I am very fortunate to work in a selective and well-resourced institution, and have many opportunities to meet amazing, young people embarking on a career in graduate education. I also encounter many interested (and interesting) people who just don’t understand what a Ph.D. is, how to go about finding a good program for them, or to go through what is a very competitive process. This is particularly important because these are things I also did not know when I started on this path. I’m thus setting out here to share what I have come to know as straightforwardly as possible.
With some reflection, I think that I may be the last of a generation of scholars to figure all of this out as I went. Even in the last few years, I’ve seen applicants getting increasingly polished, and so there is a great need to undertake this entire endeavor strategically. In this series, I’ve constructed some guiding questions both to get the reader started, and as a means to explore some of the bigger issues at play.
My plan for this series of blog posts is to cover the following:
- Part I, What is a Ph.D., and should I get one?
- Part II, How do I find a Ph.D. program?
- Part III, How do I apply?
- Part IV, How are Ph.D. applications evaluated? (coming … eventually)
- Part V, What is life like as a Ph.D. student? (coming … eventually)
Caveat: Although it may go without saying, I have some pretty substantive experience in the area (and even published a book on college admissions more broadly), but this blog is based on my personal experience in the social sciences and in education. And my advice is based more on anecdote than research. The best advice is to talk and listen to as many people as possible.
What is a Ph.D.?
For many, the Ph.D. is the ultimate marker of smartness, but the decision to apply to a Ph.D. program should not be driven by your desire to be classified as smart. It is far too big a commitment. A Ph.D. is many things, and brings with it a lot of cachet. But, in my opinion, it should really be considered as primarily one thing and all the rest are only incidentals. Primarily, a Ph.D. prepares you to be a professional researcher: that’s it. Whether it is physics, sociology or education, Ph.D. programs prepare you for a career in inquiry and scholarship. Professors in universities are not teachers who happen to be employed at universities. That history professor is a historian who goes to archives and writes history books (or wants to). That physics professor is a scientist who works in a lab and writes articles about particle structures (or is feeling pressure to). Teaching is only a small part of what they do (well, depending on in which institution they serve). Some people find this quite surprising, but it is centrally important to everything else that comes: what sort of research do you want to do, with whom, why, and so forth. You will of course get to do many other things, including becoming part of a rich intellectual community of scholars, but even that is premised on your producing new knowledge about the world.
What is research? That’s a tough one, and a bit beyond the scope of this blog. Let’s just say it means adding to humanity’s knowledge in some narrow area, perhaps best illustrated here. Does everyone succeed in that effort? Well, let’s say that is the goal. Life as a researcher, academic or scholar is a serious commitment and it is hard. The average Ph.D. in the United States takes 7-10 years, and is therefore more akin to a life-path than a career-path. In many ways, then, it is like going to medical school or law school – and you need to think about whether this is the right life-path for you. You need a meaningful commitment to a social issue, topic, set of problems, population, disciplinary perspective (etc.) that will carry you through a challenging academic program and throughout your lifetime. That’s a tall order. An academic master’s program could be a good place to figure those things out if you are not sure where to start. Nonetheless, the first question must be, do you want to be a researcher?
Not all researchers work for universities. Researchers are hired by universities as professors (or in other roles), but also by governments, non-profits, think-tanks, museums, private corporations and so on. And there are many sorts of researchers – not all of whom live in some bubble. Some work with numbers and in labs, some with fragments of pottery, some work with kids in classrooms, some with troubled families, some produce documentary films and some attempt to understand climate change. There are many different research traditions out there – but the first step is deciding whether or not you want to have a career in research at all. You must be committed to this path in order to be a competitive candidate.
Imagine that in an application to medical school, an applicant wrote that his life’s goal was to start a men’s health magazine, and that becoming an M.D. would help get him the prestige to help in that effort. Wouldn’t that be odd? The admissions committee in a med school wants to hear about how you want to heal the sick, and how you are prepared to start on the life-path of being a medical doctor. Medical schools don’t prepare anyone for starting or running a magazine. This seems obvious.
And yet, on numerous occasions, I have seen applicants who say they are applying to a Ph.D. program in education because they want to open a K-12 school. This is certainly a laudable goal, but a Ph.D. in education will not prepare anyone to open or run a school – it will prepare someone to be an educational researcher. It will provide a space to really dig into what we know about schools, learning, education systems, the history of education, the impact of policies, and so forth. That is what is at the center of the program, and that is what you need to demonstrate a propensity for.
What if I don’t want to do research?
Ph.D.’s do bring a lot of prestige and can open up access to many important social worlds. As they are such a serious commitment, they can take a very long time, and are an uncertain path, I always advise interested folks to look to programs that have strong funding options. My affiliated program, for example, offers four years of “full” tuition for every student admitted to our program, including a stipend working for 20 hours per week on research projects and health insurance (more on comparing funding offers will be explored in Part II). However, we can only take a few people per year – making it very competitive. This sort of funding is attractive – even those who are not interested in doing research begin to think that maybe they can “fake” their way through it. But keep in mind that funding alone will not sustain you through rigorous academic programs – you have to have a genuine love for research and your topic. Even a genuine love will be tested by the intense experience of doctoral study – faking it to get prestige and funding is just not the way to go.
Again, Ph.D.’s are for those who want to do research. And if you want to have a career in research, then you should get a Ph.D. – at least somewhere down the line. You can begin a career in research without a Ph.D., but you will eventually hit a very real and hard ceiling, and the Ph.D. is the only way to move beyond it. And it is a path I found personally very rewarding, despite its many (many, many?) challenges. But what about for those who don’t want to do research?
Well, honestly, there are lots of options for those who don’t want to do research. In many respects, any bachelor’s or master’s degree would be sufficient for achieving the goals that many have articulated in their applications. You don’t need a doctorate to open a school. Or to get a promotion. Some folks are just trying to prove they are smart. Some are looking for status. I would consider other options in these cases.
Another option for those in education is the Ed.D., which is a doctorate for practitioners (and which is not the focus of this series). This introduces students to collecting data and understanding evidence, but as applied to resolving particular problems in particular institutions. Thus a Ph.D. student might do a dissertation that expands our knowledge of how children learn, while an Ed.D. student might develop a curriculum based on that research as implemented in one school, with an emphasis on evidence of its effectiveness in that place (and actually, the Ed.D. might be appropriate for someone wanting to open a school). However, Ed.D. or Master’s programs don’t typically have the kind of funding or prestige that Ph.D. programs offer. Just a fact of life. My goal here is not to lay out how it ought to be, but how things are at the time of writing.
I hope this post offers some helpful first steps. I find that some folks are embarrassed or frightened to ask the kinds of questions that this post tries to answer. Carry these considerations with you as you move forward to the next part in this series “How do I find a program?”
If you have questions, you can ask them below. I may answer questions there, or incorporate the answer into one of the later posts if that is more appropriate.