The Value of a PhD

A few weeks ago I was at a post-workshop happy hour catching up with friend and acquaintances. I was chatting with some more senior colleagues, two guys who I would consider as having ‘made it’–meaning that they took a set of disparate skills and wove them into a career where they do fun, cool, and meaningful work. In that moment I couldn’t feel further from ‘making it’ and wasn’t sure I was ever going to make it. I was working on things I was neither trained nor qualified to do. So I did the opposite of what I’ve always been told: I shared my vulnerability and impostor syndrome, and asked for advice.

What I got back from them was exactly what I needed: a reminder that none of us quite knows what they’re doing and we are all doing the best we can at it. One of the guys said something particularly striking about having a PhD:

“A PhD is not a degree in your field — it is a certification from society that you are capable of learning about ANY field and then contributing to it.”1

That PhD could be in microbiology but you could be doing organic chemistry now. Or a PhD graduate in astrophysics could be working in economics. It may take time for us to learn, but we know how to do it. And ultimately we become more than the sum of what we know, a synthesis of fields that given the panoply of human experiences is unlikely to have occurred before and unlikely to occur again.

After all, I’m a environmental science BS and molecular biology PhD working in biotech and tech entrepreneurship. I feel unqualified to do what I do. But I’m doing it.

1 It should be noted that a PhD is merely a certification. There are people who are capable of the self-driven learning and contributing to a field who have never received a PhD.

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