How many people have asked you this question? I bet you’ve lost count. It is such a common question, someone used it as the title of a book. About non-academic careers for PhDs, of course. (It’s a good book. Well worth it.)
And it’s probably your number one source of anxiety while working towards your PhD and while looking for post-PhD employment. You’ve heard it so often, you probably ask it of yourself.
What if it’s the wrong question?
Let’s try the opposite day strategy on this question.
What if the value of a PhD is not in what you do with it?
What if the PhD has value in and of itself?
A sociological detour
Back in 1987, Barrie Thorne published an article in Gender & Society about children in sociological research and theory.
This article had such a powerful effect on me, that I recall the main point to this day: The problem with most sociological (and other social science) writing about children is that they are almost always seen in developmental time. Their activities are interpreted in relation to what they will become rather than what they are.
Are you treating your PhD as an extended childhood?
I exaggerate but when we ask “What are you going to do with that?”, we are locked in a developmental perspective. Is this the primary way you want to evaluate your PhD?
And even if you think the primary value of your PhD is developmental, are employment opportunities the primary thing you think you are developing? Did you really start your PhD with the primary goal of qualifying yourself for a particular job?
I thought not.
What do you value about your PhD?
If we step out of developmental time (in which we are always becoming) and step back into historical time (in which we are), what is the value of the PhD as you are doing it?
- Does it bring you joy?
- Does it challenge you?
- Does it allow you to make a contribution? To what?
- Does it bring you connection?
- Does it allow you to use your skills and knowledge to create something?
- Does it allow you to solve problems?
If you are feeling particularly frustrated right now (and who doesn’t from time to time), think back to a time when you were excited about your PhD? What excited you? Be as specific as possible.
You might want to write down what you discover. And put it up somewhere where you can see it. This is all useful information for when people (or gremlins) ask that question.
Useful answers for “What are you going to do with that?” because people will still ask this question and it helps to have something to say.
The value of education linking this specific question to the broader political discourse about education.
This post was edited July 2, 2015.