For some non-apparent (at least to me) reason, I get a lot of emails of the what-should-I-do-with-my-life sort. People seemingly think that, given a few professional and personal facts from a stranger, I can tell them how to proceed in their careers. I usally beg off politely, pointing out the impossibility of answering the question, even when you know the person well.
This morning, however, I realized there is another answer. When I think back to the many things I enjoy doing, and the eclectic mix of things I do for what passes for a living, most of them can be be traced back to my long-ago Ph.D.
No, it’s not that doing a Ph.D. was such a wonderful creativity-unleashing exercise, one that filled my mind with limitless possibilities and prospects. Far from it. I actually found it a fairly mundane and bureaucratic bit of business, more a question of cranking out a sufficiently lengthy document to the satisfaction of your thesis committee.
Instead, what I found out when doing my thesis — and something I noticed in pretty much everyone I knew who at least started one — was that you mostly discovered what else you were interested in. Why? Because pretty much anything else is more absorbing than writing a 400-page Ph.D. thesis.
In my case I discovered I was interested in quantitative finance, journalism and media, juggling (balls and especially pins), sky-diving, mountain-biking, hiking, Iran-Contra, marathon running, snow climbing, Franz Kafka, Rainer Marie Rilke, etc. All of those obsessions sprung unbidden onto my calendar when I should have been working on my Ph.D. thesis instead.
I saw something similar happen in other people I knew then (and know now), with people discovering pen collecting, acting, novel-writing, ultra-marathons, orienteering, and pretty much anything else you might imagine.
It turns out, it seems, that doing a Ph.D. (even if you drop out, which I generally recommend) is a great way to discover what you want in life, albeit it will likely have little to do with the Ph.D. itself.