Dear Christine: Should I do a PhD if I don't know whether I want to be a professor?

As I begin the final stretch of my PhD journey embracing my identities as both a scientist and an artist, I’m getting more questions from undergrads, similarly artistically inclined, whether a PhD in STEM is right for them. I see much of myself in those who are posing these questions - the love for research is there, but the uncertainty of whether an all-consuming academic career is the right path is unsettling. I tell these students the same thing I told myself: you don’t have to know for certain that you want to be a professor before you commit to graduate school.

Heck, I’m pretty sure a ton of professors don’t even want to be professors. They want to do research, but the system of a secure, academic career demands grant-writing, teaching, group management, and mentoring. If you’re an artist (or have another aspect of your life that is extremely important to your fulfillment), you know that you’ll need the time and freedom to incorporate this passion into your life on top of the demands of a professor. Is it worth it to dedicate 5+ years of your young life to a PhD if you don’t even know you want the job at the end of the pipeline? The problem with answering this question is that it’s the wrong question to ask. Instead, ask yourself, “Do I deserve the opportunity of 5+ years of exploration and mastery of scientific inquiry?”

Look at a PhD for what it is, not as a stepping stone toward a predetermined path. Most PhDs don’t even end up with tenure-track positions, so I think it’s actually an advantage for PhD students to have prospects outside of academia. A fully-funded STEM PhD program is a great chunk of time to explore those outside interests during the off-hours of research. My business, Two Photon Art, was started as a hobby during my 2nd year of grad school. Now it’s grown to something that I could live off of if I wanted to do it full-time. Having an outside source of fulfillment also blunts the inevitable failures in grad school. Looking back, I am not even sure I would have been able to establish this art business if not for the freedom, connections, and prestige being a PhD student granted me.

So what do I say? If you know for sure that you want to spend the next 5+ years completely immersed in science and research, it doesn’t matter if you don’t know about the next 10 to 50 years. Follow your passions, even if they change.

Disclaimer: This advice applies only to fully-funded programs in which you do not incur any debt and are paid a livable wage for the duration of your PhD. See my post on science-ing while poor for more details.

Thanks for reading this post! I am trying something new by sharing the advice I give to those who reach out to me via email. This advice is important and I commend those who have the bravery to reach out to a total stranger! However, I never had the guts to do that kind of thing, and still don’t, so I want to make sure this advice is accessible to everyone, even those too shy to send cold emails. To ask your own question, fill out the form below!

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