Philip Guo (Phil Guo, Philip J. Guo, Philip Jia Guo, pgbovine)

The single most practical reason for pursuing a Ph.D. that I can think of (and I've thought a lot about this topic!)

Pursuing a Ph.D. is the only way to spend 4 to 8 years being paid to work on something that the market does not directly value in the short term.

I've written a ton about Ph.D. life and given a talk called Why Pursue A Ph.D.? Three Practical Reasons. Even though I've thought a lot about this topic, it still bothered me that I couldn't come up with a concise answer to this simple question: What's the most practical reason for pursuing a Ph.D.?

I think I finally got it, though. But before giving my answer, I want to go over some not-so-practical reasons for pursuing a Ph.D.:

  • I want a lifelong career in academia. The open secret that all Ph.D.-holders know is that the chances of sustaining a lifelong career in academia are exceptionally slim. It's hard to get and even harder to keep a faculty job, and even harder still to continually raise enough funding to sustain a 30-plus-year career. In my experience, most people who enter a Ph.D. program wanting to become a tenured professor end up bitterly disappointed when they encounter the dismal job market. And non-tenured positions in academia are rarely sustainable since they are even more dependent on the whims of grant funding.

  • I want to get higher-paying jobs. Even though your post-Ph.D. starting salary will be higher than those of Bachelor's and Master's degree holders, your lifetime earnings are not going to be higher. In the 4 to 8 years that you spend doing your Ph.D., you would've saved up much more money and gotten higher raises if you had just started a regular job after college. Other graduate degrees (e.g., M.D., M.B.A., J.D.) are better if you want to maximize lifetime income.

  • I love the subject and want to do a Ph.D. for its own sake regardless of future job prospects. This can be a great reason for some people, but it's not really a practical one. Nonetheless, if doing a Ph.D. for its own sake can lead you to sustained long-term happiness, then I'm all for it. Best of luck!

OK, so here's the single most practical reason in my mind for pursuing a Ph.D.:

Pursuing a Ph.D. is the only way to spend 4 to 8 years being paid to work on something that the market does not directly value in the short term.

If you want to work on something that the market does value in the short term, then stop reading now. Don't pursue a Ph.D. Bye!

I think most people want to work on something of immediate short-term value, so they shouldn't pursue a Ph.D. But for the rare weirdos such as myself who purposely want to work on things with no tangible value in the coming day, week, month, year, or even decade, then a Ph.D. is one of the only ways to do so.

Note that the majority of Ph.D. graduates return to the “real world” outside of academia after finishing their degrees and spend the rest of their lives working on something with tangible short-term market value. So if that's the case, then why even bother with the Ph.D.? Why not join the mainstream work force right away?

The most practical reason I can think of is that you get a rare 4 to 8 years away from direct pressures of the market to pursue work with no short-term financial or social value. (Most of you have the rest of your life to deliver direct short-term value.) So why on Earth is that compelling? One, because you have dramatically more creative freedom when you're not bound by short-term market pressures. (This is by far the most practical reason, and why I'm in academia!) And two, because there's a tiny, tiny, tiny chance that what you work on will have unforeseen benefits to the world decades in the future. (This isn't a practical reason, but it's still cool!) Without silly weirdos working on “useless” quantum mechanics 100 years ago instead of doing something immediately useful for society, we wouldn't have iPhones right now!


One potential retort is that plenty of people work on projects that aren't directly driven by market forces. What about people at nonprofits? In the government? Or those working on nonprofit projects at for-profit companies? At nonprofit and government jobs, your role is still dictated by short-term goals of the political “market.” Benefactors or taxpayers are giving your organization money, and they expect you to use it to produce something of immediate value. On the other hand, working on nonprofit projects at for-profit companies is the closest approximation to Ph.D. life, since the surplus from the rest of your company's profits temporarily funds nonprofit pursuits. However, in my experience, such projects are usually fleeting and rarely last for more than a few years; definitely not 4 to 8 years like a Ph.D. And if you're working on a nonprofit project in a for-profit company, you are, by definition, not part of the “core mission” of the company and are thus not as likely to get as good of promotions or raises as your peers who are working on for-profit projects. (Also, what about people who work on R&D or research projects in industry? Many of them have Ph.D. degrees, so you'll likely need to get one first if you want that type of job.)

Another retort is that during your Ph.D., you are still bound by market forces ... of grant or fellowship funding, of your advisor's research direction, of your lab's resources. Fair enough. But the mission of research money is explicitly to fund work with no short-term market value but that could potentially have longer-term societal value. And your advisor is also motivated by such longer-term goals. It's not a perfect alignment of interests, but it's the best we can do at the moment.

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Created: 2014-09-05
Last modified: 2014-09-05
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