I recently had lunch with a colleague who had been my interviewer when I applied for my current job a few years ago. When this topic came up, she recalled, “I saw ‘PhD’ on your application, so I knew you would be smart.” While flattered by the compliment, I found myself questioning her inference: was intelligence actually the predominant quality that I had needed to earn my PhD? What had I been advertising with those three letters at the top of my CV?
A paper in Teaching in Higher Education, covered recently, confirms that I am not the only one unsure of the extent to which the PhD represents a raw-intellect credential. In the study, researcher Isabelle Skakni found through dozens of interviews that many PhD students and their supervisors were more likely to say that success in doctoral programmes requires qualities such as self-discipline and perseverance rather than brilliance or intellectual horsepower. One PhD student put it bluntly: “To me, you don’t need to be very intelligent to do a doctorate. You just need to be assiduous and strategic.”
I am confident that many PhDs find these results as resonant as I do. The numerous challenges that I faced during my six years of doctoral study in philosophy were overcome not by brilliance but by doggedness. I encountered a variety of obstacles while working towards my degree. Each time I (or, more often, my adviser) caught a weak argumentative step in my dissertation, I corrected the error through the slow, laborious effort of working through every possible avenue, not by furrowing my brow and mustering a stroke of genius.
Other challenges that PhDs face are as procedural or interpersonal as they are intellectual. As my thesis-writing process neared its conclusion, one faculty member who was to serve on my examining committee raised an objection with which I disagreed to a section of my dissertation draft. The critique had not been noted by my other faculty readers. So close to finishing, it felt at the time as though the revisions had been requested in order to prolong my defence schedule – one final test of my mettle. But there was nothing that I could do besides trudge back to the library and begin to edit.
As Skakni’s findings imply, for every drop of intelligence that was required to complete my dissertation, I credit an equal measure of grit – perseverance in the face of challenges that often seemed frustrating or unfair. Grit is what allows PhD students to persist through a gruelling process that Skakni’s subjects found to be “inevitably accompanied by some level of suffering”.
It is well known that career prospects on the traditional academic path are much worse than for previous generations, with half (or more) of PhD graduates at some of the most elite universities in the US now leaving academia. The prospects are even worse for PhDs in many humanities and social sciences fields, and for those whose degrees come from institutions without top-tier brand reputation.
Despite this reality, there are few well-defined pathways from PhD studies into “alternative” career paths. This may be, in part, because the full value of a PhD as a credential is little understood by those with hiring power in industries outside academia. When I eschewed the traditional academic path and applied for jobs in the private sector, I found some interviewers unsure of what to make of a candidate who had spent six years toiling over a hundred-some pages of technical language in a university library. They may not have doubted my intelligence, but they seemed to have trouble projecting my job performance based on my PhD credential.
Fortunately, in most professional fields as in PhD studies, grit and the capacity to work hard in the face of obstacles are at least as important as intelligence. It is, in part, up to PhD graduates pursuing careers outside academia to educate their potential employers about the value of their credentials. PhDs must be clear when applying for jobs about the perseverance and sustained effort that was required to solve complex problems, navigate difficult personalities and complete their dissertations. Unfortunately, these skills and qualities are often opaque to PhD students. At the conclusion of her study, Skakni notes, “overall, a certain confusion remains in the participant accounts […] regarding which competencies are likely to be developed through the [PhD] process”.
In order for employers outside academia to appreciate the value of a PhD, students and graduates themselves must understand what their credential signifies. The burden for alleviating that confusion must fall on PhD-granting institutions. A university and its faculty should align around a set of desired competencies for their PhD students, assess whether the traditional model effectively builds these competencies, and broadcast to potential students and employers alike that their graduates are prepared for success inside and outside academia.
Jeremy Wolos is a strategy consultant in the higher education sector, based in New York City. He earned his PhD in philosophy from Columbia University in 2016.