What On Earth Did I Do a PhD For?

By Corinne Thompson, part of The Summer Series of guest posts


I think the most useful element of having a PhD (besides being able to use it in communications with banks and airlines to get them to pay attention to you) is the tendency for others to give you the benefit of the doubt. Why? Because most people understand that if you have these three small letters after your name you have likely suffered a great deal to produce arguably useless data and are therefore reliable and mildly neurotic with regard to being accurate. And this strange, intangible ability for others to give you the benefit of the doubt is life changing. This, above all, is the most useful element of the entire PhD process. It is not the p-values in your results section, it is not that paper that got rejected from three but not the fourth journal; but it is the ability of those above you holding the levers of power to trust you slightly more than the person next to you without the PhD that makes all the difference in the world.

My PhD experience was slightly unusual but also entirely normal. I had no intention of pursuing a PhD, but as the opportunity presented itself I shrugged and thought I could give it a go. Plan A for my thesis involved a body of work that was detailed, answered interesting questions, and was totally impossible to achieve. By month 2 of the process I had moved on to Plan B, which then failed as well. By the end I was on Plan F, hastily trying to weave together a coherent story of fractured data points. The process itself was miserable. Sacrificing a social life, holidays, the ability to read for pleasure without feeling guilty – all of this wore heavily on me. By the end of the process I was convinced it was absolutely not worth it. What had I accomplished? More senior author publications for my boss?

I struggled with the vague nature of the PhD. If you are an MD, as you wander around in society people understand that you know an agreed upon set of facts and skills. Before you are an MD, you aren’t expected to suture a wound or remove a gallbladder. After you are an MD, you are. This lack of a before and after distinction with the PhD really challenged me. What can I now do with a PhD that was not possible for me before? I could have learned most of the skills I developed in my PhD without having to go through the grueling few years of work. I genuinely felt like I had made a mistake, sacrificing some of the best years of my life.

However, I now recognize that the true value of the experience is the little sticker next to my name that now reads, in essence, “You can trust me”. In the end a PhD is a marker of not only intellectual curiosity but also about a set of character traits that make you valuable as a team member. Looking back on it now I wish someone had told me that it’s less about producing these small bits of vaguely useless knowledge and more about the character development that the process demands. Learning how to navigate personal relationships, be it your supervisor or your lab techs, is more valuable in the long run than the quantification of an antibody titer in serum. The ability to teach yourself to write code to reduce a lot of complex data into a clean, simple figure is vastly more important than the actual figure itself. Being able to communicate clearly with people who are not scientists or do not speak your native tongue is a more important skill than whatever is in the presentation you deliver.

After I veered away from academics, burnt out and deeply jaded about the entire field of academia in general, I leapt off a cliff into an applied field. My academic mentors warned me that I would not make it, I had no network or experience in an applied public health setting. Slowly but surely, however, interview requests began to appear. I am entirely convinced that my ability to break into a brand new field relied heavily on the letters “PhD” on my CV. And going forward, I take comfort and grow excited to think about all of the different types of career trajectories open to me as a result. The years spent sweating over spreadsheets and supervisor relationship problems will be rewarded with potentially a lifetime of opportunities based on the ability of people in new places to give you the benefit of the doubt.

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2 thoughts on “What On Earth Did I Do a PhD For?

  1. Pingback: Summer Series | My Scholarly Goop

  2. Pingback: Summer Series Summary | My Scholarly Goop

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