What You Need to Know Before Considering a PhD

Rachel Thomas:

Understanding Opportunity Costs

I grossly underestimated how much I could learn by working in industry. I believed the falsehood that the best way to always keep learning is to stay in academia, and I didn’t have a good grasp on the opportunity costs of doing a PhD. My undergraduate experience had been magical, and I had always both excelled at and enjoyed being in school. The idea of getting paid to be in school sounded like a sweet deal!

As I wrote about here, I later realized that my traditional academic success was actually a weakness, as I’d learned how to solve problems I was given, but not how to how to find and scope interesting problems on my own. I think for many top students (my former self included), getting a PhD feels like a “safe” option: it’s a well-defined path to doing something considered prestigious. But this can just be a way of postponing many necessary personal milestones: of learning to define and set your own goals apart from a structured academic system and of connecting more deeply with your own intrinsic motivations and values.

At the time, I felt like I was learning a lot during my PhD: taking advanced courses, reading papers, conducting research, regularly giving presentations, organizing two conferences in my field, coordinating a student-run graduate course, serving as an elected representative for grad students in my department, and writing a thesis. In hindsight, all of these were part of a narrower range of skills than I realized, and many of these skills were less transferable than I’d hoped. For instance, academic writing is very different from the type of writing I do through my blogging (which reaches a much wider audience!), and understanding academic politics was very different from startup politics, since the structure and incentives are so different.