On Privilege and the Ph.D.

Kate Bahn:

I’m certainly not the first Ph.D. candidate who, with the end of graduate school in sight, has wondered: If I had to do it all over again, would I still pursue a doctoral degree?
The answer? Yes. But what’s been on my mind lately is why that’s my unequivocal response. After all, I haven’t had a full-time job in over five years, and I’ve racked up some student debt (albeit less than many of my peers) in the process. That’s something I wouldn’t have been disposed to do in the first place if it weren’t for my family background.
You might say advanced degrees run in my family. My mother has a Ph.D. in biology and is happily employed as a toxicologist in the private sector. Her father was a doctor; his brothers were another doctor and a lawyer. In fact, that side of my family is thick with Ph.D.’s, M.D.’s and J.D.’s. And while my dad was the first member of his family to go to college, he went on to earn an M.B.A. and worked in finance for years before ultimately turning in a more artistic direction. As a result, my parents take terminal degrees for granted–they’re just a step on the way to having a career you enjoy.
After working for a few years post-college, when I felt like I could go no higher on the career ladder without an advanced degree, I entered a master’s program. At the time, I thought an M.A. would be enough to get me where I wanted to go–into the upper echelons of a labor union or economic-policy think tank. But two semesters into a master’s program in economics, I realized I had so much more to learn! I couldn’t possibly tackle it all in a master’s program. I entered a Ph.D. program, aware of the intellectual difficulty, but not fully registering what it meant to pursue a doctorate and how privileged I was to be able to do so.