Entry 77: The Big, Hairy PhD Question

Editor’s Note: This is the 77th installment in Van Jackson’s daily writing journal, “Nuke Your Darlings,” which tracks his six-month battle to write a new book on North Korea. Will he meet his deadline?

I’m writing this from San Francisco, where I’m presenting a couple papers at the International Studies Association annual conference. It took a long time to get here. I’m cramped, dehydrated, jetlagged, and exhausted. I worked on the book a bit—wrote 1,400 words over the last two days or so—but didn’t sleep on the flight, and was far less productive during my travel than planned.

Just before I got on the plane, I met with a student in our Master of Strategic Studies program about pursuing a PhD. He wanted to know whether he should, and how it would benefit him.

I’ve had some version of this conversation a few times now. I don’t know if I’m giving the right advice but I generally say something like this:

Pursuing a PhD changed my life. It opened up all kinds of opportunities. Had I stayed in the policy world, it would’ve been an advantageous credential that might’ve made me more attractive for certain jobs focused on strategy. It definitely gave me perspective and critical thinking skills that I used while I worked in policy. A PhD also made possible my transition to the think tank world after my stint in policy. And it goes without saying, but my academic opportunities wouldn’t have happened without a PhD. When I started, I did it primarily because it I thought the literature in my field was interesting and important, and I felt like the policy world was bereft of clear thinking. I was passionate about international relations as a subject, and even though I literally thought I’d never finish, I tried anyway because I was drawn to the material, as well as the prospect of a life spent reading and contributing to it.

But had I not already been in a policy job, a PhD would’ve only made me marginally more competitive for one. It was a financially expensive proposition. It was the most time-consuming thing I’ve ever done, and I was lucky to find a program that let me continue working in policy while I finished my studies. The commitment was so long that my life changed radically at least twice while I was still a student. And I often felt like happiness was impossible because PhD programs inevitably socialize you to believe that tenure-track academic jobs are the ultimate measure of success and the deck was stacked against me since I didn’t come from a top-ten school.

A PhD was for me. My brain literally processes the world differently—and I think more critically—than had I not pursued a PhD. The universe gave me opportunities than I couldn’t have imagined. I think everyone with the requisite brainpower (which is less than you might think) should pursue a PhD, all else being equal.

But of course, all else isn’t equal. I’ve met plenty of dumb scholars, so a PhD is no guarantee of high intelligence. Unless you’re working a day job (which means a tax on your time and focus), you sort of have to take a vow of poverty for a while because even funded PhDs don’t come with very much money. And the opportunities a PhD opens for you depend a lot on your particular circumstances, where you study (it matters more than I realized), and your performance as a researcher.

Essentially, going for a PhD is this big, hairy, audacious gamble that requires you to be ok with lots of hard and lonely work, and the possibility (likelihood?) that you don’t finish. And if you do finish, you need to be ok with ending up only marginally more employable than you were before starting. So dream big, and be prepared to work hard, but be ok with the risks and consequences along the way.


Van Jackson is a senior editor at War on the Rocks and an associate editor of the Texas National Security Review. He is also a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Victoria University of Wellington, and the Defence & Strategy Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies.