“I can’t imagine any dignity without a PhD”

“I do not have the imagination to conceive of a life that would have any human dignity for me without [a PhD]. If there is a life after failing I cannot face such a thing for I do not have the kind of inner strength to face it. I can’t even envy those who can be happy without a PhD because to envy them is to wish to trade places with them and they do not have a PhD. Still, I admire the hell out of people who do not need a PhD to feel their definition of themselves is worthwhile.”

I wish I could get across how wrong this is. To judge your entire life’s worth, your entire sense of “human dignity”, on whether or not you get a PhD is horrifying.

From a purely practical point of view, it’s an incredibly poor position to take. If the stakes are set so high then it’s unlikely you’ll be willing to make the mistakes that are necessary to develop your skills, to commit to the decisions necessary to make progress, or to take the risks that are so necessary to do good research,

It also puts you in a seriously vulnerable and exploitable position. I have heard of students who have been kept on PhD programmes purely so they can be used as unpaid labour, even though the supervisors have said to others that they see no chance of successful completion. Then there are the cases of verbal, psychological and sexual abuse that occur in all institutions where there is a dysfunctional power dynamic. These human-shitbag supervisors get away with it because they can exploit students’ fear.

There is no correlation – none – between having or not having a PhD and your value and dignity as a human being.

Apart from anything else, sometimes people fail through no fault of their own. Sometimes they’re in the wrong institution or research group, with the wrong supervisor or working on the wrong project for them. Sometimes it’s impossible to finish due to other circumstances outside of their control (physical or mental health, family circumstances).

And FFS, even if it is your fault (like you just don’t bother doing any work) that doesn’t make you any less of a person.

Many over-estimate the negative consequences of not getting a PhD, but it’s also easy to over-estimate the positive consequences of success.

In the years since I passed my PhD I don’t think it has ever given me a greater sense of self-worth. I don’t think I’ve ever found comfort when stressed or depressed in the thought, “well at least I have a PhD!”

I also don’t think I’ve ever held someone in higher regard because they have one, or lower regard because they don’t. In fact, some of the people I have the least respect for have PhDs, while most of those I respect the most don’t.

Getting a PhD is a fine achievement – and it’s good to take strive for something difficult – but please, I beg you, don’t make it the foundation of your sense of dignity and self-worth.

“and if you can’t see anything beautiful about yourself
get a better mirror
look a little closer
stare a little longer”

  • Shane Koyczan, “To this day
See also

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