Someone once told me they believed that, as an undergraduate, everyone in your life should discourage you from pursuing a PhD. Perhaps you listen to their wisdom and move on to find happiness somewhere else in life. And if you do the degree anyway—then, well, okay. At least you were warned.
Their basic motivation was that to do a PhD, you really have to want it. If you were successfully dissuaded by those initial counterarguments, then you probably would have been waylaid by something further down the line. That’s a better outcome than discovering the whole thing isn’t worth it for you, after having already invested so much of yourself in it. It’s kind of a dire perspective. But at least there’s a logic to it.
But there’s no doubt that, as an undergrad, I always hated it when graduate students or people with a PhD told me that grad school isn’t worth it and that you shouldn’t go on to do a PhD. Like, why did you do it then? It seemed supremely inconsistent and un-self-reflective to take such a stark blanket stance on telling people not to do it—usually citing only the flimsiest of reasons.
So, as a current PhD student myself, I’m not going to tell you not to go to grad school. But as someone considering a PhD, I do think it’s worthwhile to hear arguments from both the do-it and the don’t-do-it camps. There’s a real risk of not hearing a strong version of the don’t-do-it argument, since the people who are pro-PhD influences in your life are likely to be overrepresented (i.e., people at universities). The anti-PhD people often come off as disaffected rather than arguing from any principled position.
So, here’s the other side. These are the legitimate counterpoints to pursuing a PhD that I think are worth considering before submitting yourself to the process. I’m sure there are others.1 But I came up with twenty-four of them.
1. You’re unlikely to become a professor.
PhD programs are designed to train future professors. But the academic job market is terrible, and it’s extremely difficult to get a job as a university faculty. If you want data, here’s an article stating as much: the number of PhDs is increasing and the number of faculty jobs is going down. But you can also just ask any grad student, post-doc, or professor to give you an honest assessment of the state of play. It’s awful.
2. Being a professor isn’t that great.
Being a professor may sound great, but I think it becomes a lot less appealing when you pay closer attention to what university faculty actually spend their time doing. As far as I can tell, they spend 50% of their time answering email, 40% applying for grants, 30% teaching undergraduate courses they’re not especially excited about, 20% advising graduate students, and approximately -200% of their time doing actual research. Every single one of these poor, laudable bastards is over-worked and saddled with responsibilities beyond what they can reasonably be expected to do. I’m not saying there aren’t good things about being a professor; but I don’t think it’s the occupational Promised Land it’s often envisioned to be.
3. The best case scenario is not the most likely scenario.
So let’s say you do become a professor. Great! There are still a ton of parameters which will have an effect on your well-being and life satisfaction but you may not have control over. Among them are: the university you’ll be at, where that school is located, what your responsibilities there will be, how much you’ll get paid, whether you’ll get sufficient support to set up a lab, and so on. Chances are that even if you do get a good outcome, it probably won’t be the outcome that you’d have imagined for yourself.
4. Grad school doesn’t make you interesting.
Graduate school doesn’t make you into someone who thinks deeply about the world around you. It makes you into someone who thinks deeply about one specific, very narrow field of inquiry. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and it’s also not necessarily a guarantee. But the forces of graduate school act to make you less intellectually engaged with the world at large, not more. People with PhDs don’t have any privileged claim to being generally interesting and insightful.
5. You forfeit the compound interest of earnings in your twenties.
The good news is that most PhD programs pay you a livable wage. But even if you’re willing to forgo a larger salary at a conventional job, it’s not just the salary you’re missing out on. The extra money that you make in that higher salary jobs becomes the principal for investments that compound over time. Even if you’re not an especially thrifty saver with that higher salary, you’re much more likely to begin important life-building investments—retirement, house, etc—in your twenties. If you do your PhD, you’re realistically not going to get started on these endeavors until your thirties. You’ll live. But it is a disadvantage.
6. You’re drawn to this track because it’s easy to envision career stability in academia, not because academia offers career stability.
Undergrad -> Masters / RA -> PhD -> Post-doc -> Assistant Prof -> Tenured Prof. The path to success in academia is concrete. What success looks like is clearcut, and the steps one needs to go through to achieve it are straightforward. But while it’s easy to imagine this path, it’s not at all easy to make your way down it. The allure is the ultimate career security in tenure, as well as a linear path to get there. But until you get to the final stage, you have to worry every couple of years about whether you’ll make it to the next step. In reality, the pipeline has career insecurity built in.
7. You don’t know what else to do with your life now; you’re still not going to know what else to do when you finish grad school.
One common reason for going to graduate school is lack of compelling alternatives. That’s fine. But the problem is that graduate school isn’t going to provide you with experience in anything besides more of the same. You’re still not going to know what else is out there. You’ll just be further along this one particular path.
8. Thinking about interesting ideas is great; yoking your income and professional success to those ideas is less great.
Sitting around getting to read papers and think about interesting ideas is great. And you do get to do that as a part of graduate school—what a blessing! But the reality is that eventually you are on the hook to do something with those ideas. Your income and your professional success depend on translating those “interesting ideas” into status—which is the essential currency of academia. If you really love ideas for their own sake, you may honestly be better off taking a job that is not idea-driven but doesn’t sap all your intellectual energy. Then you can spend your off-time engaging in what you find interesting without the burden of figuring out how it’s going to pay your rent.
9. You’re probably not that much happier on a daily basis in graduate school than you would be in a job, even though grad school seems wayyyy better than actual employment.
Good God, the idea of a Real Job sounds terrible. Ten times out of time I’d take the not-job (i.e., grad school) over the job. At least, that’s what I tell myself. But if I’m really being honest, I sincerely doubt that the actual day-to-day reality of graduate school makes me happier than I would be in a stable, normal-person job. The concept certainly does. But probably not the reality.
10. Grad school can be an isolating experience.
There are many reasons why quotidian happiness is probably lower for graduate students than more robustly employed individuals. I’m sure we’ll hit a few more of them as the list continues. But for now I’ll simply draw your attention to the fact that graduate school can be—by which I mean that it absolutely is, though not necessarily 100% of the time—an isolating experience. At the end of the day, your success or failure is your own. It’s an individual sport, not a team sport. You can have supportive colleagues and advisors (you probably do! lots of nice people here in the academe!) but at the end of the day you are going to be judged on your own portfolio of work. And most of the daily grind of accomplishing that work (reading papers, data analysis, etc) can only really be done solo. That’s in the standard case. In the worst case, you don’t have a strong support network of friends, colleagues, or mentors and you sincerely are isolated. This is a not altogether uncommon experience. For humans in general, but especially for grad students.
11. Few academic disciplines are in a particularly strong place in the current climate.
Many academic fields are not doing especially well at the moment. Many of them are dealing with the possibility that the working assumptions their discipline was founded on are not as strong as they thought. For example, in psychology there are any number of crises from which you can choose your favorite: replication, theory, generalization, etc. Maybe this is a potential boon for you, the prospective PhD student. My mom once encouraged me to seek out places with problems, because that’s where you’ll have the biggest opportunity to make a positive impact. Not a terrible point. But setting that quandary aside, the other respect in which most academic fields are doing poorly is that they ain’t got no money. I doubt that’s something which your presence, luminous though it may be, can positively impact.
12. Having the title “Dr” and getting to put “PhD” after your name doesn’t make you a better person.
You might not think it does. But admit it, you kinda do. Alas. It doesn’t.
13. It also only makes you a credible expert in a relatively narrow set of situations.
I think there’s a number of legitimate ways to read this statement. But one of them is that people without PhDs don’t value PhDs nearly as much as people who have them do. They don’t really care. Unless you know exactly who you are trying to convince of your expertise by obtaining that PhD, it may not have the desired effect.
14. The world is a really big and exciting place: you might be choosing grad school because life at a university is the only one you’re really familiar with.
The world is a big place. It really is. There is so much world out there. It’s an amazing fact: that the world is so fantastically bigger than you can imagine. It is full of opportunities and serendipities you wouldn’t even believe. Are you giving up on that for the certainty—the appearance of concrete progress—that graduate school offers?
15. It’s difficult to disentangle your identity from your work.
You are not your work. I think I understand this statement, in an abstract sense. But I’m not sure it is still a part of my deep-seated visceral intuitions. The reality of academia is that there is never not a time when you could be working. It also feels like your work is, in a way, the contents of your own mind. This is true of other jobs, not just research. But there many jobs in which it is much easier to maintain a healthy distinction between who you are and what you produce.
16. You are at the mercy of the job market when it comes to where you live.
The author John Green once told a story of his move to Indianapolis. Green and his wife were returning their rented U-Haul van after a cross-country moving trip. The guy behind the desk asked them where they’d driven in from. Green’s wife, Sarah, told him that they’d just driven in from New York. She’d gotten a job at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. The man said he’d been there once before, as a kid. Sarah asked him what he thought of Indianapolis. The man thought for a moment. “Well,” he said, “you gotta live somewhere.”
17. If your partner is also an academic, it’s likely that one or both of you will have to make significant career compromises to remain physically proximal to one another.
But imagine that while Sarah’s job took her to Indianapolis, John Green was not a famous author but an academic; his only job offer was at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico. They have four options: (1) Be apart, potentially for a long period of time; (2) one of them takes the ideal job while the other takes a suboptimal, local job; (3) the other one takes the ideal job while the other finds somewhere local; or (4) both compromise to find slightly-less-suboptimal-though-not-ideal jobs in a common location. Welcome to the two body problem. We’re glad you could join us.
18. Even if you do get tenure, life doesn’t automatically get perfect.
I think the many sins of the academic life are often glossed over based on the idea that, well, it’s all worth it once you get tenure. I don’t buy this line of reasoning. For one thing, tenure isn’t a wiping clean of the slate, where you get to start over and remake yourself as a new person. You have built up years of habits and life-precedents and all that sort of stuff. Do you think that just goes away over night? That seems really unlikely to me. It seems more likely that if you spend your first forty years operating in a mode that makes you unhappy, you’re going to be paying for that for a while. Tenure or not.
19. Even if life did automatically get perfect upon receiving tenure… Do you really want to construct your life around the promise of deferred happiness simply to have a baseline guarantee of employment?
Even if you didn’t have to pay for your habits during the first forty, is it really worth it to go through all that profligate bullshit in your twenties and thirties just so your university can’t fire you?!
20. Going to a fancy university also doesn’t make you a better person.
You might not think it does. But admit it, you kinda do. Alas. It doesn’t.
21. You are choosing to pursue an academic career because you have been good at school up through this point and so you are following the path of least resistance by doing more school.
Be honest. Are continuing to do the thing that comes easiest to you, rather than putting yourself in a situation in which there’s a non-zero chance of failure?
22. You can publish and still perish.
The sad, sad truth is that in academia it doesn’t matter how good you are. There’s no level of good or smart or productive that you can be which will liberate you from the above problems. Some people do get the dream position. Whether it’s worth it, I don’t know. But what I do know is that if you’re considering doing a PhD you’re smart and capable and ambitious. There are lots of people out there who will value you and your work way more than what the academic system will for all that sweat and tears you’re about to put into it.
23. You are more capable than you give yourself credit for, and if you take the chance to put yourself out there in an unknown world you may find success and happiness beyond anything you currently imagine.
The flip-side of the concreteness of the academic path, which I maligned in point fourteen, is that it limits you only to that success which you can currently imagine. That version of success may or may not be great. But it is certainly a very, very small proportion of the possible versions of “success” which you could experience in this life. Most of success-space consists in things you currently cannot envision. If you choose to go to graduate school, I’ll be happy for you. I really will. But I want you to make that decision on the basis of your enthusiasm for the work you’d get to do during your PhD. It should come from a genuinely positive place. It should not come from a fear of the unknown—from the fear of putting yourself out there into the world without being able to explain to your mom and dad and friends or even yourself what exactly the path to success looks like and what your place in this glorious morass we call society will be. You might be more capable than you give yourself credit for. If you’re doubting that, it might be time to take a risk. Put yourself out there. You don’t yet know what else is out there. How exciting would it be to find out?
24. There are no right choices. There are only the choices you make.
At the end of the day, whether or not to go to grad school is just a decision. There is no right answer. It is a single choice—albeit a big one—in the project of architecting a life. Plenty of people go to grad school and live decent, meaningful, happy lives. Plenty of people don’t go to grad school and live decent, meaningful, happy lives. In both cases, the opposite is also true. I just think that it’s only fair that someone making this decision is able to take into account these considerations when doing so. It’s unethical for faculty and other academics to encourage people along this path (one that has, in the case of professors, already worked out for them) without apprising them of the realistic downsides. So there you are. Those are the downsides.
Twenty-four of them at least.
Thanks for reading. I’m Cody Kommers, and this is my Substack in which I write about psychology, travel, and the science of meaningful experience. I’m a PhD student in social psych at Oxford. If you liked this piece, please consider sharing or subscribing. It’s a huge help in supporting this content. I really appreciate it.
Also — if you’re thinking about applying to PhD programs (especially in psychology or related fields) and have questions, feel free to reach out. You can reply to this email directly or send me a note at email@example.com. For specific information about US students applying to UK programs, see this.
If you have others that you think are substantively different from what I’ve put here, I’d love to hear them. I’ll include them as an addendum to the above piece. Also, if you think anything I’ve included is wrong or overblown (like, really overblown since almost certainly there’s going to be stuff you don’t quite go with me all the way on) then let me know. I’ll edit accordingly to reflect any strong counterarguments.