Recently on the fora at the Chronicle of Higher Education, someone with tenure, I think in a STEM field, and on the math-ier end of it at a guess, was wondering whether it would be worthwhile to get a second Ph.D. in a related field. Commenters urged him (her? unclear, but I had the impression it was a guy) to just read and do research in that field, although it sounded like he really wanted to have the immersed experience of Ph.D. level courses. I’m not so sure how he felt about a second dissertation, though since math/comp sci dissertations can be short, and/or can assemble a batch of articles you’ve published already, that doesn’t seem so hard.

Anyway, I was somewhat surprised at the way commenters piled on, wondering why anyone would ever go through a second Ph.D. experience. It’s obvious to me: if I won the lottery, I would absolutely get a second Ph.D., in Classics this time. I’d have to start by learning ancient Greek, so I might need to start with a second B.A., but the necessity of learning Greek is, to me, a feature, not a bug. And for the purposes of language-learning, classroom immersion is about 95% necessary. There are some gifted, disciplined people who don’t really need it, and a lot of us have picked up one or more medieval languages by hammering away with a grammar and some texts, but for a really strong grasp, you need a lot of time, a lot of exercises, and a good teacher.

It’s true that I am not contemplating doing this while holding my tenured position, nor as a means to improve my current position or research ability (though it would certainly expand the areas I could research, and give a different perspective on what I work on now). I probably won’t even do it in retirement (well, maybe the second B.A.), because I have so many medieval research projects in mind already, and I’d like to make sure I get them done. The “winning the lottery” point is that I could pay my way wherever I wanted to go.

One of my colleagues actually did get a second Ph.D., while continuing to teach in our department, in a related field. Basically, it took up his research time for a few years, and I’m pretty sure one sabbatical leave went to the required coursework. His second dissertation was a well-regarded book. So it can be done, and there can be good reasons to do it.

What about you? If there were world enough and time (and money), would you go back? In a related field, or something really different? Why, or why not?

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11 thoughts on “Second Ph.D.?

  1. I’m not sure I’d do a second Ph.D., but I’ve known people who have. They have done so because a research project took them into an area that needed further exploration. I think I’d enjoy the coursework — the community, and the focus. The dissertation? maybe, but I have now written three books, so that’s just work.

    If I were to go back, I’d become a historian of late antiquity. That would require not only Greek, but a radical improvement of my Latin; I’d probably also need to learn German. In other words, I’d have to be a much better linguist than I am! But that period is so so interesting!

  2. Definitely.

    Of course I want a JD but that not a PhD.

    PhDs I want are in Economics and Near Eastern Studies.

    I came up with the Economics one as a graduate student. I had just turned 25 and was halfway between the M.A. (23) and Ph.D. (27) exams. Too advanced to quit. But because of reading the papers and reading around I realized that were I to start college at that moment, knowing what I knew about the world and my interests, I’d go into Economics.

    I came up with the NES one as a new assistant professor, when I realized how much I dislike being a professor in most circumstances. NES would mean perfecting my Arabic and then going into an area studies field instead of a purely literary one. I would then never have to teach beginning foreign language again, I would teach introduction to a region, and I might not have to teach at all but get a think tank or UN style job. I didn’t do it, of course, since like the Economics degree it would mean becoming an undergraduate again.

    Had I followed up on this, or on my JD, I’d be a lot happier than I am now, a lot more interested in my work, and all these degrees would have made interesting combinations with the ones I have. I’d also like to train as a psychoanalyst and do an MFA in ceramics/sculpture. I claim I would like to learn several new foreign languages well but if I could just finish Arabic that might be enough.

  3. I would totally do a second PhD in a perfect world, though I’d have a hard time landing on a field — likely either English or religious studies or maybe something involving music. Music I could probably just do a second BA in, but I’d want serious graduate work for the other two fields.

    Stanford has a PhD in history education program that would probably be the most practical option, but since this is mostly just dreaming…

    When I was in PhD school (mid90s) a friend of mine with an English PhD left academia after 3 years of NTT teaching to go to law school. Some of my classmates were scandalized at the idea of going back to school like that. But he needed a job! At the same time, having now gotten a professional degree post-PhD, I understand the frustration he felt at shifting from a doctoral program to what he called a vocational program. Worlds apart.

  4. Yes! Totally! In a perfect world, I’d do an undergrad in ‘dead and celtic languages’ (NOT classical languages, things like Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse and Welsh) then a PhD in early medieval history/literature.

    Then I’d just take a course a year in fun stuff. Like maths.

    1. Or MAYBE history and philosophy of science.

      In fact, why not both? a PhD on pre-renaissance alchemy or some such…

  5. I may at some point need to get some formal coursework in my teaching field (composition and rhetoric), possibly in order to remain eligible for my job (for which I originally qualified by dint of an English lit Ph.D.; the two fields have gradually been drawing apart, with the newer field — at least in terms of official structure; obviously, it’s a very old field in some ways — insisting on its legitimacy in part by pushing for all comp/rhet teachers having at least coursework if not a whole degree), more likely in order to increase my credibility in conversations with colleagues. The other issue here is that we’ve got a mostly PhD’d or MFA’d teaching corps, made up almost entirely of full- and part-time contingent faculty, supervised by a combination of lit and, increasingly, comp/rhet Ph.D.s (and some MFAs), in a department that now offers the comp/rhet Ph.D. (and so has a stake in jobs requiring such credentials).

    My first instinct is to just start reading and publishing, and hope that will do the trick. But I’m aware that formal coursework would provide structure for such efforts (though it wouldn’t provide any time off, and I’m not sure how good a student I would be at this point; I’m very used to being the teacher). I can also take up to one class a semester with no tuition costs (but, once again, there’s no time off involved).

    If I won the lottery, I don’t *think* taking classes would be one of the first things I’d do, but I might surprise myself over time. The most likely candidate in that situation would be seminary, probably an M.Div. Don’t know whether I’d go for a Ph.D.; if I did, I’d probably switch to something like religious history (and since I’m not badly qualified for that already, I’d probably just research and write a book, maybe taking the occasional class if it would come in handy).

    In the lottery-winning situation, I’d also be torn about the issue of providing support to Ph.D. programs that possibly shouldn’t exist. But I wouldn’t be taking support, and probably wouldn’t be teaching, and *might* be helping provide critical mass for grad seminars without swelling the corps of unemployable Ph.D.s. If anything, it seems to me that if a cohort of wealthy baby boomers decided to go to grad school, but not to seek academic positions at the end of the program, that might not be a bad thing — it would provide legitimate support/demand for grad programs, without worsening the Ph.D. labor problem.

  6. No way would I do another PhD. But an MA, maybe. I sometimes thought about doing one in history, but right now I think I’d go to div school for a masters in theology. That would be genuinely useful, and something hard to cover on my own.

  7. I sometimes think about taking an art class just for fun. I’d love to do a pottery class — you know, with the wheel and all that. I have a colleague who does weaving classes, and she really loves it. Of course, she’s very near retirement and doesn’t have to worry about getting tenure, etc. Instead, she spends her time doing stuff she’s interested in.

    But another PhD? Eh… I think the thing that would hold me back from doing another PhD in anything is the fact that I’d have to take classes with a bunch of 20-something kids who are all trying to act like they know everything. It would be annoying to be around that sort of uptight, imposter-ish cohort as a “peer” again. I actually HAVE entertained the idea of going to law school, but I don’t think I could cut it on the LSAT since I don’t believe in fixed meaning (which always throws me off in standardized tests).

    One of my colleagues who works in STEM has a JD and an MD. He couldn’t make up his mind, so he went straight from law school to med school. He’s a prof in medicine now, but his lawyer background certainly comes in handy on the “big” committee.

  8. You’re talking about with world enough and time and lots of money and no job responsibilities, right? I’ve known people who have gotten an extra MA, MFA, or PhD while holding down a tenured job but they were mostly not doing any research and were counting down to retirement. I like the work I’m doing already and don’t have half enough time for it.

    I would not want to do this, ever, although I’d like to take Spanish and/or Italian and also to learn computer things like programming in Python and R.

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