Should I consider a PhD in International Development Studies?

After the Economist’s piece on the (non-)value of doing a PhD and some comments later (e.g. Prometheus doesn't read the Economist (I like the slightly cynical dichotomy between ‘civilians’ and the ‘academic insiders) or the '100 Reasons NOT to Go to Graduate School' (they are only halfway through so check it out regularly in the future...) I had an interesting conversation with a prospective PhD student a few days ago.
This was not the first time that I had been approached about doing a PhD and I always try to be as frank as possible, even playing the ‘devil’s advocate’ when it comes to the complicated ‘should I or shouldn’t I?’ decision-making process. At the end of our conversation I sat down and tried to summarize a few important and generic points from the point of view of doing a PhD in Development Studies and in the UK.
I understand that every case is different and involves a range of motives, options and rationales, but there a few important questions and topics that most prospective PhD students could engage with before the proposal writing and supervisor search begins:
 

Why do I want to do a PhD?
If your immediate answer is along the lines of ‘I’m 26 years old and my Masters degree doesn’t feel sufficient to get a development job so I want a “higher” qualification’, ‘I can’t seem to find a job beyond a three-month internship and I better wait for a few more years before entering the real job market’ or ‘I have been with this organisation for a while now and I need some time off to think why development often fails the poor people’ you may want to reconsider your choice. In many/most development organisations the PhD is not necessarily seen as an additional qualification, especially if it's in a social science rather than, say, agricultural economics or other 'technical' disciplines that could complement development programming work; it’s difficult to forecast future employment in any industry three, four or even more years into the future and a PhD is too priceless to be just tailored to job considerations and potential income (which, by the way, I find is the biggest critique regarding the Economist article); and a creative writing or action-research-focussed program may be a more appropriate choice to reflect on your or more general development's attitudes, mindsets and work- or lifestyles.
The PhD is a theoretical endeavour that goes against any project cycle, development time-frame and beyond any organisational management issue there may be. That’s the beauty of doing a PhD-but that’s also the problem in the area of international development. You should have an inclination to see yourself working in the academy-not because the title ‘professor’ sounds appealing, but because you like to teach undergraduate students, work on laborious research grant applications, want to defend research in the public domain against cuts in government funding and age-old ‘ivory tower’ accusation and remind the ROW (rest of the world...) that development issues are complex and nearly impossible to 'solve'.
 

A PhD keeps my options open- I can always switch between university, research institutions and ‘real world’ development projects/ organisations
As appealing as it sounds it’s only partially true at best. Given the competitive job market everywhere and in every industry you need to be good at what you are doing and you need some form of specialisation. After five years of working inside a large development organisation it won’t be easy to apply for full-time academic posts (and vice versa). You can be a freelance consultant and teach a course at your local university, but early on in your research career you will encounter the need for specialisation. It may get easier to bridge professional gaps and discourses if you are an established (tenured, well-published, media-covered) academic, but you should also think about the first 15 years of short-term consultancies, 1 year post-docs and £3,000 lump sums for teaching a course. Similar to the point below about multi- and interdisciplinarity, many people happily embrace the concept of academics informing development practice and practitioners spicing up a class, but despite the occassional overlap the professions remain in their respective silos; a short-term consultancy is not 'fieldwork' and sharing stories from the field is not the same as teaching 12 classes on 'introduction to development theory'. Which brings me straight to my next point:
 

I can pay for my PhD by working as a consultant
As expensive as a PhD may be, many prospective PhD students envision working as a consultant and use the money for their studies. This is a tough question and it likely involves some rough numbers and honest discussions with your bank/parents/partner. With the forthcoming increase in fees even European (EU) students are likely to pay something along the lines of overseas fees (~£8,500) in the UK. Let’s say you only have to pay £7,000 per year and your PhD will cost approximately 2.5 years worth of fees (lower fieldwork fees for example). That’s £18,000. And let’s be realistic: in development studies the PhD most likely takes 4 years. That’s £400 per month (I’m rounding...) for fees. Let’s not be ridiculously stingy and estimate £1,000 living expenses in the UK. That’s £17,000 you need in your bank account (i.e. net salary). Maybe you are lucky enough to get tax-free UN consultancies, but let’s assume that at least some work needs to be taxed and as a proper freelancer based in the UK you would do this. Let’s add 20%. And all of the sudden you need £21,000. That's for a single person who lives a 'student lifestyle'. Let’s be generous and estimate £200 as your daily rate and all of the sudden you have to work for 105 days per year. These are only paid days. Application or bidding processes, delays, travel, unpaid overtime, gaps between consultancies not included...oh, and you haven’t started to work on your PhD yet, being the fulltime student that you are supposed to be and that your supervisor expects...the bottom line is that balancing work (especially freelance work) and your PhD can be exciting, but it is difficult and in 9 out of 10 cases it prolongs the PhD journey. And don’t fool yourself with the ‘the project is practically PhD research work’ argument. In most cases, there are different requirements and except for an interview or two your interesting long-term consultancy has very little value for your actual thesis. Work at the university may be an option, but in the UK universities are not that keen to hire students-and even if you are employed for example as a half-time research officer your salary would be around £15,000 and you most likely have regular working days and very little time for other gigs besides your PhD... 

Being married to your thesis, or: The psychological impact of doing a PhD
Don’t underestimate the psychological impact of a PhD. That one summer where you worked really, really hard on your MA dissertation prepared you for your PhD? Well, only if you want to have the feeling of this summer 10, 12 or 15 more times over the next 3-4 years. Friends get promoted, former colleagues move to new jobs and destinations, sisters have babies, other friends get married...and maybe divorced...and buddies post pictures of summer vacations on their facebook...you are still ‘in school’. If you are doing a traditional thesis (i.e. a 300-page monograph rather than a 3 or 4 paper thesis) it will always be at odds with the speed of ‘real life’, especially as there is no linear progression-you either have a PhD or you don't! Personal (relationships, family planning etc), professional (many organisations, discourses and bloggers will come, change, stay or go) and academic (your geographic or topical focus never rests and it often feels like chasing the latest political development, publication or project you would like to/should be involved in) worlds will always be in motion and despite the invention of 'the Internet', Google or laptops the PhD process has only been slightly modernised since the 16th century-at least compared to the speed of change elsewhere in society. 

Development Studies sounds inter- and multidisciplinary-that must be awesome!
I don’t know what ‘interdisciplinary’ really means, but I think it’s one of the biggest bubbles in current academic research. It’s true that different colleagues use a range of approaches to their research, but the interactions, exchanges and learning opportunities are limited. Household surveys vs. case studies, ethnographic observations vs. expert interviews, field notes vs. regressions...the list is long, controversial and makes for great dinner debates, but does hardly add anything valuable to your own research project. Every discipline is divided, specialised and fragmented so don’t expect the economist to get excited about discourse analysis and don’t waste time as an anthropologist to sit through an introductory course of STATA. Many universities promote inter-departmental courses on research methods and skills and as interesting as some presentations may be when you are new to postgraduate research, you don’t really take away a lot from them. Academic research is about specialisation and building up your own expertise and you will be judged by your thesis or journal publications, not by the fact that you attended a few courses in your first year that exposed you to some glimpses into other disciplines. When you are applying for post-doctoral work you will face questions about your disciplinary stance and answering them with ‘I’m a sociological anthropologist who likes econometric research’ will most likely annoy people. Job advertisements, university mission statements and grant applications will say that they like ‘interdisciplinary’ stuff, but when it comes to giving away money and jobs they tend to stick with the ‘real’ anthropologists or political scientists. You need a solid academic, theoretical foundation and any 'multi-' or 'inter-' elaborations are icing on the cake. If you have a choice, stick with a ‘boring’ department in the same way as you should stick with a ‘boring’ research proposal. 
 

So what are some survival strategies aka the 'boring proposal hypothesis'
First, and I know it sounds terrible and I risk being misquoted for the rest of my life ;), choose a boring topic. If you read your title and abstract to a friend and s/he jumps off their seat shouting ‘this sounds soooo fascinating I want to do a PhD TOOOOO!!!’ you just added about 1.5 years of hard work to your project. Yes, quantum mechanics, impact monitoring and ethnography should be brought together to create a new theory of everything in development-but you also want to keep your project manageable. A PhD is a case study in proving to other academics that you are capable of applying a theoretical framework to a scientific project and build a robust case for your argument and findings-and not a space to reinvent the research wheel or try out something completely different, new, strange or surprising. Even if everything seems to work well, there will be a day when you meet with the examiners and one of them hates to be surprised...if you have a lot of 'why did nobody ever think of this before?' moments one potential answer could be that it simply doesn't make sense-or it's too complicated/time-consuming/expensive. It could also be that you are a genius-then just skip to the bottom of this post!
If a friend/former colleague/fieldwork informant asks you about the ‘impact’ of your PhD, one of your first answers should be ‘It will get me a degree from my university’. Changing the world, ending poverty, engaging with organisations and/or local people are worthwhile endeavours but they come with a high price of longer (more expensive) fieldwork or a more painful (longer, more expensive) writing-up stage. There's nothing unethical about doing a PhD essentially for yourself as long as you conduct research ethically, openly and transparently. You will be able to do many wonderful things after your PhD, including changing the way academia works, bringing peace to Africa, turning Marxism on its head/feet and transforming the UN, World Bank or any other large aid organisation-just don't get caught up in these battles while you are writing up your thesis. 

'A PhD is not for geniuses'
So am I discouraging readers from doing a PhD? Absolutely not! But you should be prepared to ask yourself a few tough questions and contemplate a few important trade-offs. For example, maybe it is better to do a PhD when you are older/more experienced etc. Many of my colleagues had significant experience prior to starting the PhD and in development the PhD can really help to open up new professional routes. Although you will only do a PhD once, keeping it manageable (‘boring’) is good advice. You can do and write about fun things on the side or, better yet, after completion. The PhD (at my university it only says ‘DPhil’ on the final document, not ‘DPhil in Development Studies’) is a qualification that you can use and spin in many directions and if your thesis only ends up in the library that doesn’t say anything about your future academic prospects or that you 'wasted four years of your life'. A PhD is a great learning experience-but mainly for you. There’s nothing wrong with this, but if advocacy work is your passion or you want to work in collaboration with others plus see the impact of your work then doing a PhD may not be your first choice, because it gets very lonely and the ‘impact’ of your work is almost impossible to measure. Because the PhD is so difficult to fit into a box, especially if you are accustomed to the 'capacity building' discourse, it requires second and third thoughts. Great, if someone offers you a scholarship-but that's not enough of an incentive to do a PhD; having a great idea and hoping that you can muddle through financially and emotionally is equally a bad starting point. The PhD in development requires impossible choices and trade-offs-and I guess that's why so many of us are doing one besides the 'facts' that the Economist cited in their article. Because the PhD journey, besides the knowledge you will gain, freedom to research your own project, plenty of time to actually read entire books etc. will be a unique journey in your life. In a subject like Development Studies and in a place like UK I can promise you that you will meet a range of inspirational, fascinating, crazy, diverse, bright and intellectually stimulating colleagues that no other organisation, company or single country will ever be able to offer you. And if you like students, teaching, learning and listening to your own voice ;) the pains of the journey will be rewarded with a wide range of full-time career positions at universities around the world, high salaries, exotic conference locations, even higher social esteem and respect from those who will seek your advice-at least that's my little fantasy...

But this is only a very, very rough guide and the best thing to do is discussing your dreams and aspirations with someone from the ‘inside’. Most PhD students are happy to share intelligence on their school and supervisors and how the PhD journey has been manageable for them. Worse than delaying your PhD plans is starting one on a ‘hope it goes well somehow’ notion and then drop out halfway through the project. Stamina and patience are at least as important as intellectual capabilities-or as my supervisors used to say ‘geniuses don’t do PhDs’.

Good luck-and feel free to comment, add your insights or ask questions below!

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