Should we be advising students to pursue the PhD?

Have you ever had a student tell you they want to go on to study for a PhD and felt ambivalent about how you should respond? On the one hand, it’s always wonderful to hear that a student loves your subject so much that they want to pursue it for another six or seven years. On the other hand, the academic job market is pretty bleak right now. In conversations with others in my own field, I’ve heard people argue that we have a moral obligation to persuade students not to go on to grad school—or at least, not until conditions improve.

It is safe to say that Don Asher would disagree with this counsel of despair. In a session earlier this semester cosponsored by the CfT and the Career Center, he argued that even in the Covid era, doing a PhD is still an excellent choice for many students. The mistake many professors make in advising their students, he suggested, is to base their advice on the assumption that becoming an academic is the only career option available to PhDs. In fact, PhDs are highly employable in many fields, and their unemployment rates are lower than those at any other level of educational attainment. In addition, most high quality PhD programs will provide students with tuition remission and stipends, meaning that it is possible to get a PhD without going into large amounts of debt. 

Do these statistics suggest that we should be enthusiastically encouraging as many students as possible to pursue PhDs? Not necessarily. Recent reports have raised concerns about the high incidence of anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues among grad students, and many PhD programs still do a poor job of helping their students to explore “alt-ac” careers. Don Asher suggests that students who do pursue the PhD should start thinking about possible alt-ac career paths from their very first year, resisting the tendency to think of these options as a “second-best” or “fallback” option.

Ultimately, of course, the question of whether we should be advising students to pursue the PhD (or other graduate degrees) depends on the student in question, the field they want to enter, the options available to them, etc. In the session, Don Asher provided us with a wealth of information and resources on everything from writing effective letters of recommendation to advising students in finding funding that we’ve collected together in this folder. Feel free to make use of these resources in advising your own students, and if there are any other resources you’ve found helpful that you’d be willing to share with others, let us know!

Mark Hopwood, Associate Professor of Philosophy