Last week, my brother had his official PhD-ceremony. Part of this event was a speech by one of his colleagues – a young woman who graduated in Engineering. The focus of this speech was to explore the “why”. Why do people go through a PhD programme?
As a preparation for her speech, she asked several PhD students/graduates two questions. The first one was “Why did you enroll in a PhD programme?”. The answers ranged from “I just stayed on after my Master’s degree.” to “I just want to have a doctor title.” They all seemed rather superficial and not too ambitious. However, she asked another question: “Why did you finish your PhD?” And those answers were really different. A lot of them said the reason was their passion about their topic. Others said they wanted to enjoy the freedom of researching in a “safe” place, i.e. university, before entering the private sector.
The answer to which I could relate was: “Because I wanted to prove that I can do it.” I admit that being called “Dr.” instead of “Ms.” is quite a nice thing – I tend to use it to get better tables at restaurants or when I file complaints. However, when I worked on my PhD, my drive was also based on my wish to prove it. I did not do it to prove it to other people. It was to prove it to myself. That I can do it. That I can finish that publication.
I often compare working on a PhD-thesis to founding a business. For me, it was the first time where I did not report to anyone. I did have a professor guiding me. However, nobody cared if I finished that work. Except for me. I wanted to push it. I wanted to become an expert in my research field. I set my own deadlines. I had to be motivated, get out of bed and work as hard as I can. Also, I had to raise funds for my research (even though “raising funds” meant a scholarship in that context, I still had to “pitch” my project).
Recently, the media and literature for start-ups have become more and more critical towards academic education. I read Peter Thiel’s book “Zero to One” years ago, where he promotes starting a business as soon as possible. And maybe even swapping the academic for an entrepreneurial career. It seems academia is not necessary anymore. Maybe a Bachelor’s degree. But who would go through a Doctorate? For what?
What is important to know is that Thiel is American and American academic institutions have more and more been criticised for their fees. Why would you pile up debt for a degree which does not even guarantee you a job anymore? Why not invest the same amount in a start-up?
I do understand this point of view. I was lucky to have studied in Austria, where most of my study time was entirely for free. Nevertheless, even if it had been more expensive, I do think that pursuing an academic degree is invaluable. It teaches you to get organized and understand a problem from various angles and find adequate solutions.
I agree with Albert Einstein that “wisdom is not a product of schooling but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it”. There are other options – travelling the world, starting your business or pursue degrees next to a full-time job. I do not think that there is one solution which will fit everyone’s needs. Whatever your way of acquiring education, the important thing is that you ACQUIRE education.
What I strongly disagree with is, however, the current media and political tenor in Austria. When I read the popular newspapers, I have the feeling that we have to be ashamed of being academics. That we have no “practical” knowledge and, hence, an orthodontist would be a better (political) leader than a university professor. I do not think that academic excellence and being a great leader go hand-in-hand. However, we need people with visions, strategies and the mental capacity to achieve their targets and motivate others to join them. The danger of creating an environment hostile to education is that in the future, people will not attempt to acquire wisdom and, hence, not be able to question political decisions.
I can only tell you my perspective: my PhD was definitely worth it. I did it because I loved the topic. I do not think that the wish for having a doctor title is motivation enough to make it through those hard years. Working on a PhD made me stronger, push boundaries, motivate myself, build up a network and become an expert in a field which I am still working in. Furthermore, it gave me an insight into being my own boss. The biggest motivation was the above-mentioned urge to prove it to myself that I can do it. And yes, I would do it all again.