You’re in your final year of university. You’re doing really well, you’re getting stunningly good marks and lots of praise from your tutors. You’ve probably never been so happy in your life, you’re using your incredible brain to think about really interesting, really hard problems. And you’re starting to be aware of the frontiers of knowledge in your field, the stuff that isn’t in textbooks yet, the stuff that people are right now actively trying to find out. Perhaps you did a summer project or a long finals project where you got a taste of actually doing some original research yourself, and it was mindblowingly awesome.
What could possibly be better than spending the rest of your life doing this kind of thing, and hopefully even getting paid for it? Probably everybody around you is encouraging you to go for a PhD, because after all that’s what brilliant students do. And universities look good when their best students go on to PhDs after graduating. The academics you most look up to are telling you that you, yes, you, could be like them one day. If you’re at an elite university, you’re perhaps experiencing the negative side to this, whispers and gossips and subliminal messages that anything other than a PhD is, well, y’know, a bit second-rate really.
Look, I am in fact a career academic. I know exactly what’s attractive about it, I’ve made considerable financial and personal sacrifices to get myself to a position where I can work in a university environment and spend my time doing groundbreaking research. And yet. The gateway into this life is a PhD, and the PhD system is deeply, deeply fucked up when it isn’t actively abusive. Doing a PhD will break you. It’s pretty much designed to break you. Yes, even you, you who are brilliant (that almost goes without saying; it’s because you’re brilliant that you’re contemplating doing a PhD in the first place). You who are resilient and have survived several kinds of shit that life has thrown at you just to get to the point where you’re about to graduate with a brilliant degree. You who have the unconditional support of your family and friends and partners. If you have every admirable personal quality you can think of, if you have every advantage in life, still, getting through a PhD will grind you down, will come terrifyingly close to killing your soul and might well succeed. It will do horrible things to your mental and physical health and test to breaking point every significant relationship in your life.