Why I started my PhD

I was recently asked why I did a PhD if I didn’t now want to be a professor. The question was posed by a friendly acquaintance and was meant genuinely, out of curiosity. The assumption he made—that a doctorate is a prelude to a professorship—is common inside and outside the academy. I’m not surprised by the question, nor offended by it. But I am struck by it, in part because I did not begin my PhD aiming at an academic career.

In my family, education is a value in and of itself. My parents met while they were young students at Carleton University in Ottawa; decades later I happily did my first two degrees at the school. My dad spent the majority of his working life as a grade 7 teacher. My mom returned to Carleton later in life to complete her BA and then earned an MA after retiring from the civil service. My sister has a university degree and a college diploma.

I started my master’s degree in the fall of 2002. From September to April I took research- and reading-intensive seminar classes. On my first day, Carter Elwood handed me a stack of materials to get me started on my thesis. In the winter I used some of these to write a long paper for a class on Canadian foreign policy with Norman Hillmer. I shared an office with the other MA students, had good relationships with the instructors I worked with, and learned a huge amount about all sorts of things. I spent lots of time at the library, the national archives, and the Canadian Red Cross national office. What fun. Doing my master’s thesis over the course of 2003-04 was both the hardest and most rewarding thing I’d ever done. I was incredibly proud of the finished product. I still am! Carleton was a great place for me.

It’s no wonder that I began a PhD in history right after. I had funding, the enthusiastic support of my family, and what felt like the entirety of Carleton’s history and Russian studies departments cheering me on. How exciting to be moving to Toronto to keep working on a topic I loved and with a new supervisor who was warm, friendly, and—bonus!—an internationally-best-selling author. Not beginning a PhD would have struck me as madness. And so off I went, a young 24-year-old thrilled to keep learning, researching, and writing.

9 Replies to “Why I started my PhD”

  1. I love your blog. I often feel I am reading my own story. I also had a wonderful experience at the masters’ level and this was mainly my reasoning for continuing. The PhD (which I am still working on) has been a very different experience. Looking forward to reading more.

  2. Thanks for this post, Jennifer. I just detailed my thought process about entering a doctoral program to a new friend this week, and it amazes me how much confusion there is about the outcome of doctoral training. Sure, some people pursue an academic job (for months or years), but there are other ways to use the things we’ve learned. I had to explain to her that I was blissfully unaware of the politics in the academy and the competition for professorial appointments. I would not trade my doctoral training, however, and I continue to work on my teaching/research craft as I figure out where I’ll land.

    1. I agree completely. I too was blissfully unaware, and I do like those choice of words. And that’s ok! Nothing we do—and certainly nothing we do honestly and excitedly—is ever wasted.

  3. i too embarked on the phd because i just hadn’t gotten enough in my MA. I didn’t want to stop learning! I wouldn’t trade the education for anything. for all the ways the university is broken, i hope the solutions don’t wipe out that level of higher education. i have this fantasy of teaching/taking non-degree seeking classes at the doctoral level–for the sake of learning. wouldn’t that be awesome? informal seminars that offer reading/researching/writing/sharing with similarly interested people without the pressures or the extreme expense? this is supposed to be my next blog post – but haven’t gotten around to it yet! 🙂

    1. That would be awesome! Like a serious book club for the intellectually curious and open-minded set. I think many people miss the stimulation and rigour of grad school, and many others never had an opportunity to take higher level courses and would welcome the chance now, as adults!

  4. I fully understand your valuing of scholarship “in itself” as such. But I wonder if such a position isn’t one reserved for the privileged class-wise. Don’t get me wrong; I pursued and obtained a Ph.D. without any confidence that I would land an academic job. That I did land an academic job and at a top-twenty-five university was nothing short of a miracle, although I must say that the academic career is not without its shortfalls, namely in terms of remuneration and dealing with the multiplication of deans and deanlets, who pummel us with emails and take home the lion’s share of the revenues, partly at the expense of faculty.

    But many people simply cannot afford the luxury of education for education’s sake, especially those from lower economic backgrounds. I encourage such enthusiasts to become autodidacts and try to point them to the most relevant materials in their areas of interest. One can’t reproduce the classroom experience or the guidance of a great mentor/dissertation director, but it’s better than nothing. I myself hail from a working-class background and consider my opportunity to study for the Ph.D. quite an anomalous exception.

    Lastly, it’s been nearly two years since you wrote this piece, which was recently retweeted by someone I follow on Twitter. I wonder how you’re faring now and if your enthusiasm for Ph.D. studies still obtains. As for me, it only got better after class work and into the qualifying exam and dissertation.

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