My PhD was “For Nothing” and I Couldn’t be Happier

I once wanted to be a lecturer. I loved the idea that one day, I’d stand in front of a classroom full of impressionable young minds and nurture them, the way my undergraduate lecturers did for me. That career goal was the whole reason I entered the PhD programme in the first place.

But over the course of my PhD, my goals slowly shifted. I started doing a little tutoring and lecturing on the side, and saw ‘behind the curtain’. I witnessed how many hours lecturers had to work, and came to understand how difficult it would be to juggle my professional and family responsibilities. The gloss came off the idea of lecturing for a living.

When I graduated with my PhD, I searched around half-heartedly for lecturing positions. But I quickly realized that I was happier in my existing role, where I had the joy of supporting researchers, but the freedom and time to pursue other projects outside academia.

I’d invested 4 years in a double Bachelor’s degree, 2 years in a Masters, and another 4-5 in a PhD. A decade of study to qualify me for lecturing. And after all that work, I didn’t become a lecturer. My inner critic told me it was all for nothing. That I had wasted that time, and I was wasting my PhD.

Except I don’t actually feel that way.

My Masters and PhD research changed me, and it changed the way others see me. The process of writing a thesis (and then another) improved my life in ways I’m still unpacking. In case any of you out there feel like you might be wasting your own time, here’s how my research qualifications have paid off outside the academic career context.

Personal effectiveness

I know how to manage long-term projects now. My PhD project was the first project I undertook that lasted more than a couple of years. I’d always had short-term jobs before; always started new projects that I didn’t finish. But with the PhD, I couldn’t quit. (Well, I could, but I would have lost a lot of work and several years of my life.) I was forced, for the first time, to see something through long-term. Now that I’ve done it once, I find it much easier to ‘coach’ myself through tough moments in other projects to achieve a larger reward. It’s a special kind of professional stamina, and it makes me feel unstoppable.

Brainpower

I think and speak in a much more precise, erudite manner than I did before undertaking research. My PhD supervisor was a stickler for precision in written language. He would make edits in my thesis drafts that felt ridiculously nit-picky at the time. But now, he is the little voice in my head that reminds me to keep my writing tight, accurate, and reasoned. My vocabulary is much broader too. Everything I write is better than it would have been if I hadn’t written my theses.

I’m also a much more skeptical thinker now. I don’t accept everything I hear or read as fact anymore. I know how to challenge, how to deconstruct, how to press for deeper truths. When I read about others’ research, I know how to assess its validity. That prevents me from believing a lot of things that I probably shouldn’t.

Prestige

I have the authority of being a ‘Dr’. This is a BIG. DEAL. Obviously, professionally, it’s a step up. I have had far more career opportunities because of my qualifications, and the role I’m in now is one of them. I’m paid more than I would be otherwise, which after years of student poverty, emphatically doesn’t suck. But also, people take me seriously now in a way they didn’t before. I can get meetings with people who wouldn’t have opened their doors to me before. I’m a more attractive candidate for everything from tenancies to bank loans. The difference those two letters make has completely surprised me. It’s a leg-up in life.

While we’re talking about the effect of the title, I have to share this strange-but-true tidbit: I feel the effects of prejudice less, too. There have been some people over the course of my life – not many, fortunately, but a few – who have assumed that because I’m a woman, I’m somehow lower in the social or professional hierarchy. In previous jobs, I’ve been expected to do more than my share of domestic-style chores around the office. When signing contracts or making large purchases, I’ve had people ask to go over the details “with my husband.” But guess what? Those few sexist people seem to shut up when they see the magical ‘Dr.’ And with that prestige attached to my name, I can more effectively advocate for gender equality.

You know what the best part is? I have these benefits for life. I never have to study again. I never have to do another assignment, write another essay, or take another exam. And yet, I still get to reap the benefits of educational achievement for the rest of my life. Let’s say I live to average life expectancy. That means I have almost 50 years left to enjoy these incredible perks, without doing a lick more work. Unbelievable.

So yes, I ‘failed’ to achieve the objective I set when I started my postgraduate study. But oh boy, this doesn’t feel like a failure. Living with the power of my research qualifications behind me – with more respect, better pay, more skills, and an achievement mindset – feels like playing life with power-ups.

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink. She has a research background in science and narrative. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. She has previously researched fictional representations of evolution and quantum mechanics. She has taught such diverse texts as Blade Runner and Bridget Jones’s Diary, and her most obscure skill is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

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