PhD or No PhD. That Is the Question.

Every year, as a new crop of seniors realizes that the end (of college) is in sight, there are those who consider going straight on to a PhD. For some of them, college has been a time of growth through exposure to new ideas. They may have conducted independent research or joined honor societies or attended conferences where they had deep conversations with intelligent people who shared their interests. They don’t want to lose that. I don’t blame them! Others, perhaps, don’t know what to do with their lives, but figure they’re pretty good at school, so they may as well continue. For others, there are simply no job opportunities in sight, and further education lets them defer student loans.

There’s no consensus among faculty whether to encourage or discourage these often idealistic dreamers in their quest for higher learning. It’s popular these days to discourage them, pointing to their (often) unrealistic expectations, the inadequate funding of higher education, and the poor job market. By encouraging them, are we setting them up to fail? I’ve encountered the argument that, given the limited resources for higher education, it should go to only the very best, who will advance the discipline. And even they aren’t guaranteed employment.

But there’s also pressure to encourage our students to pursue PhDs. At my university, we have an entire office devoted to helping students apply for prestigious fellowships.  If our students get into recognized graduate programs, our rankings go up. Our department looks good if our recent graduates are pursuing PhDs. It certainly beats the alternative, which may be moving back home and working at Starbucks.

But frankly, as a Christian, I believe in higher education. Not that it makes us more valuable as people. And it certainly doesn’t make us any better Christians. Not everyone is called to do what I do. But understanding God’s world and the people God created is important. And frankly, I have devoted my life to my field because I think it matters. We need more people trained in the kinds of issues my discipline addresses. I sincerely believe this.

So do I encourage my students to apply to graduate school? Often I do, although I ask them some difficult questions first. My advice to them would often go somewhat like this:

Are you most interested in the career or the education? If the career is most important, then you may wish to think again. Professional programs, not PhDs, provide career training. Graduate school is not a hoop to jump through to get to what you really want to do. It’s a commitment that will last for many years, probably changing the direction of your life . . . (Read the rest of the article here.)

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