Why am I getting a PhD?
October 6, 2008 7:38 PM   Subscribe

Why am I getting a PhD?

I'm 1.5 years into a PhD in Art History. I have an interesting topic, a generally decent supervisor, adequate funding and resources, and have quite enjoyed the small amount of teaching I've done so far. Assuming I can maintain my current level of productivity, I hope to finish in another 2 years. (So just to clarify, this is not necessarily a "Should I quit" sort of question...)

However, I have to admit that this course of study is something I drifted into, rather than planned. I applied without thinking about it, to the same university I did undergrad in, and accepted the offer without seeking much advice or considering what it might involve. To be honest it seemed like the best (easiest / most secure) option at the time, considering my relative lack of employable skills. I often speculate about what I would do if I wasn't studying, and the possibilities are quite scary. As much as the PhD is lonely, frustrating and often seems irrelevant to The Real World, I have done a LOT of mind-numbingly boring jobs that make me feel lucky to be getting paid to research something interesting. Even if I increasingly wonder whether I'll still be interested by the time I'm done.

If I'd have known the emotionally and psychologically taxing nature of the PhD process before beginning, I would probably have just devoted my time to figuring out what I actually wanted to do for a career, THEN applying for further study if required. But maybe those kinds of am-I-making-the-right-life-choices issues crop up for everyone in their mid-20s, PhD or not?! And now that I've come this far and am making decent progress, I'm basically resigned to just doing it as quickly as possible and getting out of here - especially given that I seem to have had it pretty sweet so far, compared to the horror stories I hear about some supervisors and departments.

By the way, I like teaching, but not necessarily only at a university level, and have no burning desire to compete for a spot in academia.

So my questions are: from your experience or advice given to you, is it going to be harder than usual to finish my Phd, given that I don't specifically want one? Everyone says you have to "want" a PhD in order to get one. But is there some kind of different goal I could set for myself to keep motivated? Has anyone successfully turned a dodgy initial motivation (i.e. taking what seemed like the easiest option at the time) into something worthwhile that kept them focused til graduation?

Also, what are the other options for a Humanities PhD apart from academia? Will it make me more employable or is that just a gigantic lie from my department, who don't want to lose the funding they will receive when I graduate? Has anyone who didn't really want a PhD to begin with, found it to be more useful than they could have anticipated?

Advice or suggestions on any of these questions would be greatly appreciated (not just from those in the humanities.) I'm sure that deep down there are some really good reasons why I am doing a PhD, I'm just having trouble articulating them...

Thanks for your help!
posted by Weng to Education (11 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
I'm less than a year away from defending my dissertation in Art History and can't imagine having gotten all this way without seriously wanting the Ph.D. Actually, I had a huge answer all typed out and I thought it seemed proselytizing and I certainly didn't mean for it to, so I trashed it.

Instead, I'll say that you can have great museum careers, auction house careers, teaching careers at K-12 institutions and community colleges, copy editing and writing opportunities and opportunites of countless other kinds, I'm sure, with just the M.A. in Art History. Having said that, I've known people who finished right up (mainly because they wanted to get the hell out) and then never used the Ph.D., which never made much sense to me, but people are motivated by their own needs. I won't try to discourage you, but just say that I couldn't to it.

Have you started writing in earnest yet? Have you gotten through your first set of revisions yet? It's lonely. It's isolating. You get sick of hearing your own voice and sometimes that's the only one you have time to hear. I wouldn't wish that on anyone who absolutely doesn't want to be there.

As to whether it will make you employable, that depends on what you want to do. If you want to curate or direct a museum or work a faculty position at most college levels, then yes, you need the Ph.D. But like I said, there are other great careers available to you without a doctorate. I think it fully depends on whether it is worth it to you to finish. Certainly no shame in letting it go if the desire isn't there. There is no way I would do this to myself and in this field if I weren't absolutely passionate about it.

Not sure if this is any help at all, but that's what dribbled out of my head.
posted by Heretic at 8:17 PM on October 6, 2008

When I started my Ph.D. program, one of the "old-timer" graduate students imparted this bit of wisdom. He said, "Anyone who can imagine him/herself doing anything other than being an academic will never finish their Ph.D." Of course, he was exaggerating, and his advice holds best for fields like mine where being a prof is essentially the only option, but throughout my own academic career I continually see the insight in his observation. It is not hard to predict which ABD students are likely to finish, and which are not. If you are questioning whether or not you want to finish, I'd bet against you. Only someone who has written a dissertation can comprehend the anomie and alienation that accompanies it.

Coincidentally, when I was the "old-timer" graduate student I used to impart my own bit of wisdom to the newbs: "No one finishes a dissertation without enduring a major mental health crisis along the way."
posted by Crotalus at 8:37 PM on October 6, 2008 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I have 10 months to go on a PhD (public health). Like you I wandered into it, so was concerned that my topic, while interesting, wasn't my most burning passion.
I was very worried whether I would be able to maintain focus.
My main supervisor, who basically provides nothing but financial support and access to resources, took me aside when I started and said 'the best piece of advice that I could ever give to a new student is that the point of doing a PhD is to get a PhD'

It has been incredibly hard and lonely and frustrating. I still have no idea what I want to do when I finish, but the process itself has been so incredible already. The skills, discipline and motivation strategies will serve me well for the rest of my life. Even if I never do anything in this field again.
Good luck.
posted by bingoes at 8:52 PM on October 6, 2008 [3 favorites]

Cuz' it's like eagle scout for adults n' says you're not a quitter? ;)

It's easier in the sciences because your PhD has more bearing on industry jobs. If they are paying you, and you like it there, then why not first figure out first if you think you'll finish and next what you might do after. I mean, you can maybe focus on the history of advertising if you want a job in the advertising world. (shrug)
posted by jeffburdges at 9:30 PM on October 6, 2008 [3 favorites]

I'm in education; what I've done recently is to re-align my course of studies from a PhD to an Education Specialist (EdS). It's somewhere "higher" than an MA or MS (I already have one of those anyway), but not as "high" as a PhD. It's like being terminally ABD -- coursework done, but no dissertation....

....which will work well for me, because I didn't really have the abiity to grok, then, what I know now: the *only* reason to get the PhD (in my field) is to research/teach at a R1 university or the like. And the other thing I know -- really, really know -- is that I'm not cut out for a tenure-track professorship. I love some aspects of higher education -- teaching, especially. But I do not have the personal/social/political drive/chutzpah/confidence to schmooze/publish/"serve". Nope. Not one bit. It saddens me a little bit that it took me several years to really figure this out. But, them's the breaks.

So, you might take a look at what other degrees/programs you might be able to consider, and see if you can reconnoiter your already-completed coursework. I'm not saying that you *should* change -- but it's one way to consider your various options.

Because the corollary to "You Have To Really Want It" is "If You Don't Really Want It, Why Do It?"
posted by CitizenD at 9:52 PM on October 6, 2008

Best answer: I'm going to be another voice of dissent and agree with bingoes.

I got my Ph.D. at your age, though in science. Like you, I wandered into it; like you, I felt ambivalence during the entire process. I certainly didn't looooove what I was doing like my fellow grad student comrades did. I definitely had the feeling, when compared to my peers, that "one of these things is not like the other," and I was the one.

HOWEVER. Boy, am I glad I got my Ph.D. As bingoes said, the point is to get a Ph.D. You have no idea how many doors this simple fact (regardless of concentration area) will open for you. It often grants one instant respect and acknowledgment of competence, sort of how you'd feel if you found out someone was a Green Beret or something. You'd know they were tough and kind of a badass, and the Ph.D. is the intellectual equivalent.

Ten years later, I am doing something completely unrelated, but it has opened so many doors for me. As a woman, it sort of stamped me with an objective seal of approval and was an indicator of objective proof of intellect. (I hate saying that, but I do think that women still have to "prove" their worth and competence more than men, even today.)

I believe you will have diverse and exciting opportunities apart from a career in academia. I have to imagine there is something about art history you really dig. Start brainstorming creative, non-academic paths you could take. Look at alumni from your Ph.D. program and see what they're doing. I guarantee they aren't all in academia. Do a search on "art history career" on Google and see what pops up. I am guessing all kinds of roads are open to you. Having a Ph.D. does not mean "You are only reallyreally good in ART HISTORY," but instead "You are driven, well-educated, top-shelf intellectually, a problem-solver, etc." Small, interesting companies will see that as an asset, if you'd like to go into business (as I did). I hate that I cannot speak more to the alternative paths art history people take, but I'm a scientist.

I'm so glad you are thinking of this now...I talked myself into academia and spent 2 years at Big Research School and another two at Seven Sisters Teaching School before I finally admitted to myself it wasn't for me.

Good luck to you!

Oh, just thought of something else...the Chronicle of Higher Education has a section for people who have defected from academia. Here is a website with an alternative careers link. I know there used to be a series of articles written by people who had opted out of academia. N.B.: The pressure to stay in academia is so strong that every one of the authors wrote anonymously. That spoke volumes to me.
posted by Punctual at 12:14 AM on October 7, 2008 [6 favorites]

Oh, and Weng, here's the page with sites and resources for alternative art history careers.

And to more directly answer your question regarding motivation to stay in the program, think of it like you thought of undergrad. Duh, you were going to finish, of course, no big deal. Don't make it a bigger deal than that. Someone told me fairly early on that the way to get your Ph.D. is to keep showing up every day. Seriously, so true. Make incremental progress each day and you'll get there. Write down what you have left to do (I feel so out of my depth - I had to complete a series of experiments and publish them. I do not know what Your Kind do, sorry.) But whatever those steps are, write them down, check them off, enjoy your life.
posted by Punctual at 12:22 AM on October 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I too drifted into a PhD in art history. I was ABD--with all the struggles that go along with it, including the debilitating process of applying for grant money to start/finish the dissertation--when I had decided I had really had it with academia and that I had never really been that fired up about art history anyway. So I took a full-time job related to academia on campus (in publishing) while I figured out what to do next. And it turns out that I LOVED that job. After about three years not even thinking about my dissertation, it started to bother me that I had come that far and still had unfinished business. So I decided to write the dissertation. I finished it within a year--while working full time-- and got the degree. It was the best thing I ever did. Not because the act of doing it was so wonderful but because I finished something that I started and, well, I have a Phd. So I am totally with bingoes and Punctual.

You don't even know yet what doors it might open for you. It has been almost ten years since I finished the degree, and I am now the spokesperson for a major museum and just published a well-received general-interest book in the field of . . . art history.

However, I don't know of any PhD programs that you can get in and out of in 3.5 years. If you can, then more power to you. It took me four years alone to become ABD. One piece of advice: the dissertation is only as hard as you make it. Don't listen to the older students whining about their years of research, their difficulties writing it up, their dependence on dissertation support groups. Just get in there and do it, efficiently and quickly. The dissertation is quicksand and can suck you in for years. But place the right planks on top and you can get through it with minimal anguish. And THEN, once it's done, you can decide what to do next. You're so young! You've got plenty of time to figure this out. Just do what's in front of you now as quickly as possible and then move on.
posted by fiery.hogue at 5:36 AM on October 7, 2008 [3 favorites]

Best answer: You probably read my post a few weeks back on a similar topic. I was miserable in my humanities PhD program. I also wandered into the field and felt I could hack it without having any real passion for it, but I was wrong. I've always been motivated to be a good student no matter how I felt about the subject matter I was studying at the time. But the PhD immersed me in a single subject I had little passion for, and after several years of that immersion, motivation to be a good student wasn't enough. Once that happened I was pretty much lost.

While I did wander into the field, even as an undergrad I had misgivings. I’d say I too took the easiest path, but not just because the subject came easily to me. It was easy because it was what others (advisors, parents, friends, etc) were telling me to do. It was the easy way to avoid figuring out what I actually wanted to be doing. As a result I was never really happy with my choice but I wasn't always unhappy with it. While I never felt lonely, I found it "frustrating and often seems irrelevant to The Real World".

Like you I had it "pretty sweet" (actually very very sweet), and my experience (outside of my own lack of motivation/interest/caring/etc.) was anything but a "horror story". But, perhaps unlike you, there were no really good reasons deep down why I was doing (this) PhD. At the time it was a choice that required the least personal effort and self reflection. Definitely not a “deep down … really good reason”. Unsurprisingly, when the PhD started to involve increasingly more personal effort just to stay motivated enough to go to the office every day my choice no longer seemed like a good one.

Being out of the program, I'm actually happy now. But I was MISERABLE before. If you aren’t miserable, if you like what you do (even if you don’t love it), if you are motivated to do good work, then you should stick with it. I fully agree with the posts you marked as best. There is no doubt that having a PhD is better than not having one in most circumstances (though it can actually make it harder to change academic fields in some cases, which is what I want to do). It is instant respect for lots of people, and will open doors that would otherwise be closed. However, I’d question if an additional title is really a “deep down…really good reason” unless that is somehow essential for your personal fulfillment. It’s not for me, and it wasn’t enough to keep me in the field. I’d rather get one in something I really want to do even if it takes me another 7-10 years.

For your specific questions:
Yes, it probably will be harder without the specific desire to have your PhD in art history. I think this is true for anything though. If something require effort to obtain, it’s easier to have a strong desire than not.
It seems like the goal of having any PhD might do it for you.
Obviously I was unable to turn my dodgy motivation around, but not for lack of trying/opportunities. I would have thought a prestigious fellowship would have been great for this, but it certainly wasn’t enough.
I think you have some good examples of other opportunities here. Very few doors will be specifically closed to you. So, with enough effort you can probably do almost anything you might want to do.
I think the default assumption is that it’ll make you more employable. This probably won’t hold true in all circumstances, but it will be and exception when it doesn't.

A final note: Those other students who seem to love what they do, who have a real passion for it. I’ve found that more often than not, that passion doesn’t run as deep as it might seem. I’d encourage you to not compare yourself to these people without really talking to them first.
posted by NormandyJack at 8:52 AM on October 7, 2008 [5 favorites]

Arriving late.... I started my PhD because I thought it would help me work in academia (administration, not classroom - I had already left the classroom by then, and I was past 30 when I started). After exams and while working on my dissertation, I had the opportunity to shift careers and did so. It took me a few years, and a nastygram from the graduate school saying I was about to lose credits, to finish up my dissertation.

I am tremendously glad I did it, even though a PhD in my extremely esoteric field doesn't do me any good in my current career (except for impressing the random client who needs to be impressed). It proved to me that I could finish it; it proved that the years spent in a tiny town with absolutely no social life were worth it; it scratched that intellectual itch to find out as much as I could on this strange little topic; it was something I had always wanted to do from childhood. It may not make you more employable but it has certainly helped me get interviews: "Wow, you have a doctorate? How did you change from that to technical communication?"

The big tipping point is exams. Have you passed your qualifying exams yet? If you have, stick with it; you will have to explain why you're ABD for the rest of your life otherwise. As fiery.hogue says, the dissertation is more a mindgame than anything; the book Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes A Day can help you build a schedule that works. If you're not yet past your exams, you might benefit from a session or two with an employment coach or counselor.

On preview, what NormandyJack says about other students in your program is also important. I spent a long time comparing myself to people I thought were the golden children, and it turned out that only three of my cohort finished - none of us seemed particularly gung-ho at the time.
posted by catlet at 8:17 AM on October 8, 2008

I feel you can circumvent NormandyJack's difficulties by merely spending more time with your advisor. I'd say the worst mistake PhD students make is avoiding their advisor. If you find one whom you just plain like hanging out with, then this problem isn't very likely. A PhD isn't lonely if you're still chatting with "mom or dad" every couple days.
posted by jeffburdges at 8:39 PM on October 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

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