Keystone logo
Earning a PhD? Prepare to Answer These Five Strange Questions

Earning a PhD? Prepare to Answer These Five Strange Questions

  • Student Tips
Joanna HughesMar 15, 2016

Even though universities across the globe are sending more and more PhDs out into the world every year, widespread misconceptions still linger about what’s involved with getting, having and being a PhD. To solve you the headache -- and maybe even give you a laugh or two in the process -- we’ve rounded up five strange questions frequently asked of the world’s PhDs.

1. More school? Seriously?

While many people just can’t wait to complete their degrees and get out into the “real” working world, academics are cut from a different cloth. Yes, it can be hard for others to understand your decision to stay in school, but their lack of understanding in no way invalidates your choice.

Student between book stacks

The truth is that the world needs PhDs like you. Not only will your passion and commitment position you to discover new things and push the boundaries of modern knowledge, but you can also hone the skills necessary to help you land a job in academia and/or an upper-level job in your field. In fact, with a shortage of qualified talent currently challenging the workforce, many companies are more willing than ever to consider an impressive academic pedigree with transferrable skills in lieu of rigidly defined on-the-job experience.

The number one reason to do a doctorate is because you have a natural thirst for knowledge in a particular field of study and feel compelled to satisfy it. Yes, some people may still not understand why you’d sign on for more school (nor do they have to understand, for that matter), but here’s something everyone can comprehend: the decision to pursue what you love.

2. So what kind of doctor are you going to be?

The difference between a PhD and an MD may be very clear to you, but it may not be for your 11-year-old niece or your well-meaning neighbor. When asked if they’re planning to go into pediatrics, surgery, and other medical specialties, PhD students are often met with blank stares in responding, “I’m not going to be that kind of doctor.”

While you may not be going to school to learn how to save lives, research has its own unique value in terms of making the world a better place for its inhabitants. So whether you’re an English student specializing in women’s literature or a biomedical engineering student with a specialty in tissue engineering, the value of cutting edge PhD work to society is undeniable.

And of course, some PhDs do save lives. Marie Curie, for example, was not only the first woman to receive a doctorate from a French university, but her Nobel Prize-winning work increased our knowledge about radioactivity and continues to protect public health today.

3. Don’t you want a real job?

Aside from being just plain rude, this question is also wildly misguided. Anyone who’s ever endured the rigors of a PhD program knows doctoral studies are anything but a lark or an attempt to circumvent “real” work. Of course, doctoral work is fulfilling -- why else would you do it? -- but it’s also incredibly demanding.

Pointing at data

And then there’s the fact that getting a Ph.D. is not a substitute for getting a job, but is actually an investment in enriching your personal and professional self.

4. How can you afford to keep living like a student?

Learning to live on a teaching stipend or research assistantship can be challenging, but it’s not impossible. Plus, by now you’ve also had plenty of practice at embracing frugality.

Student portrait in front of dormitory at college

And don’t forget that PhDs are part of a university community where student discounts and subsidies are common. After all, being a “starving student” is much easier when you’re in good company.

Another bright note? When you finally do graduate and start collecting a higher salary, you’ll practically be a pro at saving and spending.

5. When will you be done?

While this question may not be bizarre, it demonstrates both an underestimation and oversimplification of the Ph.D. process. While many degrees can be defined by the number of years they take to complete, the fulfillment of a PhD relies on a number of different factors, not the least of which is the variable amount of time it takes to research and write your thesis.

Self employed business person working from home

So while the PhD can take as little as five years to complete, it can also take much longer. In fact, according to a report from CBS, the average student in the U.S. takes more than eight years to complete a PhD program!

Ultimately, while choosing a PhD may mean enduring some strange questions and occasional kidding about your status as a “lifelong student,” the joke isn’t actually on you. Why? Because there’s nothing silly about choosing an intellectually rewarding path with the remarkable potential to discover, innovate, and maybe even change the world in the process.

Joanna Hughes

Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.