should do for a career. I saw an ad doing Data Analysis for the Catalhoyuk project in Cambridge and left Ireland behind. That job called for a PhD, the first (and last) job I’d had that did.

But I didn’t have the courage (or the cash) to take the advice I’d been given to ‘hang around’ academic departments, and when that contract was finishing I applied for a permanent GIS position with English Heritage. I was assured that the other contract could be extended – but I’d seen the people ‘hanging around’ and I wanted something more secure. The EH job did not require a PhD but it did require the GIS skills I’d got from the PhD. I also think that many other skills I’d developed there, such as writing, organising, and indeed thinking. I think these skills also helped me to advance within EH, though the PhD was never required for any of my roles.

More than 10 years later, security had lost its charms. And English Heritage had become considerably less secure. So I launched into consulting and founded Heritage for Transformation – which has been great fun so far. I hope to keep this running for as long as I can, but consulting is precarious. Consulting has a big range of other skills on top of the research, communication and management skills I’ve developed so far.

Its possible that my PhD, and the skills I developed in it help with this work, but at this point its hard to tell. All of my research since my PhD has been on completely different topics than my PhD. I’ve developed skills and a professional profile beyond my PhD and plenty of the people I work with and for don’t have PhD’s themselves.

Then a colleague I’d done unfunded research with, perhaps coincidentally someone I’d met while at Cambridge, asked me did I want to be involved in a funding bid for a project that will start in April. The role I’m doing is a PDRA which does require a PhD. Happily we were successful, so I’m going to get another 4 years to focus on a coherent piece of research. I can’t believe my luck. I’ll keep the consulting going through that time (its an 80% role) but I don’t know which road I’ll take when its finished.

So:

  • I chose to do a PhD for passion – I really wanted to pursue landscape archaeology and the specific research I was interested in. I don’t think you can do a PhD if you don’t have that because it is a lonely experience at time and if you don’t love the work its easy to fall away.
  • I never thought of job prospects, but that was probably a mistake.
  • Pros: develop skills while surrounded by other people learning and researching
  • Cons: if you aren’t funded it would be a nightmare.

The bottom line is that a PhD is an entry qualification for academia. But there are many many more PhD’s finishing every year than academic positions. Also, academia is not what I thought it was when I decided to to a PhD.

There are no other jobs that require a PhD, but showing that you have the determination and skill to complete one can help with getting other jobs.

I’m happy with my choices (except the moving with 1 month left one) but I’m not sure that I’d recommend it to someone who was uncertain at the moment. A lot of academic funding has slipped downward from Post-Doc to PhD – so there are some interesting PhD’s being funded right now. So departments are beginning to give greater profiles to their PhD programmes. But if the subject doesn’t interest you as something you’d love to do, I wouldn’t touch them with a barge pole.

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2 thoughts on “Is My PhD worth it?

  1. Just wanted to leave a quick note thanking you for writing this. Lately, I’ve been feeling a bit overwhelmed by the “I got out of academia” or “The Academic Job Market” posts. It’s not that I don’t like them, I love that there IS a discussion going on out there and some type of support system being built, it’s just that being in grad school and considering non-academia after finishing it can be disheartening to go down the path of why am I even doing this when everything out there says I shouldn’t?! I liked this post because it was real and straightforward and didn’t make a value judgement on the reasons for or against pursuing a PhD. There are reasons for and against it, and those can change, and that’s ok. In summation: FOR THIS.

    • thanks so much. Even I feel overwhelmed by some of the ‘got out of academia’ stuff out there. Life has lots of ways to live it, and lots of ways to get skills and experience. The gap between academia and ‘the real world’ may not be as large as we think.

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