Worth it or a Waste of Time? Grad Studies in Paris (or indeed, elsewhere)

Paris works well as a place to visit, sight see and such but is it worthwhile deciding to stay here? Pursue grad studies here? What are the benefits? Do PhD studies still have the same value that they used to hold?

In early 2011, I stumbled across an interesting article in the Economist that basically argued that opting to pursue a PhD could be a terrible choice. The evidence used in the article was predominantly aimed at a US audience, with a few examples from other parts of the world to bolster the argument or to add slight nuance.

A major part of what the article says is quite pertinent : it argues that being a PhD student may only help to serve the interests of supervisors who act asa club of intellectual vampires: feeding off the energy, motivation and hard work of their bright graduate students and the commensurate cheap labour to boost their own publications records. It also makes the point that the economic benefits of doing a PhD are not guaranteed – many doctoral study graduates languish in poor paying jobs for their whole lives – and so the article goes.

It also makes the interesting point that the skills acquired through many PhD’s are not useful in the real world: In The Economist’s view, the real world requires fast thinking people that are able to market their ideas and sell them through accessible channels such as the media, and so forth. It also goes on to say that in the most part, PhD students end up feeling discouraged anyway and drop out of universities. So, it concludes, it is an economically silly choice to do a PhD given the lack of guarantees for a happy and financially secure life.

Interesting points they all are, and important ones too. These, in ly view, should be borne in mind when choosing to do grad studies in Paris. One needs to be clear about what their expectations are about studying here and what benefits are in the long term. (For a link to the Economist article, click HERE, for a cartoon episode on the typical conversations about the PhD as a waste of time, see the vid below)

The Economist article misses a few points that may also be good to bear in mind when picking out a place to study and shaping one’s expectations and future plans. The article is clearly biased toward looking at the state of affairs in the US, and is geared for people who want to build their lives there. It also narrows down the choice to pursue a PhD as one that should be informed by consideration of whether it is a financially rewarding track to follow. I think Paris is a great place to study if financial reward is not the most important thing that one is looking to get out of a PhD.

That is not to say that money is an issue. Paris holds its own as one of the most expensive cities in the world. However, it is also a city that offers an opportunity to live a full life – which does not necessarily need to mean spending money. There is a cultural life to be enjoyed that does not always require that one spend too much.

The socialist ethic also runs quite deeply in the public policy of the city and the country. That means that a lot of the pricing of public goods, student services are sensitive to people with different economic means. You are not left to suffer on your own. It is a relatively more caring country. The ‘one for all and all for one ethic’ still manifests itself in several ways. Not everyone seems to be striving simply to make money, this is quite clear from how much time with family and friends is valued. Studying toward a PhD here or other grad studies goes way beyond being a quest to make money.

The economist article also suggests that PhD’s have lost their value because they are impractical and leave students with skills that they can never use in the real world. That could well be, but it may also be that if someone is looking for graduate courses that allow flexibility to either enter academia or pursue a profession to look to the French systems of Grandes Ecoles. Not only do they provide some opportunity to gain access to solid professional networks, they offer education that also offers the professional skills need to succeed in the ‘real world’. Being in Paris also offers an additional dimension of being a great location to be at the centre of a lot of the debates happening in Europe and the world. In short, it is not so much that graduate studies are useless, it may be about where you choose to study. Geography matters.

And, of course, there are more general points to be made – whether a PhD has any value or not may be partly correlated to so many other complex factors: Age, gender, marital status,previous work experience, whether your spouse also holds a PhD or not, language.

Perhaps the value also varies even more when related to other less thought about factors: sexuality, race, religious beliefs and values,etc.. In short, it is not at all a simple matter to write off PhD’s or graduate studies as useless. One needs to think about the decision as it relates to very personal factors.

There are also more fundamental questions tied to measuring the value of a PhD or graduate studies. Perhaps part of the value is in things that cannot be readily measured in Euros and cents: Job and life satisfaction, the ability to balance life and work, a sense of independence and ability to work on topics that you enjoy and are interested in? JThese things are not easily expressed as commodities, but perhaps they also are quite valuable. I’ve found being here extremely rewarding on all these counts.

The value of graduate study may also lie in simply the value of finding some enlightenment, which is precisely what Paris has provided to scholars and human civilisation for centuries. There is even a historical account that the American declaration of independence was mulled over in a café in the Quartier Latin that I walked past the other day. The value of education in this city has indeed been found in so much more than just the personal enrichment of the many thinkers and artists that have received their PhD’s here and proceeded to shape the world in both small and significant ways. Apparently, the internet in its current form also benefitted quite a lot from researchers working in France’s CERN and would not be as accessible as it is without their work.

So, I would give an emphatic yes, it is worth it to do a PhD or other grad studies in Paris.