The story on a PhD and should you could you

There are lots of doctoral programs in many different disciplines. The doctorate signifies your ability to engage in fundamental research and that you are preeminent expert on some topic. People often get into the game of getting a doctorate for ego, financial, or personal reasons. By far, the number one reason is to get into academia. With the traditional tenure-track academic career field shrinking quickly that is a losing bet. In my field I can mint a dozen PhDs a year and they would all be employed. That doesn’t mean they would be hired into academia. In fact I tell my students that I don’t care if they go into academia as long as they do cool stuff. In many ways that is my primary goal for taking on PhD students. Doing cool stuff. 

If you’ve started having the conversation about going on to a PhD you are at an interesting cross roads. If you’ve been thinking about it for awhile you have three hurdles.

1) You. Can you do the work and will you complete the tasks ahead of you? Only YOU can answer these questions. Graduate school is hard and a PhD program is the hardest. You will work for free, you will have competing requirements, and you will suffer mentally and physically. However, I was a United States Marine and will subject you to nothing compared to what I went through in bootcamp. So no whining this is hard.

2) The program. Where will you do this and will it mean stepping out of a career, moving, or accepting a program less than you would like. Not all universities are the same and not all programs are the same. I do applied work that pushes the boundaries of the discipline, but is rooted in multiple other disciplines. This is opportunistic but also cognitively wearing. You have to be able to dominate the social, technical, legal, and scientific principles of the discipline. This is trans-disciplinary work. This is why I am a faculty member in the number one PhD granting computer forensics in the world. I want to be where I can do cool stuff. Do you want to do cool stuff?

3) Getting in. Even with all the issues of academia PhD programs fill up and rejection is high. Unless I know you, your work, or your history you get about three minutes of my time to decide whether I will accept you as an advisee. More important I have so many people applying I almost NEVER offer assistantships to masters degree students and only rarely to PhD students for the first year.

Let’s think about the career track just a bit more. I don’t care if you come do a PhD with me and go into academia at a tier 1 research university. I care that you go out and change the world to be a better place. Are you a mid-grade military officer that wants to be the preeminent expert in cyber warfare? You won’t be going to academia when you leave here. Perhaps you are a senior government civilian that needs a particular check box on your career? We can accelerate you path somewhat, but that means your tasks will become exponentially harder. Maybe you are a traditional liberal arts student who wants to solve major societal issues in computing. We can work with that. It is your education, but my program. You want to make a product or push a product out with all the research tools of a major research university behind you? We will take our pound of flesh and piece of the action, but we do that too. Academia is much more than that pittance people who focus on the liberal arts give it. We do cool stuff that makes the economic engine of America move forward.

So, you’re thinking about a PhD, but you are waffling over the idea. I have no sympathy for you. Let me tell you a story. When I was in High School (yes we’re going that far back). I was offered an all expense paid trip to university. All I had to do was take the SAT. My scores didn’t even matter. All I had to do was take the exam. I had won the higher education lottery so to speak. There was only one exam available between me and when the opportunity closed. I’m a senior in high school and all I have to do is make a ferry from Bremerton to Seattle. At 5:45 in the morning. I’m a pissy teenage male who likes to stay out late and get out of bed later. I missed the ferry boat by 5 minutes. Watching the boat leave I watched a paid for education leave the dock. Sometimes you screw up. You can say forget about it. You can say lots of things. The fact is if you have the opportunity and you take it you might go through a little hell today. It might be difficult today. You might regret the process as you go through it. But, at the end you’ve done it or you’ve failed. At least you tried. If you never even try you will always look back for the rest of your life and wonder could you have done it. The answer will always be no because you never tried which was a decision you made.

The success rate for getting a PhD is fairly low. It is hard to accomplish. Nobody I know who has tried and failed regrets the knowledge of themselves or others they gained from the process. There is a long list of very successful people who have failed at finishing a PhD program. The number of people I talk to who are haunted by never having tried or saying they could but having never even attempted is longer. I could be a professional heavyweight boxer. I might last until the bell stops ringing and then I’ll be dead. “Coulda been a contender”, but never even tried is a hollow refrain. Trying and failing is a much stronger story to build a life upon. I don’t personally plan to fail, but I know that every research project I take on could fail. I learn much more from that than the successes.

If you’re thinking about a PhD in any of the many good programs around the country you are either all in, or you shouldn’t even try. If you want the skills to change the world, know why it changed, how to make it happen again, and you want those skills as deeply rooted and not shallow then a PhD is a good start. So many people handle life at a shallow level and never dig into the “why” other than to a very tiny amount. A PhD isn’t for everybody. Is it for you? Do you want to do cool stuff?

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