Are you thinking about applying to a PhD program? Are you already a doctoral student? PhD is a huge investment of time and money. So make sure you spend 15 minutes of your time reading this blog devoted to PhD program success and survival tips. I'm confident that these tips can save up to 10 years of your life, up to $1,000,000 of your money, and, most importantly, your physical and emotional health.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

So what is my profession?

I think that people who decide to quit academia and get a normal job are often puzzled by the following question: "What is my profession?". The thing is that even though you have a PhD in let's say marketing, you are not really a marketing professional. The sad reality is that PhD programs do not prepare knowledgeable programmers, managers, accountants, or marketers. In a PhD program you learn how to do research. So your profession is doing research. You may know much about a particular field, especially if we are talking about the practical aspects of a profession.

For example, I've seen quite a few accounting PhD students who do not know even basic things about accounting, the things that any practicing accountant with a bachelors degree would probably know. The reason for this ignorance is that those accounting PhD students do research in perceptions and do not have time to look at some of the practical aspects of the profession.

Sometimes I even think that once you get a PhD in social sciences, it doesn't really matter in which department you work afterwards. For example, if you get a PhD in psychology, you can do research in such fields as management, marketing, or even accounting and finance. I often see professors from one discipline supervising research in other disciplines. The fact that they don't know much about the field does not really matter. They know how to do research, and it doesn't really matter what field they are looking at.

I can say the same thing about myself. Having learned about experimental design, very often I don't have much problems reading a scientific article in marketing - the field I don't know much about. But I know experimental design and associated statistical techniques, so me not being familiar with the subject matter of research does not prevent me from understanding that article. But obviously, there's no way I can be a marketer - I don't know even basic practical things about the profession. Unfortunately, this may be true not only for me, but also for people who have PhDs in marketing . They don't know much about the profession of a marketer.

Of course, you probably know more than an average undergraduate. However, those 4-5 years that you spent learning about research is largely a waste. The thing is that the real world is too fast-paced to use those scientific methods.

You may be tempted to think that at least you've learned how to think and write. Unfortunately, I don't think business owners will appreciate an employee with academic thinking and writing style. A typical academic approach is to take a trivial thing and make it sound very complex. Sophisticated language is often one of the tools to make that trivial thing sound complex and important. Practitioners often strive to achieve completely the opposite - to take a complex issue and make it sound very simple by ignoring many of the issues and using simple language. I'm pretty sure that the way normal people handle some very complex issues (i.e. "terrorism is bad", "abortion is a sin", "racism is stupid", "capitalism is good", "progressive tax is fair") is giving headache to PhDs studying those issues.

I often think that the only useful thing you learn in a PhD program is survival skills. You know how to work hard despite the fact that you have no motivation, no money, no friends, no personal life, and no energy. You are somewhat of a veteran of psychological warfare. But just like fighting in Vietnam is probably not the best route to a managerial position, your psychological warfare may not be a good route to a normal life. You may have sustained too much damage and may need a rehabilitation period to integrate yourself into normal life.


  1. A great thing about completing a PhD is that the recipient will always know that they can complete a long term project. It is an important quality that many people never realize they possess.

  2. You are right. You do learn something useful. Just like a soldier fighting in Iraq learns some skills that may be useful in, let's say, management. However, fighting in Iraq is hardly a wise choice if your goal is to be a manager.

  3. That's a strawman argument and the differences between one route far outweighs the other.

    As a veteran, I know many people who have joined the Army (military in general) for that one skill that you mentioned. And unless you have served you would not know what I am talking about.

    The entire purpose of getting a Ph.D. for many should be for the 'love' of the subject, 'love' of the academic environment and desire to move forward in a field that they respect. After achieving two degrees one would think you would know what you are getting into. Whining about it after the fact does nothing to improve one's chances.

    There are other options you just have to go and find them and not wait for them to fall into your lap. Unless you are in an occupation that desperately needs people you will be searching for a job just like everyone else who completes college. You may end up working in a field that you did not train for and for pay lower than you expected. It happens to most college graduates.

    If you are going to improve the system (to your tastes) then fine but continuously telling everyone how the system sucks without being constructive is a waste of time.

    You have to think ahead. The Ph.D. will open more doors than you can envision right now. Trust me. The money will come. The right career for you will come. Maybe not. But if it doesn't then change course. Admit you made a mistake and move on. Just like everyone else.

  4. I work as an Assistant Professor. My Ph.D. is in Mass Communication and I work in the Department of Communication. Eighty percent of the English Faculty are 60 years of age or older and the majority of them are in the early retirement program. It is the same for many departments around the country.

    In the next few years there will be a lot of openings available for young new PhDs. You man say that they will hold on to their jobs but the reality is that many will not be able to because of health related issues. The job market was terrible when I searched for a position in 2007 but I was still offered 6 appointments as an Assistant Professor. I worked a year as an AP and then applied to another position in the same city as my family and I was offered and accepted the position.

    Yes, the statistics are there, but you are also an individual.

    Yeah, it would be smart not to accept 100,000 in student loans. Many programs will pay for your tuition and pay you to teach. You know about other funding. How about finding other ways that people can successfully navigate the experience?

  5. "phdhelp"!

    First of all, there's a big difference between me and "everyone else". And you know what the difference is. Everyone else hasn't spent 6 years working long hours for minimum wage.

    Secondly, you seem to have a PhD yet you don't seem to understand statistics. Your particular case doesn't prove (or disprove) anything. And that "retirements" argument made me laugh. It has been around for decades. Yet the ratio of TT jobs to number of PhD graduates has been declining for the last 4 decades.

  6. Also, it looks like you were fighting on the Vietcong's side. Communists are good about persuading people to work for free for causes like "the love for humanity", "world peace", "well-being of the working class".

    Finally, it looks like you are just trying to promote your blog. But hey, I don't mind at all.

  7. My Ph.D. is from Florida State University. You can look up their guidelines for completion of the doctoral program in Mass Communication and then make up your mind whether or not I have experience in analyzing statistics.

    Some of the courses I took were: Advanced Applied Statistics, Quantitative Research Methods, Qualitative Research Methods, Computers in Communication Research (SPSS/Minitab), etc.

    Further, my Master's degree required many of the same types of courses. I prefer qualitative approaches but I have a strong foundation in quantitative analysis.

    I don't need to use your website as a tool to promote my work. I have many blogs like and Psychology of Success. Some do well and some get no traffic at all like Phdhelp. You know that I did not come to your website to promote my blog. I have only commented on this post if I remember correctly.

    I'm 35 so I did not get to serve in Vietnam but I did serve in an artillery unit in Ft. Bragg, N.C. and Ft. Sill, Oklahoma from 1993-1995. I'll interpret your comments as part of your wit that you so eloquently display when anyone has a difference of opinion than you.
    My grandfather's a WWII vet, my father served in Grenada and Iraq, my brother's a veteran and I have family members who have served 3 consecutive tours in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003.

    When discussing issues on a site such as this one maybe it would be better to just stick to the issues. I am staunchly invested in creating business ventures and creating extra sources of income. I have books published that are academic in nature and self-published books that are not. I have been published and paid as a freelancer in national magazines and I have written for local, regional and international newspapers.

    I didn't create Phdhelp or 25 tips for the budding Phd to become rich. I did it to offer advice because I have lived a very interesting life and I am still relatively young. I have done things that many of the prospective Phd students and those who are currently in programs have never done. I've owned restaurants and a bookstore while I was in my Ph.D. program. I created and ran a newswebsite from 2001 to 2004 that had over 20 writers and over 50,000 visits a month.

    I have achieved (and I am still achieving) what many are trying to accomplish. Believe it or not you should try to build allies instead of trying to 'topple' people who have a different opinion than you.

    Best of wishes to you. I will no longer comment on your blog.

  8. I am now in 2rd year engineering PhD and I am sick of seeing the weirdest human being and losers around me.. most PhD students are stupid human being who lack social skills, obsessive, physicially unfit, geeky, never get laid and poor.

    I think PhD is only for a really really crazy person. It’s definitely more insane than join for French Foreign Legion or become Hollywood stuntmant.

    Only crazy people do something stupid for 3-7 years that offers NOTHING IN RETURN.

    Except for PhD in Finance/Computational Finance, PhD in Science/Humanity is totally useless and many people now look at PhD student with a pity. THERE IS NO PRESTIGE OR FINANCIAL BENEFIT WHATSOEVER in the PhD!

    Believe me it’s more beneficial to spend 5 years getting slapped by drunk French NCO in French Foreign Legion. At least you get a prestige (you join an exclusive MALE ONLY club), you get ADVENTURE and after finish your contract, you can join PMC and get 150k-200k annually.

    If you want prestige and career you join US Navy/USMC then try enter SEALS/Marine Recon then finish your contract as officer and go to Harvard MBA. THAT’s an EXCLUSIVE CLUB (Special Force + Ivy League MBA).

    If you really really want to have super prestige then get engineering bachelor/masters, join Air Force as Jet fighter Pilot, then go to Harvard MBA. Now that’s a super prestige.

    I regret my choice. Now I am just a loser nerd.

  9. People who say that a PhD is useless should not even be in it. They are torturing themselves over something which they hate. It's no different from getting into a job and then beating oneself over it because one hates it thereafter and as a result, oneself.

    I think that measuring the gains of a PhD based on money is never the good way to ascertain its worth. Some PhDs never really get tenured, and choose to leave academia to do other stuff. Some are disgruntled as a result, and others are just able to accept it as the reality. But it is always the same in every job now, especially in a shrinking bad economy. Nothing is technically stable, no matter what a person tries to make of his or her job, so blaming a PhD for what you are in is never really the best means of coping with it.

    Also, there is no need to call curses on one's peers. The case of there being bad asses and jerks in a profession can apply to any other profession as much as academia, and I think and believe sincerely a lot of professors can be nasty to each other in the name of tenure and maintaining their research as their rice-bowl. But the competition is only an aspect of the PhD experience and there are people who came out of it enjoying it. So stop being the "loser nerd" one is and start living the life one wants to live. No one will force you to live a life you do not want to live.