Should You Get a Ph.D.?

Only if you're crazy or crazy about your subject.

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Dear potential Ph.D. students in international studies,

Congratulations on getting accepted into our prestigious/competitive/up-and-coming doctoral degree program! We hope that you will consider our program seriously, and look at the attached ample/competitive/look-we-are-at-least-paying-your-tuition funding package. Unfortunately, due to the enhanced power that accrues to recipients of Outstanding Achievement in International Studies (OAIS) Weblogging Awards, we are required under International Studies Association rules to permit the following message from some Foreign Policy blogger. Feel free to disregard the advice below, and please, please, please accept our offer of admission!

For you, the possible entrants into Ph.D. programs in international studies, it is the best of times and the worst of times. Obviously, it’s the best of times because some program somewhere accepted you, and hey, that’s great. It’s not easy to get into a doctoral program, but if someone accepted you, and offered you money no less, well, take a moment to savor it. You’re going to get paid to get a Ph.D.! You’ll get to tramp around some geographical area of interest, learn a new language or master econometrics. You’ll get to do this without acquiring the obscene debt loads of law, medical, or business school graduates! It can’t get better than that, right? 

Well, now we arrive at the worst of times. I write to you as a full professor at a great school. I have moderate teaching obligations, a healthy research account, thoughtful students, and interesting and fun projects. In theory all you need to achieve this is drive, intelligence, and that pesky Ph.D. In practice, the odds are a hell of a lot longer than that.

Here’s the truth about getting a Ph.D., in the plainest possible terms: 

It takes a long time, and there’s a decent chance you won’t even finish. The numbers aren’t pretty. If you’re getting a Ph.D. in the social sciences, there’s only a 41 percent chance you will finish in seven years. For political science, there’s only a 44 percent chance you will finish after 10 years. Ten years! The reasons for this are variegated and mildly depressing. I’ve been on enough Ph.D. admissions committees to know that the correlation between the quality of an application and performance in the program are not all that strong. The Ph.D. can be a soul-crushing experience, draining a person of all the passion they felt about a topic and replacing it with fury at something called "methods." If you finish, great. If you don’t, well, the waters of bitterness can run very deep

The socialization pressures are immense. Why do you want to get a Ph.D.? On second thought, it doesn’t really matter. By the time you are a few years into your program, you’ll have forgotten why you started and instead you’ll be brainwashed into the belief that the only thing to do with a Ph.D. is to become a tenure-track professor. The socialization that takes place in a Ph.D. program is both totalizing and powerful. I’ve known people who got great private-sector jobs out of grad school, jobs that paid four times the salary of a typical academic position, and yet feel like they’ve let everyone down. That’s pretty f***ed up. It also leads to the next reason:

The job market is brutal. The academic job market has been abysmal for as long as I can remember, but things have only gotten worse recently. Just click here and make sure that there are no children in the room, because the numbers are so horrific they should be rated NC-17. If you’re not going to a top 20 school in your field, well, those numbers are even worse

Now, to be sure, one advantage of the international studies disciplines is that they’re not the humanities. There are government, NGO, and private sector jobs available. That’s the good news. The bad news is that these sectors are going to get squeezed as well. The defense sequester is going to hit both Pentagon and private contractor hiring hard. And the push for austerity will inevitably impact the civilian side of this equation as well. The Coburn amendment to the latest appropriations bill, which proposed eliminating National Science Foundation funding for political science, might well be the canary in the coal mine for all of international studies. Opponents of the amendment succeeded in watering it down before it was passed in March, but the amendment still limits federal funding to projects that "promote national security or the economic interests of the United States." Political science is likely just the harbinger of other cuts to the rest of the social sciences.

Long-term trends do not bode well for the modern university. You might think that the hiring drought in the academy is just a temporary lull. And that might be true. But go read Nathan Harden’s essay on the future of the university in The American Interest. It’s likely an exaggeration, but there is certainly some truth in his Schumpeterian assertion that "the Internet is a great destroyer of any traditional business that relies on the sale of information." The great hope for universities to bolster sagging graduate programs is to encourage more foreign students — but now even the Chinese influx of cash cows full-tuition-paying students has slowed down. So academia, that bastion of stability, might suddenly find itself on shakier ground at exactly the moment you arrive on the scene.

Foreign governments might spy on you. For reals.

If you’re a little distressed now, well, you should be. Does this mean you shouldn’t get a Ph.D.?   Well, if you really do want to get a job either teaching or practicing something to do with international affairs, then getting a Ph.D. is the absolute worst choice you can make — until you consider the alternatives. Other professional degrees cost much more upfront and it’s not like the job prospects for those degrees are any better. According to Beltway insiders, a Ph.D. gives you an advantage working for the government or for think tanks, and it’s certainly true that the credential still counts for something.

There’s one last criterion to determine whether you should enroll in that Ph.D. program, and it might be a little cornball, but it’s nevertheless valid: love. You can grind out a professional degree — an MA, JD, or MBA — with discipline and intelligence. Not so with a Ph.D. There are hard-headed reasons that point toward getting a Ph.D., but they’re meaningless unless you care deeply about your subject matter. Without love for your subject, you will never finish your doctorate, never tolerate the criticism you’ll receive during the writing process, never tolerate the penury while your peers move on in life. If you don’t love what you study, the burnout will be painful… and inevitable.

I wish you the very best of luck in making your decision about pursuing a doctorate. The process can be rewarding for the mentally tough and soul-cru
shing for everyone else. And to paraphrase The Princess Bride, anyone who tells you that it will get easier for Ph.D.s in the future is selling you something.


Daniel W. Drezner

<p> Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. </p>