IS A PhD WORTH IT?
The Open University is celebrating its fiftieth year, and so I’ve been recalling my own experiences of part-time study and lifelong learning. I have a BA and a Masters degree in English Literature from the OU and a part-time PhD from Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge. All three were completed whilst I was working full-time, with a family, and looking after elderly parents in their latter years. I loved studying with the OU, and it was during the final stages of my Masters degree that I developed the idea for my PhD thesis. Completing a PhD is my proudest academic achievement so far. Now all I have to do is to find a way to turn it into a book and get it published.
My recollections led me to thinking about the value of a PhD outside academia and especially a subject like my own, English Literature. I was a recruitment consultant for two years; so, I thought it would be interesting to consider why an employer would, for example, be interested in someone with a PhD and in a subject that is not obviously relevant to their business?
The rigour someone shows to become an expert in a field, throughout a PhD, shows what can be achieved with discipline, planning and self-belief. These are qualities that any employer should value highly. Over the duration of my own PhD, I had to distil hundreds of books and academic papers, as well as the poetry and prose of my subject (an outstanding Victorian woman who wrote about science, religion and philosophy), into a coherent and defensible thesis. A PhD, therefore, requires high levels of project management skills to break a complex project down into manageable elements over several years.
These factors demonstrate the work ethic required to achieve a PhD, but there are many other transferable skills that employers should be keen to bring into their business. I'm thinking of the analytical skills needed or the ability to be able to communicate succinctly with subject matter experts. There's also writing up notes that eventually can be turned into publishable work, or developing a system to enable you to find research that you may have done years previously. You have to develop an ability to probe the minutiae of detail in documents for relevant facts and be able to document those accurately. But it's not enough just to regurgitate other peoples' work … you have to have an angle and an argument that you have developed. Then there's the writing, drafting, editing, proof reading, re-writing and presenting your work to various audiences as you progress.
And let's not forget the Viva Voce … the oral defence of your thesis can last several hours. It's not enough to have written a thesis, because the final hurdle is to defend your argument with two experts in the field. Daunting? You bet it's daunting and that's the point. I threw everything into preparing for mine, and I ended up enjoying what was an unforgettable experience. Preparing for a senior level management review or a boardroom presentation in business sometimes seems a breeze compared to getting ready for a Viva.
I started this blog thinking about the value of a PhD. Of course, the majority of people thriving in business today develop most of the skills that I've described above without ever entering the world of academia. But I've been in both camps, and I do believe that the transferable skills gained in academia can be of great value in business. It's really all about the person and the drive needed to complete a major project over a long period of time. Also, remember that a PhD has to be of publishable standard and an original contribution to academic knowledge. How many times in our lives can we step back and say we did something entirely original? That's what a PhD gives you and when combined with a plethora of transferable skills that, for me, is why a PhD is worth it.