PhD Programs

Letter to Prospective PhDs: The journey is much more important than the destination

By Christopher Hwang
Interfield PhD Candidate in Behavioral Economics and Comparative Political Science, Claremont Graduate UniversityDear Prospective PhD student,

I am writing you this letter to help you on your path. I am in the final stages of my interfield PhD in Economics and Political Science at Claremont Graduate University.

From behavioral economics, there is certainly a passage of time from the decision to pursue a PhD to the actual experience of undertaking a PhD. Do not let your present self be a dictator, and instead, allow your future self to weigh in on your decision.

Certainly, the road to obtaining a PhD is not for everyone—less than one percent of the population of the U.S. has a PhD. With that being said, and although it may sound cliché, the journey is much more important than the destination. (I apologize in advance—there will be a ton of clichés in this article).

The why

I would recommend that before you start your PhD program that you—borrowing from Stephen Covey—“begin with the end in mind” and you start with the why. Ask yourself: “Why do you want to obtain a PhD? What is important about obtaining a PhD to you?” The answers to these questions are different for everyone, but similarities and overlaps do exist.
The why encapsulates where you want to end up after the degree. It is the intended outcome and the future aspiration you strive for and wish to accomplish. It is what you want to become in period t + 1. It is not reality. It is a hope, a goal, an intent. It could be formulated into a manifesto or a calling, but really it is simply the light at the end of the tunnel. Without the why, the what and the how are darkened by the mundane drudgery of the process. With the why, you have the motivating factor and the core reason for engaging in the years of learning, studying, researching, and overcoming struggles required to obtain a PhD. Be selective. Be sure the subject is what you truly are interested in studying. Research the field and ask scholars in that subject area questions about what they do and how they do it.

The where

Where you want to go might be the city or the region in which the school for your PhD program is located. If you are planning to spend over four years somewhere (probably six), shouldn’t you like the place you will be residing, studying, and ultimately living? And of course, “choose, but choose wisely” (a reference to Indiana
Jones and the Last Crusade). The temptations of living in a city might distract you from your studies. You might lose focus on what is most important to you.

It may be surprising to hear that where you want to go is not necessarily the school (although you might think of it that way). A program might be better or worse at different institutions. But most likely, you will not make the decision to attend this school over that school based on the program (I may be wrong here). You will make decisions to engage and develop relationships with faculty and students on campus. It is people that make the process tolerable, and you should surround yourself with the best people possible.

The next step is to analyzing where you are today. This is a cold, hard assessment— we must confront the brutal facts (borrowing from author Jim Collins). The process should be logical and rational, and to the best of your abilities it should be devoid of any emotional biases. While the why is focused on what can/could be (an expectation or belief), the where you are today is loosely based on a number factors: academic records, professor recommendations, test scores, work experience, and finances, etc.

Be honest here to determine the best fit for you.

Making the decision

You should be able to figure out where you are today and where you want to go by developing a plan to get there. This is probably the best time to ask for help and guidance. From my own experience, you do not have to listen to the “experts”— admissions people and consulting firms; they are all trying to sell you something.

Rather, listen to those who care most about you. Finally, make the decision of how to get from where you are today to where you want to go on your own. Only if you make the decision to obtain a PhD or not, will you take ownership and responsibility for your actions.

Although I’m writing this letter to you (an unknown individual), I am actually writing this letter to myself. Thinking back, my motivation for writing this to you is that I wish I had read this letter before I started my journey.

With that being said, I applaud you for even taking the time to read this stream of consciousness and these rambling thoughts. I hope my experience and guidance, although a bit vague and broad, will shed light and illuminate your road ahead (or at least whether you take the road less traveled or not).

Best of luck,

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