Why do you want to do a PhD?

I have been thinking recently about why we undertake doctoral research at all. I’ve been reading applications to the PhD programme I am working in, and have also had a request to possibly co-supervise the project of a new colleague who will retire in 3 years’ time and really wants to finally start her doctorate. If you consider that one of the most talked-about reasons for doing a doctorate is to earn a title, and the professional status and opportunities that come with that (grants, promotion, etc), you might wonder why she has waited so long, and what possible career benefits she could derive from it so close to the formal end of her career. This has got me thinking about the reasons for undertaking doctoral study, and the payoffs for those who do.

Reason 1: Career progression, professional status, promotion

Reason 1 is the most obvious and perhaps also most commonsense reason for choosing to undertake a doctorate. In South Africa, not unlike just about every higher education context globally, holding a PhD is a signal to peers and managers that you can both conduct and supervise research. Given the drive across Africa and other parts of the global North and South to increase the numbers of PhD graduates (linked to economic growth), it follows that we need more PhDs to supervise all these students’ and their research.

Of course, then, you would undertake a doctorate because are already working in a university – public or private – and need to climb the career ladder. Promotion, research funding, support to attend conferences, professional status, and the ability to supervise students – all of this is made more possible when you hold your own PhD degree.

This reason is linked to Reason 2, which is that you need to hold, or be working on, a PhD if you want to enter academia and get a university job, whether you are coming in from being a student, or coming from industry or a profession to teach. Someone said to me years ago that, in academia, the Masters is like your school leaving certification, now, and the doctorate is your university degree – hard to do very much without one. She was right. If you read any job advert for an academic lecturing post, or research post, in any university context that posts ads in Times Higher Education, or similar spaces, you will see that a minimum requirement is having or being actively registered for a doctorate. Unless one is not required for the role (an MA or MPhil are enough), you have to be on the PhD track to apply.

Further, for more senior roles, you have to be published. Now, you don’t have to have a PhD to do research, and write papers, but the learning and engagement in reading, methodology, data analysis and so on that takes place over the course or researching and writing a doctoral dissertation does stand you in stronger stead for doing further research and writing work postdoctorally (and helping others to do this by collaborating with them)

But this cannot be all there is to it, right? This mainly extrinsic motivation, underpinned by ideas of higher education as a private good, and neoliberal notions of individualised success and progress, doesn’t fully get to why and how doing and having a PhD can be transformative beyond the self – for one’s academic and personal, and also wider community

Photo by Abel Tan Jun Yang from Pexels

Reason 3: Doctoral study as transformation – of self in relation to others

I have written a fair bit here over the past 4 years about all the different things I have learned about myself as a researcher and writer from doing a PhD. Liz Harrison also wrote an excellent book on the transformation of identity and self that comes with doing a PhD (and there is a fair bit of this research out there if you want to read it). The PhD is the only degree you earn that changes your name – you get a title that you keep, regardless of whether your job changes, or you leave academia even. This is a significant change for many graduates, mainly because of what it signals: a new kind of scholarly self that can do, and design and supervise research, that can contribute to large and small debates within and beyond the university, that can publish research and contribute to scholarship in relatively influential ways. It’s a big deal.

But for me, the real nature of this big deal – the intrinsic motivation that I think must drive scholars like my colleagues and friends who have all undertaken doctorate very late in their formal careers – has become clear only quite recently. In a nutshell, it’s about who I can be to others, as a peer, collaborator, mentor. It’s about the roles I can play in my scholarly community. It’s about the role model I can be to my boys, of a working mother who is more than just their mum; who is a person, thinker, writer, actor in her own right. It’s about the range of contributions I can make – as a critical friend, as a co-supervisor and co-researcher, as a cheerleader and peer, and as a teacher.

The doctorate should be transformative, personally and professionally. It should not just be a qualification that you obtain to get a job, or climb the academic or professional ladder you are perched on. If we are serious about expanding postgraduate education at this level, and making the doctorate a signal of excellence in research development and “output” in our university contexts, then we need to be talking to prospective and current PhD students more openly about the intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. I contend that you must have both for this thing we call ‘the PhD’ to be really meaningful, to the student and to the student’s scholarly and perhaps also wider personal and professional communities.

Having these conversations, and creating space in doctoral education spaces to encourage and promote student growth, learning and development in gaining a qualification and more consciously cultivating a wider set of motivations and gains, would be an important step in ensuring that postgraduate education is both a private, and public, good. And this is good for all of us, regardless of when we start the PhD, and why.