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Does Life Experience Benefit or Hurt a PhD Candidate?

written by: John Garger•edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch•updated: 9/22/2010

Some argue that life experience benefits a PhD candidate and others believe it is better for the student to go straight through from Bachelor’s degree to doctoral degree. Learn why life experience can both benefit and hurt the PhD candidate.

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    There is an ongoing debate among academicians about whether life experience benefits or hurts a PhD candidate’s ability to finish a doctoral program. Both sides of the issue have valid points about whether PhD students should have gone out and experienced the world a bit or gone straight through the Bachelor’s degree, Master’s degree, and PhD.

    PhD candidates are those doctoral students who have completed all parts of the program except the dissertation. Many students at this stage are experiencing research for the first time and often stumble along the way a bit before finishing. The question is, does life experience benefit or hurt the PhD candidate’s chances of finishing the program?

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    How Life Experience Benefits the PhD Candidate

    PhD candidates with life experience outside of academia tend to have a greater appreciation for the larger world in which they live. Having experienced such obstacles as mortgages, rent, kids, marriage, etc., these doctoral students have a clearer picture of what needs to be done and what motivation is needed to make it happen. These students tend to be under greater pressure to finish the dissertation and don’t linger in the program for any length of time greater than what it takes to finish the program.

    PhD candidates with life experience also tend to be more practical in preparing and planning for the dissertation. Since necessity is the mother of invention, these students know better how to see a project through in the real world absent the structure present in Bachelor’s and Master’s degree programs, a skill necessary to finish a dissertation.

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    How Life Experience Hurts a PhD Candidate

    People on the other side of this issue think that life experience hurts a PhD candidate’s ability to finish a dissertation. The main reason is that to attain this life experience, the student must have experienced a gap between their previous and current program. Reacclimating one’s self into the academic world can be frustrating and stressful, limiting the PhD candidate’s ability to concentrate on what’s really needed to finish a program.

    The term Ivory Tower is often used to refer to academicians who get the luxury of conducting research under ideal conditions. Nowhere else except a university can an individual ignore significant factors to study only the variables he/she is interested in observing. Life experience simply means that the individual has spent some time in the real world. The ability to learn how to ignore important factors must be reacquired before the PhD candidate can complete any research.

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    Conclusion

    There are arguments on both sides of the issue as to whether life experience benefits or hurts the PhD candidate. One the one hand, life experience gives the student practical experience in planning and seeing a project through to completion. On the other, life experience robs the student of the ability to ignore important variables. Before you apply to a doctoral program, see what the consensus is among the professors at your target university. You may find that matching your experience to the expectations of the professors will assist you in getting into a doctoral program.