PhD its Own Reward

TAS’ Matt Feeney has a longish post refuting the “PhD Trap” meme.    The short version of the latter is that completing a PhD requires sacrifice of a lot of time, money, and energy and it’s likely to be wasted when you fail to land a tenure-track job teaching college.   The short version of Feeney’s retort is that grad school can be quite rewarding if you play the game well and no one says you’ve got to teach college when you finish.  Or even that you have to finish.


That’s quite right.   For reasons that I only partly understand, it’s quite common to spend three years slaving away to get a law degree with no intention of ever becoming a practicing attorney but almost no one gets a humanities PhD intending to work outside academe.   Yet, the learned skill sets from both degrees have substantial overlap and can be applied to similar non-traditional jobs.

It’s quite possible to live “the life of the mind” doing something other than teaching college.  And, indeed, to make more money at it than you’ll make on the tenure track.

Cartoon by Jorge Cham

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Alex Knapp says:

    I have argued, and continue to maintain, that acquiring a deep understanding of multiple subjects is intrinsically valuable.

    I think that we’ve lost something as a culture by seeing education as vocational training, rather than a good in its own right.

  2. Boz says:

    I’m a humanities PhD who couldn’t find academic employment and have been working in an entry level clerical position for the past few years. The argument about skills and the intrinsic value of knowledge is plausible to me, but I haven’t been able to convince a hiring manager or HR person, ever. My strategy in my job search has been to stress research, writing and teaching skills and their applicability to various workplace tasks. A couple friends who work in various analytical positions in the government and seen my struggles have pulled me aside recently to say, basically, “look, we don’t disagree with you, but when somebody with zero experience and specialization in another field makes that argument to a mid-level manager who spent several years working his way up, probably earned a professional degree along the way, they come off as an arrogant piece of s***.” I understand the argument about fungibility of research and writing skills, but you need to also respect the professional qualifications of others.

  3. James Joyner says:

    The argument about skills and the intrinsic value of knowledge is plausible to me, but I haven’t been able to convince a hiring manager or HR person, ever.

    Somehow, I’ve been able to do it numerous times now. Granted, I had some actual work experience as an Army officer before grad school and did teach college a few years. But I’ve held multiple non-academic jobs since, all of which were doubtless helped by having the PhD. Indeed, outside academia is the only place where having a PhD impresses anyone!

    It may simply be that you’re aiming too high? A PhD isn’t going to get you in as a GS-13 if you don’t have management experience.

    For that matter, having clerical jobs as the most recent lines on your resume isn’t helping much, either. You’d be better off leaving them off and having a semi-fictitious consulting business instead.

  4. Boz says:

    You’re right. The PhD definitely does impress people, and that’s one of the reasons I thought I might be able to find a place in the government, but making the match with particular govt positions is quite difficult. Once I got in the door in an entry level position, it did help me get more responsibilities (and money).

    Since you work in National Security, the Army stint is relevant experience and a Political Science PhD is relevant expertise. The situation is a little different for Humanities PhDs whose work is oriented to an academic audience and whose only jobs have been in academia (not the policy arena) and are trying to make a connection based almost solely on skills. These are the people Benton is talking about.

    I may be trying to think outside the box about the skills I have but people doing hiring rarely are; I’m sure they look through enough resumes that they simply need reasons to discard some of them, and I don’t necessarily blame them. Why take a chance on an historian with knowledge of a region but no policy experience when you have a bright 22 year old who took a class on terrorism and wrote a policy memo on the terrorist group you’re chasing right now? Or, as one intelligence community official explained after looking at my resume, “we just don’t care about how the map of the world changed 100 years ago.”