Ever since I declared my intent to pursue a PhD I have been inundated with articles by academics and disgruntled graduate students warning me of the dangers of a doctoral education. I’ve read all of the editorials from all of the major academic publications. Yet regardless of how many “there are no jobs,” “you’ll be a poverty-stricken adjunct forever,” “MOOCs are making traditional academics irrelevant,” and “you’ll be brainwashed into thinking all non-academic jobs are a failure” are thrown at me, here I stand, stubborn and starting a PhD in political science at York University this fall.
Granted, the situation is not quite so dire here in Canada as in the U.S.. According to a recent report by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (PDF), student support is more accessible, the job market is less saturated, funding is granted for longer periods, and sessional faculty are paid more—an average of $5,000 to $6,000 per course versus $2,500 to $3,000 in the United States. However at last count, fewer than 20 percent of PhD graduates in Canada manage to secure full-time academic positions, and that number has been dropping annually.
Why bother with a PhD? Why, regardless of all the warnings from well-meaning faculty members and former PhD students, do my peers and I continue to dive headfirst into a field that by all accounts will age, bankrupt and ruin us all? It’s tough to say, as no one has really bothered to ask us. Few publications have really ever sat down with incoming PhD students and said “okay, you know the risks, it doesn’t look good, so please, tell us, why do you persist?” Instead, everyone prefers to speculate, to speak for us, down to us, over us.
You can label us foolhardy, naïve, even delusional, but the reality is that I, and many other incoming PhD students, are too passionate about our research to imagine doing anything else. Sure, we worry about the feasibility of it all, but for us, PhDs are not about money or tenure — academia doesn’t afford either to most graduates anyway. For us, a doctoral education can’t simply be quantified in terms of economic viability because the pursuit of knowledge purely for knowledge’s sake is greater than bottom lines and profit margins.
As such, viewing every PhD student as either a future tenured academic or an utter failure is equally as problematic as gauging each Canadian citizen’s value only in terms of their purchasing power. And while we may have too many doctoral candidates competing for a shrinking number of professorships, can we really say that we have an excess of highly educated people being creative and pushing the advancement of human understanding?
Irrelevant PhDs? Many experts argue that there’s no such thing. Increasing economic and political inequality, aggravating climate catastrophes, technological revolutions, issues surrounding food security, population growth and disease transference —we need more people specialising in fields such as urban geography, engineering, sociology, health science, biotechnology, international relations, computer science, the list goes on.
We persist because we have to. Be it some theory we want to investigate, some disease we want to cure, or some conversation we want to be part of. And maybe someday we too will become jaded and bitter, writing editorial pleas to new generations of PhDs warning them not to get sucked in. But just as we choose to forge on, so too will they. We are all chasing knowledge because that’s what inquisitive minds like ours feel they need to do.
Adam Kingsmith is a PhD student in political science at York University.