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Will a PHD hurt me in the real world?


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So, we all know the risks that we take going down the PHD path, and the very slim chance that things are going to really go our way and we're going to end up with a stable, ideally tenure track job etc. etc. etc. We all know this, and presumably we're willing to take that risk, either because we believe that we can do it, that we will be the exception, or because we care deeply about our chosen subject and think that it has value and is worth the enormous effort of doing the PHD regardless of where we end up. I get this and I'm with it. I started studying philosophy at the beginning of my undergrad because I had questions and wanted to explore truth, and I think that philosophy is ultimately very worthwhile. And if I complete a PHD and can't get that elusive academic job, I'll be pissed for a while, but I'll know that I knew the odds and still went with it, and I got a few more years of study in, and got to do what I love before joining the rat race of the real world, and getting a real job.

Recently however, as application season comes upon us yet again, and I finish up my writing sample and order my transcripts, and get all my ducks in a row, while working 40 hours a week, I have been getting this sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, and I haven't been able to find sufficient data to answer the question. Can it be the case that having gone through with the PHD, that it could be a hinderance in getting a regular job? That horrible word keeps flashing in my head over and over again -"overqualified". I've heard it from people I know, not academics, or people with advanced degrees, but say, an electrical engineer who has hit a snag and need to find a job, and has told me that people who don't know better seem to think that with his big, fancy degree he can get a job almost anywhere, and so because so many people "know" that he can do this, he has a job nowhere. Point is, does anyone know, from experience, conversations, or know any resources, about a humanities PHD in general, or philosophy PHD in particular being a possible hinderance to getting a job afterwards?

(This has not been written to the best of my abilities, but I needed to just spit it out after mulling it over for what has now been a long time)

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I'm answering this as someone who weighed the pros and cons for almost 5 years before deciding to apply for a PhD- and I've had everyone from an executive recruiter to my very first boss (who held a humanities PhD from Harvard) try to dissuade me from applying. My boss told me she was lucky to even have a job, as many of the other people in her cohort were still unemployed. That freaked me out a lot, but here I am trying to get a PhD anyway.

The short answer is yes, a PhD will probably hinder you. However, there are a lot of other factors that go into this. First of all, am I correct from your post that you're currently working (assuming since you wrote 40 hours a week)? That experience will already make you a better candidate than those who have gone straight to a PhD, which is good. But having a PhD does make you overqualified in a lot of people's eyes (I only have an MA and I have multiple rejection letters from my first job hunt several years ago that used that dreaded word), and it also means you will be 6-7 years behind in your career compared to other people your age. When you're competing against those people for jobs outside of academia, you can imagine who will probably get the job. For a lot of employers, a PhD can also be considered a liability- you might expect to be paid more, or they think you will leave as soon as something better/higher paying/more in your field/a teaching job comes up, etc. To be fair, this makes sense for an employer, as hiring anyone is a huge investment, but it's immensely frustrating for the PhDs who truly do want to work hard in the corporate world.

My biggest advice is to network. If you get to know people in your field during your degree, maybe work or volunteer at an organization, and make sure you keep all your options open, you might be okay. This means informational interviews, reaching out to any PhDs in industry you know of, or even getting an internship during the summer. These things all make you a stronger job applicant afterwards. It really is who you know more than anything else. Networking is key.

In the end, I think it's your call. Weigh the pros and cons and see how prepared you are to enter the job market after your degree. For me, while teaching is my ultimate goal, I fully recognize that statistically it probably won't happen, and I'm prepared to end up right back where I am right now, in a totally unrelated field- and I have a pretty decent resume/network/job experience to leverage in order to obtain one. But that's something I had to decide before spending the time and money to try for a PhD, and it's something you also have to decide. It's certainly not an easy decision!

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You are right that I am working, and full time (dishwasher, nothing too important). I've been out of school for a few years, always with the intention of going back for my graduate degree, but was never sufficiently warned about the problems that I would face in the current academic job environment. A little here and there, but no one laid it out for me exactly how horrible it was, especially if I didn't end up at a top 20 PHD school. I don't want this time around to be like my first time around, when I was an undergraduate and had no idea about the job market, and just listened to every teacher and family member say "go to college" etc., and thought they knew what they were doing. Then, no real good jobs. I'm not naive this time, and probably am on the other end of the spectrum - jaded, and a little angry. This time if it happens, its the blame is going squarely on my shoulders. The second problem is that being out of school a few years also means that I'm a few years older than and even further behind any people that I would be competing against. 

In any case, thanks for the input. What you said was exactly what my gut feeling was.

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