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Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Is a PhD really worth your time and money? | The Fulcrum - Features

Grad students weigh in on the challenges and benefits on the road to a PhD.

"Investing in a PhD is a big decision. It usually means pushing an already long academic career in post-secondary education up to the 11-year mark, at least" says Eric Davidson, Editor-in-Chief 
Photo: Alina Wang

In the words of one professor, it can mean “working for years for very little money while you watch your friends get rich.”

Not only that, the PhD itself is in flux. Academic jobs, the stereotypical application of the degree, can be hard to come by. Universities get strong, qualified applicants all the time, and yet many of these job seekers leave disappointed, or suspended in part-time positions with little job security.

And yet the number of students starting their doctorate has been rising steadily for years.

While the PhD is changing, the shifts are far more complex than the changes in academic employment. For many students, it means more work and a more creative approach, but not necessarily a sense of impending doom.

It turns out that the potential outcomes from PhD students are myriad, but the challenges they must face are no less numerous.

As for the reasons why people decide to extend their academic lives, in the lab or in the library—well, there are plenty of those, too.

Why take a PhD?
The number of students enrolled in PhD programs in Ontario nearly doubled between 2000 and 2013, according to Statistics Canada, swelling to around 20,000 students.

So what is it that’s causing a growing number of students to take the plunge?

For some, it’s about their career. If you want to work in some high-level jobs in academia, or in the private sector, especially on the science side, you need the fancy degree. And of course, the prestige doesn’t hurt. For others, passion is the catalyst.

Jennifer Dumoulin is doing her PhD in the Department of Communications at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Arts. “I was in law school, and I had the idea for the topic that I ended up working on now, and then I saw an advertisement for the communications (PhD) program,” she said. “I just kind of had this feeling that that’s where I should be.”

Alexandre Sicard, a PhD student in chemistry, says that for him, the thrill of discovery is a big driver. “When you get a great success, it feels amazing, you feel like a brilliant scientist,” he said. “You’ve created a new compound, you’ve combined the elements in such a way that have never heretofore been combined, you have something to stamp your name on that is yours.”

This passion extends to a wide swathe of fields. And while social sciences and the physical and life sciences make up a large chunk of Ontario doctoral students (around 20 per cent each), there are people taking PhDs in fields from architecture to visual arts.

While all these fields have their own distinct paths, there are challenges that affect students across all disciplines.

But will it get me a job?
One thing’s for sure, the myth of the PhD being a clear, non-forking path leading to a cushy, full professorship has been busted.

According to research from the Conference Board of Canada, only around 19 per cent of PhDs end up as full-time university professors, and more than half don’t end up in academia at all.

Jennifer Polk is a PhD graduate in history from the University of Toronto who runs a company called Beyond the Professoriate, which is designed to help PhD students find careers. She says that while in many cases the PhD is useful in getting these jobs, in some cases it isn’t the leading factor in gaining employment.

Polk says that when people end up working in fields different from what their PhD was in, the degree doesn’t necessarily give them an advantage. “I don’t think that the way the PhD programs are structured now are doing as good a job as they could at giving PhDs skills that are transferable to other industries.”

In other cases, it just might be a longer path to get where you want to go. Christelle Paré, a part-time professor at the U of O’s Department of Communications, is teaching one part-time class, while doing a postdoctoral fellowship, and teaching at the École nationale de l’humour in Quebec. She eventually plans to get a full-fledged professorship, but she says it can be a tedious path, even for part-time gigs.

“You need to find an opening in your field, and not only in your field, but with your profile,” she said. “You can be very competent, be extremely smart, have a very nice resume, but if your personality or your research projects do not fit with some of the professors’ ideology or priorities, then they will pick somebody else.”

Dumoulin says she’s heard all about the problems with getting a job with a PhD in Communications. “In the PhD world, they talk about ‘publish or perish,’ they talk about how professors aren’t hiring, that it’s really hard to get tenure, and the issue with the part-time professors now,” she said. “There’s all kinds of negativity around there.”...

So… is it worth it?
So, after contending with all these factors that are affecting today’s PhD students, what’s the final verdict? Is it worth it?

Well, anyone at least partially steeped in the world of academia won’t be surprised by the answer—it depends.

The fact is, outcomes vary widely based on the the topic of the PhD, the person themselves, and other factors like a chance scientific discovery. But it can’t be denied that there are serious challenges students have to overcome to finish and profit from their doctoral degrees.

There are many factors to consider beyond if you like the subject or want a job in it. Studying the job market and how it might change is important, as is learning about the lifestyle of those taking and graduated from the PhD program. There are still large problems to be fixed, like the lack of full understanding of how to adapt to people’s mental health needs. And in some cases, like those of international students, you may not even be afforded the choice of completing a PhD in Canada.

The decision to get a PhD is more complex than ever. So if you are considering it, make sure to study up.
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Source: The Fulcrum