Why a PhD?

Most of my friends and family would know that, for most of my life, I believed I was destined to become a lawyer. I loved using facts and rhetoric to prove a point. When I was opinionated about a topic (which was most of the time), I could not let my argument go unheard if faced with opposition. I also wanted a job that would provide financial security and I associated the law with a relatively high degree of prestige. I was passionate about politics, and thought that studying law was the first obvious step on the path to political involvement.

To pursue this goal, I went to college and studied political science. I found my educational experience so fulfilling because of my amazing professors, and I quickly developed a very close relationship with the library. I still wanted to attend law school, and that goal motivated me toward high academic achievement. However, when it came time to begin the process of taking admissions tests and actually applying, I began to reassess my plan.

A few summers ago, I was fortunate to intern with the Washington Council of Lawyers, a public interest bar association located in Washington D.C. This was an awesome experience; they had a mission that aligned with my values– to expand access to justice by getting as many lawyers to practice pro bono or “low” bono as possible. Through this internship, I had the opportunity to meet with many lawyers and pick their brains about their career paths, ask for advice, and learn what their work was like on a day-to-day basis. While I walked away from this experience still hoping to become a lawyer, only upon further reflection did I realize that the daily life of a lawyer was, perhaps, not for me. (This seems to paint the profession of law with a broad brush, but after researching the lifestyle associated with the types of law that interested me the most, this was my conclusion.) I realized that work-life balance was actually very important to me. I also realized that the type of fulfillment that I hoped to gain by working within the law would possibly be better achieved by working to change and impact our laws in another way. However, after an internship with the Maryland General Assembly, I also ruled out working as a staff member for a legislator; despite my immense respect for the work that they do and the impact they have on the process, I learned that the behind-the-scenes work did not provide the expressive outlet that I was looking for.

Reflecting on my academic and professional experiences revealed that the times when I felt the most fulfilled were the times when I was given the opportunity for creative inquiry. Summer internships at the House of Representatives’ Historian’s Office and the Library of Congress’s Publishing Office offered me the chance to research and write; although the work was focused on history more than politics, I found it intellectually fulfilling on a daily basis. I also did a lot of thinking about the people who inspired me the most, and realized that all of my professors fell into that category. This was when I first looked into obtaining a PhD.

Fast forward through taking the GRE, researching academics in my field of interest, applying to programs, explaining myself to friends and family, and ultimately deciding to join the program at GW in Washington D.C., here are some of the reasons why I am so excited for this new journey.

  1. I’m not done learning. Okay, I never will be done learning, and neither will anybody who lives their life to the fullest, in my opinion. What I mean by this is that, even after 4 years of college courses, I did not feel that I had learned all that I wanted to about political science–  not even close. I honestly felt that I could have spent many more years staying up past midnight in the library reading and writing about politics, continually learning and increasing my knowledge and understanding of the world and the people in it.
  2. The setting. My desire to study political science stems from a deeper rooted curiosity about why people think and act the way they do, and why they believe the things that they do. What better a setting to study these things than in D.C., during this administration and with all of the current political ongoings? No offense intended, but on either side of the political spectrum, the amount of ideological inconsistency at the individual level seems to be impressively high. I am also extremely interested in the media and its impact on public opinion, so, as you might imagine, I am looking forward to studying “fake news.”
  3. I don’t just want to be a professor. While becoming a professor would be a dream job, I do not enter this experience with unrealistic expectations about the job market or my own prospects within it. I see a PhD in political science as an avenue for me to gain methodological skills while also achieving my own personal goals of research and inquiry in a subject area about which I am interested and passionate. I know that there are plenty of analytical research positions available outside of academia, should I need to resort to that option. Sure, I could probably gain the methodological skills needed to succeed in this realm elsewhere, but that would not be as personally rewarding, in my opinion (will update on whether I still feel the same approximately 4-5 years from now).
  4. It’s funded. No, I probably won’t be making more money than I would with another form of employment Yes, the opportunity cost is worth it to me. If you are a college student looking into post-grad plans and don’t realize the funding opportunities that exist at many grad schools, I highly recommend you do some research on this, because I never imagined I could be paid to obtain a graduate education. My program will cover the cost of tuition and provide me with a stipend for living expenses, allowing time to focus on my research and work. This was actually a major factor in my decision.
  5. Numbers and survey research. I studied political science at a liberal arts college, and thus, I did not get much quantitative training, aside from one senior level course. I am not the best at math, but I want to improve and I get so excited about the opportunity to use numbers and statistics to display trends.
  6. Finding stuff out. If you are in, or have ever thought about attending a PhD program, we are probably like-minded and you know exactly what I mean when I refer to that cool feeling you get when your research leads to a discovery that seemingly nobody has previously made.
  7. The challenge. I appreciate criticism because it helps me to be and achieve my best. While I am somewhat nervous for the rigor of PhD courses and my own independent research, I anticipate the process of researching and working and soliciting feedback and then reworking to be difficult, tedious, but ultimately rewarding. (This might be a “me” thing, but I like that kind of process.)
  8. I am a little bit odd in the sense that the downsides don’t really scare me. I am not afraid of spending the next 5-7 years not earning money or working in the traditional sense, because I have grown up in such a way that I really only value money insofar as it provides for my basic needs and wants, which are relatively minimal. I also am not intimidated by the amount of work that will be required, the difficult job market, or the admittedly low percentage of people who finish their PhDs. In a weird way, all of these aspects excite me. Which is probably why I am one of the “crazy” few to start on such a journey.

Do you think you would ever pursue a PhD? What do you think of academia and the nerds like myself who never want to leave?

-AK

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