The number of PhDs has been exceeding the available academic positions since as early as the mid-1990s.
The number of Australian PhD graduates reached around 10,000 a year in 2019, twice as many as in 2005.
However, the number of PhDs has been exceeding the available academic positions since as early as the mid-1990s. In 2020, universities purged around 10% of their workforce due to the pandemic, and many university careers are still vulnerable.
Given these statistics, you might wonder if doing a PhD is still a good idea. Based on our discussions with PhD holders, there are still plenty of very good reasons, which is good news in 2021.
In June 2020 we interviewed 12 PhD holders from multiple disciplines for our podcast Career Sessions to investigate the question: why do a PhD?
Why do a PhD?
The PhD is a mechanism for developing high-level research skills, learning about rigours of science or the development of theory. It sets you up with project management, problem-solving and analytical skills that are meaningful within and beyond academia.
“It just taught me all those transferable skills, project management, and also now starting businesses. I'm amazed at how close starting a business is to doing a science project." – Dr Andy Stapleton
For our interviewees, the PhD is an opportunity to dive deeply into a topic they are passionate about. They also considered contributing new knowledge to be a privilege. The process taught them to be better thinkers, critical thinkers, and to view the world through new eyes.
“The mental fitness to work at a high level, to be able to think at a high level, to be able to write it […] The topic is less important." – Dr Gareth Furber
The PhD is a voyage of discovery to a better understanding of how things work. It gives them a credible platform from which their voice can be heard and respected, and they can contribute to change.
“I think it's definitely like a springboard or something. It launches you into a whole other place and it gives you […] more of a voice. It's a political act for me. It's about making change." – Dr Elizabeth Newnham
The PhD is a tough and sometimes painful journey, but ultimately rewarding. The extraordinary was tempered by frustration, and the experience shaped their lives, increasing self-confidence and leading to new self-awareness.
When asked whether they would they do it again, no-one hesitated in saying “yes".
“You will never stretch your brain in a way that a PhD forces you to." – Professor Kate Douglas.
The PhD is not necessarily a golden ticket to an academic career, but the experience and skills you develop will be meaningful for your future.
“What I'd done in my PhD gave me a lot broader sense than just my own personal experience. There were a lot of people that have heard me speak and a lot of that's been informed by the PhD. So it might not be direct, but it's informed who I am." – Dr Susan Close
Advice from our guests
Keep both your eyes and your mind open. Pick a topic you are passionate about. Speak to people both within and outside academia to find out where this could lead. Think about whether you actually need a PhD to get to where you want to be.
You'll have to make some judgement calls about how a PhD can fit into your life.
And find the right supervisor! They are the most important relationship you will have throughout your candidature, and they are a solid reference for what comes next. Finding the right supervisor will always enhance your PhD experience.
A PhD isn't right for everyone. Ask yourself, is it the right time for you and your research interests? Are you resilient? Mental health among PhD students is poor.
Our podcast guests have witnessed PhD students' struggles. The pathway of a PhD candidate is not linear. There are many ups and downs. You will meander in many unplanned directions and often take wrong turns.
When you have completed your PhD, the hard work is really just starting. It is a gateway, but there are a lot of PhDs out there. It is what comes next that really counts.
“It's a gateway. You're learning how to do research. But if you really want to be successful afterwards, you need to apply that, and be diligent about that as well, and have a good work ethic." – Dr Mark Krstic
A PhD in any field is an achievement. Even the most niche topics will contribute knowledge to a field that is important for many people. The reward is intrinsic and only you can identify how doing a PhD will contribute to your life. It gives you a great toolkit to identify the doors that are appropriate for you.
“The first paper was the most exciting thing. […] at that time I thought of papers as like a version of immortality. My name is on something that will last forever. I think this is my legacy." – Dr Cameron Shearer
Guests of Career Sessions podcast and what they are doing now. Author provided.
Tamara Agnew, Researcher, College of Nursing and Health Sciences, Flinders University and Stephanie Champion, Postdoctoral Research Associate, College of Nursing and Health Sciences, Flinders University
What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
In a New York Times essay published the day of his funeral on July 30, 2020, Congressman John Lewis wrote that his "last days and hours"—in which he watched widespread protests over George Floyd's murder and saw a square in downtown D.C. christened Black Lives Matter Plaza—filled him with hope. "Around the country and the world you set aside race, class, age, language and nationality to demand respect for human dignity."
Human dignity is a powerful phrase invoked to peacefully protest against violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. But when we talk about human dignity, what do we mean?
The inherent worth of all human beings
Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.
Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect.
Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it.
But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.
From the 19th century to today
With Google Books Ngram Viewer, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.
We can also map human dignity against mentions of liberalism to see that discussion of human dignity increased with discussion of liberalism.
Then we can search through individual mentions to find how human dignity was discussed and understood over the last 200 years.
For example, German rabbi Dr. Samuel Hirsch gave a lecture in 1853 on "The Religion of Humanity" in which he condemned slavery. "That which we love in ourselves, our true human dignity, compels us to recognize and love the same human dignity in all others," Hirsh said. He wrote:
If I can look upon my brother-man as a creature, as a thing void of any will of his own, instead of as a free personality, that furnishes ample proof that I have not yet recognized the true human dignity in myself. To own slaves is spiritual suicide and homicide. This sin is in no way excusable on account of the kind treatment accorded to the slaves by their owner, as he never can treat them humanely. When man becomes a piece of property he is robbed of his human dignity.
In 1917, Kansas State Normal School published a journal on teaching that called for instructors to help each pupil "make completer use of his one lifetime" because "an abundant life, a life of awareness, a life of dignity is an undertaking worthy of gods."
Thomas Bell's 1941 novel Out of the Furnace centered on an immigrant Slovak family in Pennsylvania. A character muses that it wasn't "where you were born or how you spelled your name or where your father had come from" that mattered; instead,
It was the way you thought and felt about certain things. About freedom of speech and the equality of men and the importance of having one law—the same law—for rich and poor, for the people you liked and the people you didn't like. About the right of every man to live his life as he thought best, his right to defend it if anyone tried to change it and his right to change it himself if he decided he liked some other way of living better…. About human dignity, which helped a man live proudly and distinguished his death from animals; and finally, about the value to be put on a human life, one's enemy's no less than one's own.
In a 1953 speech, then Secretary of State John Foster Dulles argued that communist countries might be able to achieve short-term material gain, but "results so produced are not a glory but a shame. They are achieved by desecrating the dignity of the human individual." Dulles believed human dignity meant being entitled to a life that included physical well-being and "freedom to think, to believe, and to communicate with one's fellows," "opportunities which permit some exercise of individual choices," and "the contemplation and enjoyment of what is beautiful."
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
One hundred years after U.S. law stopped allowing Black Americans to be treated as property, Black writer James Baldwin was still calling for Black Americans' dignity to be equally recognized. It was not enough, not nearly enough, that the 14th Amendment ensured equal protection of the laws; what mattered was how Black Americans were treated by their fellow human beings. In a 1960 Canadian television interview, Baldwin said, "I don't know what white people see, you know, when they look at a Negro anymore. But I do know very well—I realized when I was very young—that whatever he was looking at, it wasn't me… I was not a man."
In his seminal 1963 book The Fire Next Time, Baldwin seemed to echo Dr. Hirsh's argument from a century earlier:
I am very much concerned that American Negroes achieve their freedom here in the United States. But I am also concerned for their dignity, for the health of their souls, and must oppose any attempt that Negroes may make to do to others what has been done to them. I think I know—we see it around us every day—the spiritual wasteland to which that road leads. It is so simple a fact and one that is so hard, apparently, to grasp: Whoever debases others debases himself.
This, then, is a common thread in our historic understanding of human dignity: Anyone who treats another human being as less than human undermines their own human dignity in addition to undermining the dignity of their victim.A 1964 New York University Law Review article argued that privacy was a key aspect of human dignity. "A man whose home may be entered at the will of another, whose conversation may be overheard at the will of another, whose marital and familial intimacies may be overseen at the will of another, is less of a man, has less human dignity, on that account," wrote author Edward J. Bloustein, who later became president of Rutgers University.
The future of dignity
Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."
The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all.
The color of toys has a much deeper effect on children than some parents may realize.
- The idea that blue is for boys and pink is for girls plays out in gender reveals and in the toy aisle, but where does it come from and what limits is it potentially placing on children?
- Lisa Selin Davis traces the gendering of toys and other objects back to the 1920s and explains how, over time, these marketing strategies were falsely conflated with biological traits.
- The "pink-blue divide" affects boys and girls on a psychological level. For example, psychologists discovered that when girls exit their intense 'pink princess' phase between ages 3-6 and move into a tomboy 'I hate pink' phase at age 6-8 "that is actually a moment of girls realizing that what's marked as feminine is devalued and so they're distancing themselves from it to prop themselves up higher on the ladder," says Selin Davis.
Psychologists W. Keith Campbell, (Ph.D.) and Carolyn Crist explain why narcissists rise to power and how to make sure your support is going to someone making effective, positive change.
- Pathological narcissism is rare. It impacts an estimated 1 percent of the population.
- Narcissism is tied closely to leadership emergence, as narcissists tend to initially be confident, charismatic, and charming. Leadership is a natural goal for narcissists because it feeds their motivational goals of status, power, and attention.
- Psychologists W. Keith Campbell, (Ph.D.) and Carolyn Crist explain why narcissists rise to power.
The term narcissist is commonly used to refer to people who appear to be arrogant or entitled. It's easy to refer to someone who talks a lot about themselves or their accomplishments as a narcissist, but what does the word really mean?
Narcissism is viewed on a spectrum. The trait itself is normally characterized by people scoring near the middle of the spectrum and a few rare individuals at either end.
How do you score narcissism?
The Narcissistic Personality Inventory (referred to by physicians as the NPI) was developed by Robert Raskin and Calvin S. Hall in 1979. Scores on this scale range from 0-40, with the average tending to fall in the low-mid teens, according to Psychology Today.
The difference between pathological narcissism and narcissism is important.
Pathological narcissism (which is actually a personality disorder referred to as narcissistic personality disorder) is rare. It impacts an estimated 1 percent of the population. It is a mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention/admiration, troubled relationships (because of this), and an astounding lack of empathy for others.
This disorder is suspected when a person's narcissistic traits (listed above) begin to impair their daily functions.
Why do narcissists become leaders?
"Leadership is a natural goal for narcissists because it feeds their motivational goals of status, power, and attention." - Psychology Today
Leadership can be a complex topic to discuss, as the psychology of leadership can be classified in two distinct ways: leadership emergence (the rise to power) and leadership effectiveness (what happens once the person has power).
Narcissists initially appear charming and confident, making them great for leadership emergence.
Narcissism is tied closely to leadership emergence, as narcissists tend to initially be confident, charismatic, and charming (then later perceived as vain or arrogant). However, narcissism may not be great for effective leadership. Once someone rises to power and gains trust, it doesn't always mean they are going to be effective at being a leader to those people.
Many positions are self-elected, and narcissists will jump at this chance.
Education, politics, and businesses are typically set up to allow potential leaders to self-elect and move forward with their own goals. Even when leaders are selected by committees or groups, they may be more inclined to go with a high-visibility, confident, high-profile candidate over someone who exudes leadership qualities in a more muted way.
Many systems favor loud, narcissistic individuals over quiet, effective leaders.
"Sometimes it feels like our systems are set up to select these narcissistic individuals," explain W. Keith Campbell, (Ph.D.) and Carolyn Crist in Psychology Today. "The democratic election process can also feel like a popularity contest, where the biggest ego wins. Even this year, candidates have created polarized followings on social media."
People desire a leader who promises stability and direction during challenging times.
Narcissists who come to power during chaotic and difficult times often quickly gain the support of their followers because they make promises of stability and have a clear direction in mind. The problem with this is that it can lead to detrimental leaders, such as Adolf Hitler. Hitler rose to power during a time when Germany's economy was struggling to recover after the First World War, promising to rebuild and strengthen the country.
Narcissistic leaders may be able to temporarily convince you everything is being handled effectively.
Followers who believe their leader acts in their best interest are more likely to be happy with that leadership. When you have a leader who is repeating over and over that they are making effective, meaningful, positive changes (even if they aren't), people are more inclined to believe it.
"We've seen this over the years at many levels of the government—from the presidential suite all the way down to the local mayor's office," explains Campbell and Crist.
How do we avoid electing and supporting narcissistic, ineffective leaders in the future?
Campbell and Crist have a few ideas about that in their book "The New Science of Narcissism" - the main takeaway being this: "Our best bet is to watch how they act and treat others and then respond accordingly when they look for the next position of power."
SEAL training is the ultimate test of both mental and physical strength.
- The fact that U.S. Navy SEALs endure very rigorous training before entering the field is common knowledge, but just what happens at those facilities is less often discussed. In this video, former SEALs Brent Gleeson, David Goggins, and Eric Greitens (as well as authors Jesse Itzler and Jamie Wheal) talk about how the 18-month program is designed to build elite, disciplined operatives with immense mental toughness and resilience.
- Wheal dives into the cutting-edge technology and science that the navy uses to prepare these individuals. Itzler shares his experience meeting and briefly living with Goggins (who was also an Army Ranger) and the things he learned about pushing past perceived limits.
- Goggins dives into why you should leave your comfort zone, introduces the 40 percent rule, and explains why the biggest battle we all face is the one in our own minds. "Usually whatever's in front of you isn't as big as you make it out to be," says the SEAL turned motivational speaker. "We start to make these very small things enormous because we allow our minds to take control and go away from us. We have to regain control of our mind."