Why I want to pursue a PhD

I’ve heard both sides.

“PhDs are a waste of time.” “There’s already an over-supply of PhDs for the positions available (though, I believe this is less true in agriculture–especially plant breeding).” “Grad students are little more than cheap labor for the university.” From my dad: “You’re just contributing to a deflation of the value of a bachelor’s degree.”

“You know where you want to go, and  PhD is what you need to get there.” “You have the experiences and the passion, but you need the degree(s).”  “Just get down to it and do a PhD; my MSc was a lot of time and work and didn’t get me where I wanted to go.”

I want to be a germplasm curator for the USDA National Plant Germplasm System.  I’ve worked in the system as a student and a technician and I’ve determined that I need a PhD to do what I want and go where I want to go.  Don’t get me wrong, the USDA employs incredible technicians and curators with BSc and MSc degrees.  Unfortunately, I know from experience that it is harder and harder to get into those positions without the degree(s) to back up your experiences.

There are dozens of articles on the pros and cons of PhDs written by distraught, abused, and frustrated graduate students and academics, Including this one in Economist from 2010.  It brings up many important points that I’ve had to consider before beginning the application process.

In most countries a PhD is a basic requirement for a career in academia. It is an introduction to the world of independent research—a kind of intellectual masterpiece, created by an apprentice in close collaboration with a supervisor. 

Now, I’m past the point of fantasizing about graduate school.  I’ve worked with several students on their PhD projects; I’ve seen them distraught over oral and written exams, frazzled after committee meetings, and frustrated after running the same analysis for the billionth time with poor results.

A PhD may offer no financial benefit over a master’s degree. It can even reduce earnings.

Obviously, I’m not in this for the money.  I want to work as a curator for the government, not be an industry breeder for a multinational agriculture company.

The interests of academics and universities on the one hand and PhD students on the other are not well aligned.

I’m not going to argue this one; both fighting an established system and succumbing to it are tiring.

Completing a PhD program is going to require determination, resilience, self-confidence, and sacrifice in amounts higher than I’ve ever had to commit before.  I’m passionate about plant breeding and germplasm preservation, committed to the research process, and excited about the opportunities that will come during and afterwards.

During my research on starting a blog I came across Dr. Matt Might’s blog.  He’s an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Utah and wrote an excellent illustrated post about how he explains a PhD to his new students.

A PhD is a dent in the boundary of human knowledge.  The world looks different from there, but you can’t forget the larger picture. Keep Pushing.

————

Other articles offering advice for those considering graduate school:

http://scienceblogs.com/startswithabang/2013/03/28/advice-should-you-get-your-phd/

http://www.princetonreview.com/grad/why-you-shouldnt-pursue-a-phd.aspx

http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/career_magazine/previous_issues/articles/2007_09_14/caredit.a0700130

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