Lots of people start PhD programs, but far fewer finish (in some programs the drop-out rate is 50% or higher). Some people are motivated to get a PhD by: wanting a job in academia, wanting a job in industry, personal pride, or simply a lack of direction and an aptitude for the field of their PhD program.

Have you noticed that people with certain motivations are more likely to finish their PhD than others? If so, which reasons correlate positively with success? Conversely, do you have warnings for someone considering starting a PhD?

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    Check out 'Why get a Ph.D.?' in cs.unc.edu/~azuma/hitch4.html
    – user13107
    Commented Sep 19, 2012 at 14:42
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    I am not sure this question is a good fit for a Q/A site. Providing your reasons for pursuing a PhD and asking if they are valid would be better, but possibly too localized.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Sep 19, 2012 at 14:58
  • @DanielE.Shub I substantially rewrote the question to try to make it more appropriate for our site.
    – Dan C
    Commented Sep 20, 2012 at 15:53
  • @DanC The edited question is much better and is now a good fit. I am leaving my original comment in the hope that it might help JohnJames understand why I initially voted to close.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Sep 20, 2012 at 16:07
  • @john-james Since you have some responses below that seem to answer your question, please consider marking one of them as ‘Accepted’ by clicking on the tickmark below their vote count. This shows which answer helped you most, and it assigns reputation points to the author of the answer (and to you!). Commented Sep 24, 2012 at 14:55

2 Answers 2


I won't tell you what are and aren't good reasons for getting a PhD. However, to get a PhD, you must stay remarkably determined for a minimum of 5 to 6 years. If you cannot, you will quit. Earning a PhD is hard. When I earned mine, it was easily the hardest thing I had ever done.

During your PhD, you work long hours, for a low salary, with little respect, and bleak job prospects. Most PhD students are at least fairly smart and/or moderately hard workers. Nearly all of them could make more money with less effort elsewhere.

So, why get a PhD? You need to find your own compelling reason. I couldn't imagine not studying math. Undoubtedly, I would be studying it now, even if no one would pay me. I'd never cared too much about money (easier to say when you're in your 20s and single). I was far from balanced, so long hours didn't bother me. I really loved teaching (and still do), and after working with high school kids, I decided I'd much prefer college. So I decided I'd be a math professor. That was my vision, what I clung to in the midst of the storm. And it worked, eventually. Your story will be different. But it must be just as compelling to you, or you likely won't make it.

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    Why 5 to 6 years? The duration of PhD programs in Europe and Australia is 3 or 4. Commented Sep 20, 2012 at 6:15
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    I'm speaking mainly for the U.S. I know of a few cases where someone finished a PhD in fewer than 5 years, but they are rare. The entire time I was in grad school, I never met anyone who did this. Since I've graduated, I've met a few.
    – Dan C
    Commented Sep 20, 2012 at 6:29
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    The difference, of course, is that US PhDs have a lot of coursework in the first year(s), whereas in other countries the undergraduate degree is much more focussed and students tend to do masters degrees. Commented Sep 20, 2012 at 7:25
  • @Dan C: Would you say that the people you graduated with all got jobs somewhere? Could somebody merge my account also (I am John James).
    – user2668
    Commented Sep 21, 2012 at 4:28
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    @DaveClarke 3 or 4 years are only possible in softer fields and/or without teaching responsibilities at my department. Teaching adds about a year on average, and theoreticians need more time than software engineers. More importantly, you have to account for whether the student got a masters degree before starting their PhD.
    – Raphael
    Commented Sep 22, 2012 at 9:31

By far the most successful students will be those who are genuinely interested in the research they are performing. They will be the ones who will put in the effort to think of new research avenues, create and follow-through with collaborations, put in extra thought do their analysis techniques, and do it all with good spirits. Other students can (or more often, won't) do all this work, but they will definitely not do it with the same level of enthusiasm, which will over time make the work less and less enjoyable, and thus more likely to be abandoned.

So, to answer the question, the motivation most conducive to finishing is the motivation to perform the research you are working on. If the student is motivated by anything other than the research itself, there will be a definite waning of enthusiasm—with all the collateral damage that entails—as the student comes to realize that doing PhD research involves a whole lot of research.

Regarding warnings, I offer the following: If you're starting a PhD for any reason other than "whoa boy I LOVE doing this stuff", the next few years will involve a lot of work that you will probably not enjoy at the outset, and progressively dislike more and more as the years tick on.

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    Early on in grad school, a professor gave me a research problem to work on. Each week I forced myself to spend a certain amount of time on it. However, I never really got a knack for that topic, and (not surprisingly) never proved anything. After a semester of that, I switched to a different topic. Actually, I think this happened twice. When I finally found a research topic that I enjoyed, I spent tons of time on it. Not out of obligation, but because I wanted to. Not surprisingly, I eventually got publication(s) on this topic.
    – Dan C
    Commented Sep 21, 2012 at 16:40

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