jessica lian

LINGUIST | RESEARCHER | WRITER

Why bother with a Ph.D. at all?

I think it goes without saying that choosing to do a Ph.D. is very much a lifestyle choice—after all, no one needs a Ph.D. Even if your dream career demands a Ph.D., it is still your choice to pursue that path. That being said, I still find it hard to answer the question, What are you going to do with a Ph.D.

When I was an undergrad, everyone always asked me, What are you studying?, to which I’d confidently reply, I’m double majoring in Classics and Government! The rest of the conversation often went something like this:

Random stranger: What do you mean by “Classics”?
Me: Oh, I study Latin and Ancient Greek.
Random stranger: Wow! What are you going to do with that?
Me: I plan to go to law school.
Random stranger: Ah, that makes sense. I see why you’re studying Government too.

I anticipated this follow-up question every time with pride and confidence. That is, until Lehman Brothers went bankrupt at the start of my senior year in college, and the Great Recession drove many of us to revisit our career plans. The job market looked bleak for the Class of 2009, and taking out more student loans for grad school did not seem like a better alternative to being unemployed. After going through rounds of interviews and rejections throughout that school year, I miraculously received a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship to Hong Kong, where I ended up staying for almost six years before repatriating back to the United States. During that time, the U.S. economy recovered into the bull market that it is today, and I am back where I started ten years ago, embarking on my (hopefully) final year of school (ever).

Except this time, no one is asking me, What are you going to do with that degree? Instead, they assume I’ve figured it, until I tell them I haven’t:

Random stranger: What do you do?
Me: I’m doing a Ph.D. in Applied Linguistics.
Random stranger: Oh wow! Linguistics eh? Do you, like, know a lot of languages?
Me: Um…no, that’s not what we do. But yeah, I know more than just English, haha.
*awkward polite laughter*
Random stranger: So what is your uh, thesis about?
Me: (Testing out the newest version of my 3MT pitch)
Random stranger: Wow, that sounds really exciting! So when do you think you’ll be done?
Me: Whenever I run out of funding, haha.
Random stranger: Oh, you’ll be fine. You’ll graduate and be a professor soon!
Me: Actually, I’m not looking for academic jobs.
Random stranger: Oh. So then what are you going to do?

For the longest time, I didn’t have a clear answer to that question. Sometimes, I would respond with I’m going to look for industry jobs. Other times, I would say, I don’t know, but I don’t plan on staying in academia. I never had a concrete answer. During those awkward exchanges, I’d wonder, What happened to that smug, over-confident, eighteen-year-old Jessica, who was so certain about law school that she decided to study not one, but two dead languages

So then why did I bother with a Ph.D. at all?

I didn’t decide to do a Ph.D. for career advancement; I did it to pivot into something new.

You see, going into this, I knew that a Ph.D. wasn’t a professional degree that would land me a better job title. Aside from becoming a full-time academic professor, a Ph.D. isn’t really a requirement for most jobs. And given the sad state of academic jobs available and some other personal preferences, I was not very keen on pursuing an academic career. But in 2014, when I was leaving Hong Kong and contemplating my next move, I was eager to try something new. So in addition to sending out my résumé all over the U.S., I sent out four Ph.D. applications, thinking that nothing would come of them. To my surprise, I interviewed with three of the schools, was accepted to two of them, and was granted a fellowship at one of them. So with nothing to lose, I took a leap of faith, and drove across the country with my partner for the opportunity to do a Ph.D. I wasn’t sure how this Ph.D. would lead me to my next career, but I knew that at the very least, I would experience and learn something new. So while for some people, a Ph.D. might be the obvious stepping stone for an academic career, for me, this Ph.D. has been a process of personal and professional growth that I needed.

You might think, Well, that sounds awfully privileged and elitist. And I completely agree: A Ph.D. is a privilege to pursue, and by definition, elitist.

It’s a privilege to be able to study something you’re passionate about. It’s a privilege to be able to afford to go to grad school on a grad student stipend, and even more so on a fellowship. It’s a privilege to be able to accept the opportunity cost of years of lost wages to do a Ph.D. But like all privileges, it’s not about enjoying them, but rather what you do with them.

I think few of us think about these privileges when we decide to uproot our lives for a Ph.D. For many of us, deciding to do a Ph.D. is often a sacrifice, whether it means giving up a well-paying job for a grad student stipend, or giving up time spent with loved ones for our never-ending research and writing. So we focus on being the best Ph.D. student we can be, the best researcher, the best writer, the best job candidate for that coveted tenure-track position at a Research 1 university. We spend all our time building up our research and writing skills for that dream academic job.

But a Ph.D. teaches you more than that. It teaches you how to think better, to analyze better, to solve problems better, in ways that are not easily measured or assessed. Most importantly, a Ph.D. challenges you to imagine something different, something that others might not have thought possible. After all, a dissertation is about creating new knowledge in your field, and you can’t do that without creativity and imagination. These last three years of being a Ph.D. student has taught me how to navigate this world differently, to think differently, to imagine differently, and to seek opportunities differently. It has taught me how to ask the right questions and how to find the right answers. Being given the chance to learn these skills has been a wonderful privilege that I will take with me wherever I go next.

In other words, I somehow managed to avoid law school and an over-saturated market of lawyers, only to find myself in a Ph.D. program facing an over-saturated market of Ph.D.s. But at least now I know myself better, and I know what kind of job I want. And I’ll have my Ph.D. toolkit to help me too.

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