So you think you want to do a PhD…?
You have a bright idea for a research project. You have made contact with a number of academics who could potentially supervise your work. You have investigated sources of funding. You have looked into the processes for all the applications. You have collated all the documents and information that you need. You are now about to take your first big step and submit your applications.
While you wait for the outcomes of these applications, and before you make the final decision to embark on a PhD, you may want to read the following articles and learn a little bit more about the risks and potential costs of going down the PhD pathway.
Think of this as a ‘consumer warning label’ before you purchase the very costly (in time, finances and health) product of a Ph.D. education/experience. Rather than discourage you, the information on this page is provided in the spirit of helping you make an informed decision. A caveat emptor if you will.
NOTE: these articles came to my attention by way of news feeds and email newsletters. I did not actively set out to cull a biased selection of horror stories. That said, there is subjectivity in choosing articles to feature on this page. Although most of the articles make reference to universities located in the ‘West’ (with which I am most familiar), many of the dynamics and issues identified also exist to a greater or lesser degree in other locations, particularly in those institutions that see themselves as part of the global higher education industry. The dates next to the links to the articles refer to the date of publication.
- What is life like as a PhD student?
- How a doctoral study could change you, and not always for the better (August 2014)
- There is such a thing as a ‘PhD comedown‘ – brace yourself!
- You will find other articles that describe aspects of the PhD experience by trawling through the ‘PhD’ tag on Times Higher Education’s website (link)
- The path from PhD to an academic career
- What “counts” in getting an academic job (January 2015)
- Few PhDs end up with an academic career, see Figure 1.6, page 14 (March 2010)
- Life as a “disposable academic” (updated December 2013)
- To hammer the point home further (July 2015)
- All of the above underpinned by statistics and more scientific evidence (June 2015)
- There has been a growing set of conversations that is labelled as “quit lit” – here is an analysis of these conversations (July 2020)
- This echoes my own view: a call for more honesty with prospective doctoral students about their career prospects (March 2022).
Most universities in the world today operate in a global marketplace, and have converged onto rather similar ‘business strategies’, the chief of which is the pursuit of status in global university rankings. This ‘business goal’ contributes to the increasing emphasis on research-, over teaching-, profile, which in turn has (rather predictable) implications for those seeking and attempting to hang on to academic positions…
- So you really want to be an academic…? What is life as an academic likely to be…
- This is a ‘laundry list’ that is phrased in a reasonably neutral manner (March 2015)
- The “underbelly” of life as an early-career academic (December 2010)
- More gloomy tales of life post-PhD (2011, archived copy here)
- Sordid details of managerialism in a modern university environment, where someone actually died…! (December 2014)
- Managerialism in another modern university environment (December 2014)
- Managerialism leads to mental health issues for those being managed, i.e. the academics (March 2014)
- The many invisible and largely “unrewarded” things that academics do (January 2015)
- A catalogue of the stresses and competing responsibilities that drown an academic today (March 2016, archived copy here)
- Fixed-term employment contracts are now the norm for early career academics in the UK, and I’d say the same is true in Australia. Not only is fixed-term employment insecure, but it also present challenges to long term planning and development that is generally required of research and research writing/publication. (April 2016)
- Another article on the casualisation of the workforce in the UK (July 2019)
- … and things can get really, really bad in the US. (September 2017)
- and the challenges can continue even as a middle-level/senior academic. (February 2020)
- These practices and work conditions do not exist only in Western countries. (June 2021)
This (September 2015) is, sadly, one of the best snapshots of the current state of the higher-education sector in English-speaking countries that I have read in recent times. For a critical (damning?) evaluation of the contemporary university in Australia (UK and USA), read this (April 2016).
The state of the academic job-market has given birth to a series of articles, collectively known as “quit lit”, written by discouraged aspiring-academics:
If you do decide to sign up onto a doctoral programme, here are some handy tips for your PhD experience:
- 10 steps to PhD failure (and conversely success) (August 2015)