5 Common Myths about Ph.D. Programs


By SMU Graduate Studies on April 12, 2018

5-common-myths-about-phd-programsThe prospect of a Ph.D. program can be scary – you love your discipline, but are you ready for four, five, or more years of work towards another degree?

In addition to the time commitment, there are other questions that may be asking yourself: "Will I be able to afford my time in grad school?" "Am I smart enough to make it in a Ph.D. program?" "Do I have to be a professor afterward?"

The decision to enter a Ph.D. program can be tough, but you shouldn't let unhelpful misconceptions get in the way of your pursuit of a graduate degree. Here are five myths about getting a Ph.D., and the truth behind each one.

You have to be rich to afford a Ph.D.

College is expensive, so grad school is too, right? Not necessarily! Certain degrees, like a law degree or a master’s degree, usually charge students tuition. However, with a Ph.D. degree, often times the university pays you. While there are many variations across schools and even across disciplines, as a general rule students who are working towards their Ph.D. will have their tuition waived or paid for, and will often get a stipend on top of that to cover living expenses. You might not be living in the fanciest house on the block, but the goal is to provide enough financial resources so that you can study full-time without additional employment, allowing you to focus on your work. You should check with any program you are considering, but it’s probably much more affordable than you think. 

You can only work in academia with a Ph.D.

If you want to be a professor, you usually need a Ph.D. However, that doesn’t mean that being a professor is your only option. Many disciplines have industry jobs open to their graduates (particularly in the STEM fields), and now more than ever Ph.D. grads are venturing into other areas such as government, start-ups, public policy, consulting, finance, and more. In a world where people can make a living from their YouTube channel, the possibilities are endless. 

If you were good at undergrad studies, you’ll be good at a Ph.D. program.

As an undergraduate, you learn foundational principles and knowledge that has been produced and collected through the years. In a Ph.D. program, YOU are the one creating knowledge, and that is a very different skill set. When you start a Ph.D. program you need to be ready for this shift – in how you study, in how you approach problems, and in how you engage with others. You are as much a future colleague to the faculty as you are a student, once you’re in a Ph.D. program.    

You have to be a genius to get a Ph.D.

Getting a Ph.D. puts you in a pretty elite club. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, less than two percent of the country has a Ph.D., leaving the vast majority of Americans without one. Does this mean you have to be a genius, though? No – there is a lot that goes into being a good researcher or a good academic, and while it’s important to be smart, you also need to be a hard worker, dedicated to a specific topic, have a research plan, etc. Success takes the whole package, and being a genius isn’t necessary – nor is it sufficient if you don’t want to put in the effort. 

You have to discover something earth-shattering to get a Ph.D.   

When you write your dissertation, you are putting forth some new knowledge in your field. This can be the scariest thing of all – who is ready to declare herself the next Jane Goodall or Stephen Hawking? But new doesn’t have to mean that it will revolutionize the whole field. Looking at an issue through a new lens; conducting empirical research; identifying and analyzing a controversy; looking at applications of technology – these are just a few examples of the types of work that can become fantastic dissertations without rewriting everything heretofore known in your field. Your unique background and experiences will help you find your research niche, and before you know it you will have become THE expert on your topic. 

Do your research.

Ultimately, the most important thing you can do to make a great decision about graduate education is to thoughtfully explore the possibility in advance. There are a lot of myths and misconceptions floating around about what it means to get your Ph.D. so turn to reliable sources and ask the tough questions!

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