About half a dozen friends have reached out to me, over the last two and half years since I have been in a Ph.D program (in the U.S.) to ask me what it is like. While it is impossible to fully describe what it is to be a full-time student, and the joys of going through this process, I’ve tried to condense a few key issues into the points below. Much of what I have written here applies to American academia. I hope it helps those who are sitting on the fence or are undecided if a Ph.D is for them. Here goes:
- You will be poor – for a long time: While the glamor of being surrounded by intellectuals, really smart professors and access to (quite literally) all the books in the world is sexy, remember that unless you have a lot of savings of your own, a significant other who is supporting you financially or are from a rich family; you will be poor. And this means, deciding between indulging in a $5 pizza or saving it for a book, that you need. It can be depressing, at times. And this could range from between three or five – at times ten years, depending on how quickly you can finish your work and how cooperative your committee is.
- You will be terribly lonely – also for a long time: This is another fact. Unless you have a super-high IQ and a photographic memory, you’ll have to read, re-read and discuss ideas, books and films that will form you as an intellectual. This means that you will have to spend time alone. By nature, I can be reclusive, while maintaining a social personality, so this has been easy for me. But I do wish my program had more social events/ gatherings and occasions to meet people. Remember that in your undergrad or Masters level courses, there are dozens of likeminded people you can meet, but in a Ph.D program the cohort is typically small, sometimes as small as six people, three of whom you may not like. The other two may be whackos. So, good luck making friends.
- Get used to feeling stupid – hopefully not for ever: The first year is the hardest. I felt incredibly stupid in my first year in the Ph.D program. But I have started feeling better, incrementally. Remember that almost all the people you will interact will have a Ph.D and may not necessarily understand your work, unless they are all in the same field, which is unlikely. So, putting a bunch of very high IQ people together, who don’t understand each other makes for an interesting situation. Much of the time, you may end up being the most junior person around and as a consequence, feel like you don’t know anything worth knowing. Unless you are a cocky son of a bitch! In which case, everyone will hate you.
- You will be criticized, called out and perhaps attacked – All in good spirit, though! Academics are notorious for tearing each others ideas apart, telling you that none of what you are researching makes sense. I have been told more than once that I should consider an alternate career, rather than research and teaching. We’ll see what comes of this process…on the other hand, there have been people (academics) who are incredibly supportive and think that I will ‘re-define the field of research on Islamic philanthropy’. The truth lies somewhere between these two extremes. Only time will tell. The point is, that everyone is trying to finetune their ‘critical thinking’ and being critical of others intellectual output becomes second nature. I am much more critical of issues in general now, than when I started the program. But this also means that you need to find a group of supportive, faithful friends who will see value in your work and help you grow intellectually.
- Your life will change : As one of my mentors at the Maxwell School said: “If you are single, you’ll get married, if you are married, you (may) get divorced and if your parents are alive, they’ll probably die, during your Ph.D program.” A sobering reality indeed. And yes, in my case, some of his predictions are turning out to be true.
Now that i’ve delivered the bad news, here is some good news, some of the redeeming factors:
- It can be the most intellectually rewarding experience of your life– The process of thinking through, debating, writing on issues that you care about deeply can transform you, as a person. Also, I’ve been terribly lucky to have met, worked with and hung out with some of the smartest people in the world.
- You will start feeling smart about yourself, after some time – I’ve gained some of the confidence that I lost in my first year in the program. Once you start realizing that there are few people who are as focused as you are, in your area of research, your confidence will (usually) grow. That is, if you are putting in the effort, getting ‘peer review’ that is positive and getting published in peer-reviewed journals – a sure sign that you are doing ‘something right’.
- You will perhaps be the only person in the world who will know (almost) everything there is to know about your topic. An economics professor shared this wisdom with me, about a year ago. Her words still ring in my ear. She said “Once you finish your Ph.D, you will probably be the only person who knows the most about your topic, in any room you enter.” Think about that for a minute.
- You will probably end up in a very stable and rewarding career, after the struggle is over.
- June, July August: As one of my other mentors said, the best reason to get a Ph.D and enter the Academy – June, July and August. You get three months off work. And if you are lucky to get a tenured track position, this means you get to write a book, research or travel during these three months. Which other job allows you to be so free and independent? I can think of a few…