I’ve always loved school.

I loved school so much that I went to graduate school three times.

I can’t promise you that I won’t go back to school, either. It calls out to me.

Even though I know college isn’t the answer.
Even though I’m embarrassed by my staggering loan debt.
Even though (and you have to promise not to repeat this!), I don’t think I learned very much.

Before I graduated from college, I thought I would eventually earn my Ph.D.
At the time, I wasn’t quite convinced it was the best path for me (I’m still not sure), so I waited.

Every few years or so the idea comes back to me in a panic. It wakes me up; it frustrates me.

As fate would have it, I ended up doing the unthinkable: I got a job (wait for it) advising prospective doctoral candidates. Yasssss!

If you’re considering a Ph.D., here’s what you should know (or do) FIRST:

What You Should Know

1. You need to figure out why you want one. Most Ph.D. programs are designed to groom scholars who can create new knowledge and who aspire to become tenured-track professors. In many cases, this is the university’s explicit goal. If you want to earn your doctorate but have no desire to become a faculty member, I invite you to explain why you want one. (As an aside, your application will usually be viewed upon more favorably if professorship is your aim.)

2. Even fully-funded programs can leave you with thousands of dollars in debt. Most programs require 2-3 years of classwork prior to the dissertation process. When funding is offered, it is usually offered for a limited duration (such as five years). If it takes you longer than the allotted time to complete and successfully defend your dissertation, you will take on additional fees. In some cases, “full funding” doesn’t cover all of YOUR particular expenses (as can be the case for families with children and international students). Additionally, in many programs, students are prohibited from seeking outside employment.

3. Fifty-percent of doctoral students DO NOT EARN THEIR DOCTORATE. A few weeks ago I attended a Graduate Fair for prospective doctoral candidates. I manned the table and answered questions for interested degree-seekers. Most students were surprised to learn that the program length depends on the individual student’s progress with his or her dissertation. Unfortunately, there isn’t a one-size fits all plan for Ph.D. seekers. Fifty-percent learn this the hard way.

4. In many cases (arguably, most) you DON’T NEED A MASTER’S DEGREE in order to apply. Bachelor’s degrees (with great GPAs and great GRE/GMAT scores) are usually the entry ticket. Doctoral programs are extremely competitive. In the programs I support, we regularly receive more than 80 applications for only 2 spots per year. TWO SPOTS PER YEAR. There is no doubt that having a Master’s Degree may make you a more competitive candidate, but in many cases, it is not a requirement for acceptance. Master’s programs are usually not funded, so if you know sooner than later that a PhD is your aim, you may be able to spare the expense of earning your Master’s if you pursue your PhD right after college.

5. You can flunk out (way easier than you can in undergrad). Most programs require that students earn at least a B average in all classes (and on all qualifying exams). Usually, a B- is even looked at unfavorably. You may even risk losing funding if you’re not able to meet this GPA requirement. Failure to perform well means that you could be academically dismissed.

What You Should Do

6. You should write your dissertation before you go. I admit, this is ambitious. If I ever decide to get one, I will definitely start mine FIRST. For starters, your research interests (and patience and steam) may change. I have many a friend who began her program with one thought in mind, and by the end, had changed topics hundreds (well, maybe not hundreds) of times. Doctoral programs focus on scholarly research. You should make sure you have the discipline and wherewithal to finish BEFORE you start.

7. You should read popular, well-respected, academic journals in your field. Some programs have the expectation that you will be ready to publish a piece in a respected journal before you take the first round of qualifying exams. Get a head-start by familiarizing yourself with these academic journals, at the absolute very least.

8. You should talk to others in your field who have gone through the process (and graduated). Disenchanted graduate students are a dime-a-dozen. For a lot of people, graduate school leaves much to be desired. Some people even feel trapped by the process and by the program (and by the financial burden of leaving employment for 4-6 years). I have friends who speak out vehemently AGAINST graduate school. Before you go, you need to understand what you may be getting yourself into. You need to understand what sacrifices you may have to make.

9. You should talk to others in your field who started the process, but left. See #8.

10. You should choose programs with your end game in mind. I went to Rice and Northwestern because of their reputation. I went to DePaul because it was easily accessible and respected. I went to UIC because it offered evening classes, it was affordable, and I could continue working full-time.

If I could do it all over again, I would’ve gone to graduate school only once (and I might have opted for a cheaper state school for undergrad).

My academic trajectory has been inefficient and unnecessarily expensive (I shoulda been a dancer). I chose reputation over cost and have rarely seen the benefits of that decision (I did make some great friends though. Hey y’all!). I don’t blame anyone but myself and my failure to think more strategically.


Ghosts of PhDs past and present, what would you add?
What would you recommend?
What should we know, and what should we do, before we get a doctorate?