What is the dark side of being a Ph.D. student?
For many people, having a Ph.D. is a primary aspirational goal, as though their life will somehow be better or more fulfilling after they can call themselves ‘Doctor.’
The first dark truth is that thousands of people with PhDs out in the job market would like to be professors but will never achieve that milestone. Instead, they are working at jobs outside the academy. Yet the myth persists that there are jobs for all these doctoral graduates. The universities take no responsibility for what happens after you graduate. They will blithely turn out dozens of scholars of Latin American history, plant cell biology, microeconomics, retail management, or African-American studies without concern about where and how these people will get jobs. Employers are no more obliged to take Dr. Smith with his doctorate in the economics of African-American family businesses than any other potential employee. They may even actively discriminate against Dr. Smith in the belief that someone with a doctorate is ‘over-qualified’ or more likely to cause trouble in the workplace. Dr. Smith might have more difficulty getting a job than a high school graduate and decide to ‘hide’ his qualification once he realizes it is an albatross around his neck.
Others manage to find employment in the university and community college sector. Once again, there is a persistent myth that there are plenty of ‘tenured’ positions in the higher education sector and that it is impossible to be fired from them. Good luck with that! In reality, many teaching jobs in universities and colleges are casual or, at best, short-term contracts, offering inferior long-term employment prospects. Some doctoral graduates might go 20 years teaching in the tertiary sector and never get a full-time position. It can be a hardscrabble life juggling teaching commitments at multiple employers and having no income during the vacation breaks. The universities don’t care; there is a persistent cadre of potential casual employees with PhDs, constantly renewing, who will take up all those short-term positions. The course you teach could be canceled on a whim, your student evaluations might slip during a challenging health-related episode, or a new and shinier Ph.D. graduate might suddenly pop up to teach the course. Thank you for your service.
One of the saddest truths is that some people embark on a Ph.D., not knowing how intellectually and emotionally draining it will be. Having ‘made it’ to candidature, they think their research will be similar to the learning they did during their undergraduate years. Instead, they find that there is an expectation that they will have the capacity to see beyond current thinking and add their small brick to the wall of knowledge. That is a daunting task that many ABDs find beyond them. Imagine working for two years on a machine-learning model for ecological succession and then realizing that your work is substantially behind what is currently being published, yet seeing no way forward to improve it. Your supervisor/advisor may not know either; they may have thought you were doing all right, while instead, you are becoming increasingly desperate as you stare into the abyss. It might only be impostor syndrome, but it could also be the dawning realization that you are subject to the Dunning-Kruger effect.
In the worst cases, Ph.D. students contemplate suicide to end the torment. So the dark side can be very, very dark indeed…