To PhD or Not to PhD? That is the question.


Deciding to get a Masters was somewhat of a no-brainer for me. I’ve always been a huge proponent of higher education and I find being in a university environment incredibly stimulating (lots of very active brain waves floating around). The fact that I am getting my Masters in the UK, where the program is only a year and the fees are relatively comparable to a US Masters (even including the costs of London living!) is icing on the proverbial cake. Getting a PhD (or DrPH) though… well, that’s not quite as simple. As I look to the end of this year and try to figure out what I where I want to be after graduating, the picture in my head begins to get a bit fuzzy. Although I love development studies and the idea of working in the field, I don’t know that I can temper development work with family life. In fact, I am almost positive that the concept of normal life is the antithesis to that of international development (think: being stationed in Yemen for a two-year stint, followed by a few months in DC, followed by a 6 month consultation in Bolivia, etc.). That being said, I’m signing up to take the Foreign Service exam in the spring to hopefully open up some options (fortunately I don’t have to fly to the US to take the exam — American citizens can take it at the embassy). Plus, I have been looking at other institutions to move towards a PhD.

Now, here’s the thing with a PhD (this is partly me thinking via blog and partially wanting feedback from anyone who’s been in this position or has any brilliant insight): PhD’s are intense. In many ways, actually.

They’re time-intensive. Typically 3- 5 years; 2 years of coursework + 1 – 3 years of field work to put together a 75,000 – 100,000 word dissertation to submit and orally defend.

They’re expensive. I think that might go without saying, but expenses incurred through higher education are not for the faint of heart. Grad school is expensive. Fortunately, in the PhD world there are a number of schools that have really great financial aid packages for research students (full coverage of tuition + stipends, etc.) if you’re qualified. I have a friend working on a PhD who is teaching undergrad courses at the university in exchange for full tuition + a $26,000 stipend. Depending on your research proposal, some organizations will even step in to subsidize or cover educational expenses.

The application process is rigorous. I’m at the point where getting in isn’t the part that scares me (although that is scary, of course); the application alone is frightening. I don’t know if you have seen the process for applying for a doctoral program but it goes something like this: standard application packet (name + stats), CV including work experience, education and publications, three (3) letters of recommendations from professors that are familiar with your ability to be a quality researcher, a research proposal, wherein your dissertation topic is generally outlined including the research question and methodology and identification of an academic at the institution that would act as your tutor/advisor. Honestly, getting everything together to apply would probably take me a year! Plus, the part about publications? Can you say intimidating?!

PhD + Family? Not so likely. Not sure that you can actually work on a PhD and be a normal human being. And by that, I mean, I’m not sure that you can be 100% committed to your research work if you have a family, housework, normal real-life responsibilities looming. Dose of reality: Inevitably, one has to take precedence and if you’re paying loads of money and spending tons of time working on a doctorate, that will likely come first. If it doesn’t, your PhD will probably not get done in 4 -5 years. A book on my reading list? Mama, PhD, a piece about juggling motherhood with academia.

Long-term Relocation. PhD programmes don’t take many students, typically. Some schools take 2-4 for a given program, some take 15, but normally there aren’t a load of kids working on a doctoral degree in any given year since there is such a strong bond between advisor and advisee. This is very different from a taught Masters programme, where MSc candidates run wild. It would be ludicrous to think an advisor could work with 20 PhD students and help them in the way that they needed. That being said, for me to say that I wanted to get my doctorate in California and that I would only apply to California programs would be incredibly limiting. It is more advantageous to look across the nation (and the world, for that matter) and see what institutions have strong programs in the discipline and apply to programs where you feel a connection with the school, the potential advisor and the general campus and city life (since you’d be living there for a while!) If I got into a school in New York, I would probably go there, despite the fact that it’s not close to my family… makes for some interesting decisions when the discussion of being away from your family, relationships and friends involves talking about long-term versus one year.

Despite all the cons, I’ve always loved school (a fact to which my first-grade teachers can attest) and I can’t really see myself being done after this year. I will definitely need to take a break for a couple of years to put my Masters to work (to gain some more relevant/international experience) and to make sure that four more years of school is what I really want, but I definitely see a PhD (or DrPH) in my future.

Sending brainwaves your way,

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