8 Misconceptions People Have about PhDs


Dave has a PhD and Stephanie is a doctoral candidate. We know there are some preconceptions about PhDs that are not entirely accurate. Here are some of our thoughts about things you hear about PhDs and what is actually true (in our opinion). For example, it is true that people with PhDs had to be really focused and determined to achieve the highest degree in their field, but that does not mean they naturally have some of the skills required to be effective in other areas of their work. Hear more from Dave on the subject here: 

This post was written by Stephanie A. Bosco-Ruggiero (PhD candidate in Social Work at Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service) and Jessica Russell (freelance writer) on behalf of Dave Maslach for the R3ciprocity project (Check out the YouTube Channel or the writing feedback software). R3ciprocity helps students, faculty, and research folk by providing a real and authentic look into doing research. It provides solutions and hope to researchers around the world.

Here are some common misnomers about PhDs and how you as a student or PhD can address or correct these myths. 

1. PhDs have a wide range of practical skills

PhDs have to be effective researchers to be able to get through a dissertation (unless they have plagiarized their way through which accounts for a very very small percentage of PhDs). But they also need a range of other skills to be successful in many endeavors that may want to pursue, or are forced to pursue, if they do not get that coveted academic job they wanted. 

For example, PhDs may end up working in government, the nonprofit sector, or as consultants. This means that they need to have a fair amount of skills with managing people, navigating bureaucracies, being a good leader, and being ethical. Those who end up in consulting will also need to be flexible, creative, and innovative. They will need to be able to work on many different types of projects and possibly take on very different roles such as researchers, grant writer, evaluator, etc. They also need to be good at marketing, promoting themselves, and going after projects. 

Of course, PhDs are not naturally good at all of these things, so they have to learn them. In fact PhDs are known for being a bit obtuse when it comes to dealing with the real world, people problems, administration, budgets — you know stuff like that. That is because they have been engrossed in research and academia for a while and may be rusty or never exposed to some of the challenges they will have to deal with in the non-academic world. But they can learn, like the rest of us.

Knowing that as a PhD you probably have less than a 50/50 chance of going into academia, PhD students should try their best to work in different roles as they are pursuing their degree. Now of course some students have to work, so this is not an issue. They continue to work in the field they were in since graduating college or grad school, or they may be in a field related to their doctoral studies. They are in the real world every day and build the everyday professional skills needed to succeed in any setting. But there are some doctoral students who have mainly worked in research and academia for most of their adult lives. This is not a bad thing, but they too should try a variety of roles and jobs and gain the skills they will need if they do not end up in academia.

2. PhDs are smart 

Some are really smart – that deep otherworldly smart – but most simple know their particular field and focus area really well. They have spent years honing their research skills in a particular area and work in research to expand their knowledge and the world’s knowledge. But a scientist may not know anything about strategic management. An anthropologist may not know about anything beyond our atmosphere. They are skilled about their topics of choice and are intelligent about what they do know, but they are not all Einsteins. If you are a PhD do not treat everyone as if they should bow at your feet. Remember that you do not know everything and can learn a lot from students, staff, and regular people.

3. PhDs are more moral 

PhDs are not above being petty and unethical and some do not so estimable things like lie, cheat, and steal. They also experience moral quandaries. People are people. That is not to say that lying, cheating and stealing are ok because you have a PhD. Far from it, but you will find every level of morality in PhDs as well. If you have done unethical things as a student, professor, or researcher stop right now. You will be caught at some point and the repercussions to your career could be devastating.

4. PhDs know stuff about everything

Again, they only know a lot about their specific academic field and within that field their expertise may be even more narrowly focused. There is no guarantee that they will win if they play Jeopardy or Trivial Pursuit. If they know everything, then why do we still have new PhD students? What would be the point? PhDs focus on specific areas of research. They develop a specialization. Scientists, engineers, philosophers, and musicians can have PhDs and you wouldn’t expect they know everything about everything. 

PhDs know what they know really well, and because they are experts in a specific area of their field they are perceived as being very knowledgeable about everything in their field, but they are not. As a PhD do not pretend you are an expert on anything else outside your specific areas of interest and study. You do know a lot more about the broader field you are in than those who are not in your field, as well as students, but do not position yourself as an expert in everything. The illusion just won’t hold up.

Check out Dave’s vlog about whether PhDs are overqualified:

5. PhDs must be good at teaching

They are taught to do research, and not to teach. Having expertise on a subject does not correlate to being able to teach others. Some are good at it, but most PhDs could use more training in teaching. If anything, PhDs are average teachers and do the best they can with what they have. Even some teachers who are trained at teaching are not great teachers. We have all had professors that just dropped the ball, and we’ve all  had professors who were so amazing they changed our lives. A PhD will not make you one or the other, but no one should stop learning. Training is always relevant. Be humble about your teaching skills and always strive to get better.

6. PhDs are really nerdy 

There is a diversity of people that pursue a PhD degree, and they have a diversity of interests. PhDs are a microcosm of the rest of the world – different backgrounds, cultures, experiences in life, – the diversity of PhDs is vast. You’ll find people who enjoy athletics, stamp collecting, climb mountains, and are in bands. There are also PhDs who are not interested in much else than their field of study and do not have many external pursuits. PhDs are not all like characters from the Big Bang Theory. Among PhDs diversity in thought, political views, interests, outlook, personal lives, and hobbies is the norm. As a PhD do not stereotype yourself or others. You know each of us are unique just like everyone else.

7. All PhDs are rockstars

Most PhDs plug away at their area of interest their entire lives and do not become famous. But many do become quite well known in their field and can be treated like rockstars at academic conferences or within their department or university. Every PhD has the potential to become well-known in their hometown, academic field, or industry, but few PhDs become a household name. The general public will become familiar with some PhDs if they write books for the general public or give public lectures or interviews to the media. Einstein was treated like a rock star because he had a tremendous impact on policy and on science. 

It is quite common for PhDs to be asked to provide professional advice or guidance to the public about their field of expertise in science, public safety, or public policy for example, and often they are asked to help the general public understand a complex issue or phenomena. They may be interviewed by the media, for a YouTube video, a news interview, or a magazine or newspaper. Many PhDs will quietly go about their work and not become known beyond their fields, but that is ok. You do not pursue a PhD to become famous –if it happens great — but PhDs should pursue their field of study mainly to contribute knowledge to the field, publish, teach, and share their expertise to make the world a better place. If you are obsessed with fame, get over yourself and focus on making a small difference everyday. 

8. PhDs are all absent-minded

Some of us are; Dave includes himself in this category, but he knows many PhDs who remember the name of every person they meet. There are some PhDs who absorb information and can recall vast knowledge at the drop of a hat. Some are absent minded, but that assumption is really a caricature, and absentmindedness can be found in many different types of people. There are also many people who are very skilled at organizing and staying on top of everything and those who are not. The absentminded professor stereotype probably stems from the fact that many professors are extremely absorbed in their work, their mind is always in high gear, they are very focused on a particular problem or study, and they simply have little bandwidth leftover for small talk, trivial matters, details, and the like (not saying this is always a good thing). If you are a scatterbrained professor or PhD take a break. There is more to life than what you are studying at the moment. If you cannot remember your assistant’s name it is time to start a meditation practice and clear the clutter. 

Here is a bit about why these myths have formed about PhDs and why people in general sometimes get stereotyped:

Media Influence

We find that any time a person has an assumption about what “type” a person is, it’s based on the media, movies, books, and real world experiences with other people. We all have seen movies with characters we know well. The absentminded professor, the charismatic lawyer, the ingenue who is blond and ditzy. These are all characters with a basis in real life, but that becomes a stereotype for people that really have no knowledge of that particular person. If you don’t know about lawyers except what you see on TV, then you may assume they are all like those characters. That is where the “absent-minded professor” stereotype began. 

Nature/Nurture and Expectation

We all look around us and make snap judgements about other people. In academia, different departments generalize the nature of other departments. The key to success is breaking down stereotypes and contributing everything you have that makes you, you. The differences are what make breakthroughs. The melting pot creates an entirely new recipe. Assumptions are limiting. Thinking you know everything about a person based on what kind of PhD they have puts that person and your knowledge in a tiny box. 

We bring our own experiences along for the ride and use them to filter the information we perceive about others. That perception is colored by personal experience, but does not define who we are to others. They use their own lens to view us through, and assumptions are based on their filters. 

Expand by Exposure

Research is about expanding what is known. Breaking down these assumptions and stereotypes allows open-minded thinking. It creates a larger network of people to tap for information and ideas. Exposure to more people that actually have similar interests to you–outside the classroom–will create a spider web of contacts throughout your life. Just like linear thinking can limit strategy and hypothesis, assumption and stereotypes limit you. You can exponentially increase knowledge by learning about people directly.

Instead of thinking that you will have nothing in common with a person you assume to be a particular way, instead take a moment and introduce yourself, start a conversation, ask questions. You never really know until you move away from stereotypes and break them by going beyond what you assume. The lies we tell ourselves and assume about others very well may be about our own lack of knowledge. It’s easier to assume. It is simpler to believe what you see in the movies or read about, or even decide is true based on one person in your past. Go beyond your personally filtered data set, or one we have all been spoon fed by TV and movies, the media, or stories we’ve read or been told. Research is about proving what we think we know and learning, oftentimes, we did not know at all.

The adage “if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck then it’s a duck,” is only true for ducks. PhDs are the sum of all their experiences and like fingerprints, they are all different. Check yourself for bias. Question your own assumptions. Hypothesize that people are not what other people assume them to be. And test that by moving beyond your comfort zone with exposure to new people, different departments, and by stopping yourself from generalizing. 

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