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Akanna Okeke: Thinking About Getting a PhD? Here Are Some Things to Help You Decide if You Need That Degree



dreamstime_m_44078907Of what use is a PhD degree if you are not in a really professional field where you need it to practice?  To me, it can be a waste of so many years of a life that could be more richly lived.

I recently had two separate conversations with two guys who got their PhD in Mathematics.  One of them was once a millionaire, in dollars, not long ago. Today, he’s almost a million dollars in debt. He went backwards!

The other only completed his degree recently.  He had been working on it for seven years and that set him back thousands of dollars in student loans.  And to my surprise, he still makes financially-senseless decisions like taking an expensive cab to work every morning and eating out everyday, instead of packing a lunch box to work. He keeps going backwards in his finances everyday with little thought about getting out of debt.

This made me wonder; how could such highly educated people, especially in the field of mathematics, be so terrible with money. They certainly don’t find additions and subtractions of income and expenses difficult.  As we know, poor money decisions eventually lead to poor life decisions.  So why are these PhD holders not winning in life?  Why can’t they make the shift from mathematics to ‘life-matics’?

This contemplation drove me to search for answers, and I came upon one recently while listening to an instructional audio.
Schools, nowadays, hardly prepare you for life.  MBA programs now teach you how to land a good job rather than how to start a business.  No one teaches you about personal finances and life skills to help you out there.  You are just equipped to trade your time for money in the job market, and hope for the best out of life.

Mark Twain got it right when he said “I never let my schooling interfere with my education”.  Schools teach you lessons (in your classrooms) and then give you a test thereafter.  Life, on the other hand, throws you lots of tests and then you learn lessons from those tests.  And if you decide not to learn, you will keep on doing those tests over and over again until you finally learn the lesson.  That, to me, is education.  You are educated when you finally learn how the world really works; when you finally start to put that knowledge into practice –when you are finally wise!

In order to win in life –in business, relationships, finances and beliefs –we ought to be educated.  We ought to obtain our PHD in life; a very different one than that obtained in schools. Let’s see how:

P- Patience
This is one key needed to live life.  It is the ability to manage expectations.  We all have goals. We know where we currently are and where we want to be.  The question is do we have the patience to get there? Or are we constantly looking for shortcuts.

We have to develop patience.  Many breakthroughs are missed because people expect them to have happened yesterday.  Many people quit the gym too soon, stop a diet, or close down their shops… because they have not started seeing (instant) results.  They cannot manage their expectations.

Developing patience takes time –not surprisingly.  The next time you are in traffic, can you not honk your horn when the light turns yellow? Can you wait your turn and not ‘shunt’ line-ups? Can you save money monthly towards a vacation or retirement without dipping your hands into it?  All these little things help to develop patience, and it would be good to try them out every day.

H- Hustle
As we all know, this is the most important element to success.  Nigerians respect it a lot. You often hear prayers such as “God bless my hustle”.  For those who lack patience, hustling can help you out.  But you have to hustle right.  Hustle while waiting for your breakthrough.

Are you waiting for that promotion at your job? Then keep on hustling; take on more productive ad-hoc tasks and keep on building and sharpening the skills that make you more marketable.  While you wait for your new business to turn a profit, keep on hustling –keep on making those sales calls, keep on working on all the projects involved.  The actions you take by hustling will keep you occupied while you wait for results.  This way, you don’t get easily discouraged and you can patiently wait and manage your expectations without even realizing.

D- Dedication
There’s something known as the “shiny-object syndrome”.  It is jumping from one thing to another, without completion, in pursuit of the next ‘hot’ thing.

Successful entrepreneurs are typically known for staying put in one industry and working their way up to success.  They usually only diversify after they have achieved success in that industry.  They are committed!  This is the way we should live our lives.  Don’t jump from one gym to another, from one diet plan to another, from a job in one industry to another industry without achieving a considerable milestone first.

When there’s traffic on your way back from work, can you try to stick to one lane and not constantly switch lanes? Can you do this the whole ride home?  I know many Lagos drivers will hate me for this suggestion, but it is a very subtle and effective way to train yourself in commitment and dedication.

Life is a learning ground and unfortunately, the most vital lessons are learnt outside the school grounds.  Babies are not formally taught how to walk.  They just know that they should, and so they have a goal to walk –someday.  They don’t know when, but they are willing to be patient until that ‘someday’ comes.  While being patient, they try and fall, and try and fall again; hustling with dedication to the task until they finally start to walk steadily someday.

This is exactly how we should view life.  Have your goals and plans set out, start from wherever you are today and know that it will take you some time reach your goal.  While patiently reaching, keep on hustling –fine-tuning your talents and working on what needs to be worked on.  Finally, stay dedicated to that one plan; that goal, and focus hard on achieving it.

My mother told me that I first attempted to walk at 9 months old.  Then people gathered and were excitedly praising me and I refused to walk again.  I didn’t give it another shot until really late –about 11 months old. I was very afraid of falling down (in front of everybody).  That was all I mumbled about as I sat my small body on the large sofa, watching and studying how everyone else walked.  I wanted to obtain my ‘PhD’ in walking first, before trying again.  Of course when I finally decided to walk, I had my own fair share of falling numerous times before becoming decent.  I was like the PhD mathematicians that made poor life choices even after studying for so long.

All I needed to do was to ignore everyone else and do the important things in life. I should have known that it was okay to fall flat on my face as long as I was willing to get back up again and keep on trying until I succeeded.

Don’t be afraid to fail. Attack life, start that business, write that blog, sing that song, apply for that job and don’t wait till you get your masters and PhD first.  The only PHD you need is: patience, hustle and dedication. These are the key elements to a successful life.

Photo Credit: Candace Beckwith |


  1. BigJoy

    September 5, 2016 at 2:08 pm

    Every man for himself really. i dont disagree that u need ur type of PHD, but for me, come August 2017, i ll be at UP.. PHDing myself.. God willing.

  2. olorire

    September 5, 2016 at 2:22 pm

    well said Akanna. thank you for this

  3. Ada

    September 5, 2016 at 2:25 pm

    I do not agree completely with this article. If the writer does not believe in a doctoral degree, it doesn’t mean it is not relevant to certain individuals as our career choices differ. First, everyone does not require Phd/DBA, some people pursue such degrees because they want the title ‘Dr’ attached to their names, as silly as it may seem, it does happen, they do not take into account the discipline and financial commitment required.
    Secondly, there are careers that a doctorate degree will enhace your grwoth such as in academia and some aspects in international development as i have seen job adverts placed by the World Bank, IMF and other bodies that requires you to have a doctorate degree.
    I agree with the 3 points on Patience, Humiity & Discipline but the 2 freinds of the author are ‘uneducated’ and not realistic in thier judgements: even if they didnt have doctorate degrees, they would still think and behave that way.
    Akanna Okeke, your first 4 paragraphs could discourage prospective students, your points on the school of life may have come first while referring to the degree. My 2 cents though.

  4. Adelaide

    September 5, 2016 at 2:41 pm

    First of, I don’t think the writer disagrees with getting a Ph. D except for the fact that you it is unnecessary unless you want to be a professional or academia in the said field. Why waste resources and time getting a doctorate that won’t be put to use cause you want “Dr.” attached to your name? Who Dr. don epp?

  5. Iris

    September 5, 2016 at 3:01 pm

    One thing my first year geology professor told me that stuck in my head ( nothing else did because I was always sleeping in class) was ‘Don’t get a PhD unless you’re going to teach or do research. Apart from those two things the only fields where I think it may be somewhat relevant -and this is occasionally – are in international development, economics, and engineering.

    • Californiabawlae

      September 5, 2016 at 8:32 pm

      Why were you sleeping in geology class?! I’m not your friend again….shrugs! ?

  6. Benson Ossai

    September 5, 2016 at 3:07 pm

    Nigerians like to pile certificates but never try to invent anything.

    • Nene

      September 5, 2016 at 6:31 pm


    • Californiabawlae

      September 5, 2016 at 8:30 pm

      Said the person with neither an interview nor certificate. Boy bye.

  7. Femi

    September 5, 2016 at 3:37 pm

    I’m not sure what the point of this article is. Or maybe just wrongly titled. Totally went off point.

    • Hills

      September 5, 2016 at 4:38 pm

      Like! The article is so off from the tittle.

  8. Tosin

    September 5, 2016 at 3:42 pm

    the math PhD in debt is probably in debt for a very good reason. Math PhD in foolish debt – in your mind. Very unlikely.

  9. Weezy

    September 5, 2016 at 4:31 pm

    Very one sided article. First of all where did your two friends do their PhD? In Nigeria? Second I don’t believe for one moment that your friend was a millionaire in dollars before his PhD. Third, PhD does not cost a million anywhere in the world. And in the U.S. or UK reputable programs fund their PhD admits. Anyone who gets a PhD with loans is a moron. Anyone who claims to have spent $1 million on graduate school is a liar.

    You need to get new friends or stop exaggerating..

    • Manny

      September 5, 2016 at 6:44 pm

      In fact, I don’t know what to say about this post. One math PhD was once a millionaire in dollars!!!!!! How he take do am? Did he co-found Microsoft or was it Amazon or Google. Did he make his money in a math related job or he won the lottery or he got a contract with the Nigerian govt. Don’t just come here and give us half stories.
      Another had to take out student loans????? I call BS ……….. if it was in the US, he most likely got his PhD with free tuition and a stipend to boot.

  10. Observaunt

    September 5, 2016 at 4:35 pm

    I’m in the first year of a PhD in Economics but luckily I worked for a few years before that. I think the mistake people make is thinking life starts after the PhD as it is in other levels of education. This is not the case. Luckily I have gotten great advice from doctoral graduates which I will share with those like me who were looking for some concrete tips.

    Whether you want to go into academia or research, preparation starts from Day 1. If you want to be a professor, take on teaching assistantships, create classes etc to build your teaching resume. If you want to do research, attend conferences, look for collaborators and try to publish as much as you can during your PhD. A friend pursuing a PhD in Mathematics published his first textbook while still completing his Masters so it is never too early to start.

    In either case, get your name out there! Start a blog, a twitter account or whatever makes sense for your field to document your progress and let people in your field know you exist. More importantly build working relationships with people in your field, join associations, research labs etc. If you want to leave academia start building relationships outside as soon as possible. Many people have advised me to build relationships with organizations whose objectives align with your research. Some friends have consulted for such organizations while still at school and other have even started to work part-time. It can be a symbiotic relationship if their work feeds your research.

    Finally, as most people getting their PhD (in Economics at least) are in their late twenties/ early thirties) you cannot forget money matter. Unless your parents are willing to sponsor you well into your adult life you have to think about financial security. Plan to come out of the PhD program net positive. Apply for funding where you can get it even if you don’t need the money to survive (plus accolades never hurt nobody). There is so much funding out there! Do not pay for your conferences yourself even if you can afford it. Live like a “poor student” even if you are rolling in it. When you have the time find other sources of income. Hustle all the way through. Your future self will thank you.

    • Tochi

      September 5, 2016 at 5:45 pm

      Thanks for sharing.

    • Observaunt

      September 5, 2016 at 6:00 pm

      I want to add that the PhD is about creating new knowledge and advancing your field. It is not simply applying concepts you are taught in class. If you want to make money, become an entrepreneur or work for XYZ consulting firm, you can probably achieve those objectives without the 5+ year commitment of this degree.

      I for one believe we need more critically conscious Africans in academia, so our perspective is reflected in the global narrative of progress and our objectives are at the centre of scholastic advancement. I am tired of politicians quoting the works of 20th century European Economists forgetting that their economies were thriving on the backs of Africans in the continent and the colonies.

    • the generous economist

      September 5, 2016 at 6:50 pm

      I think @observaunt comments even made more sense than the actual write-up. I read the article hoping to obtain information on the career and personal gains or downsides or pursuing a PHD and lo….it was just another general advise article…

    • Tee

      September 5, 2016 at 10:53 pm

      Thank you so much for this

    • Steph

      September 6, 2016 at 9:21 am

      Hi! Please contact me [email protected]

  11. Andrew

    September 5, 2016 at 6:43 pm

    is clear that the writer has not earned a PhD. And fortunately, he did not claim to know the benefits of obtaining a PhD. He has based his views about PhDs on two examples.

    Dear writer,

    If you apply and get admitted to study for a PhD in a reputable institution, you will learn:

    Patience – Thorough research requires a lot of patience. You may not know this because it is unlikely that you have ever conducted a thorough research, If you have, please apply the skill more when you write on this platform as the benefits of a PhD degree are readily accessible in print and electronic media. If you don’t have access to a library, just try google on your phone and type in “benefit of PhD degree”. I am sure your article would have had more depth if you did a bit of research on the subject before writing. A PhD holder is unlikely to commit that basic error.

    Hustle – If you do the PhD, you will learn to hustle. Hustling will take various forms; including learning to manage your supervisor, collaborators and students, learning to raise funding for conferences and speaking engagements from different sources, learning to apply for grants, linking up with those who matter in your area of specialization and securing a job after the degree. All of these things take a lot of hustling.

    Dedication – it is “impossible” to earn the PhD degree from a reputable university without dedication. You will study for long nights, your research will be subjected to extensive criticisms by the best in the field and you need to come up with something new. To do that, you must know what everyone else in your field has said/done and then you must say something new and different from all they have said and be able to defend it to earn the degree. You can only do this if you are dedicated to the subject.

    The PhD is clearly not for everyone. But whenever you see those who have obtained theirs from reputable universities, they have acquired skills that will serve them through life and in whatever job or business they find themselves. They will be analytical and would usually be focused on the “big picture”. They will have stamina to attend long meetings, write long reports, conduct thorough and extensive research. They are usually not focused on quick money but will be ready to take steady and sure steps to success.

    Mind you, the term success means different things to different people but you appear to have limited yours to “financial success”, which is fine, but please, know that just like there are numerous non-PhD holders who are successful financially, there are also many PhD holders who are successful financial and vice versa.

    Some of PhD holders have undertaken the PhD as an end itself and not for financial gain. They were interested in the subject and took the noble step of contributing to knowledge in that field.

    As you say, please “respect their hustle” but I agree that the three elements described in your article still hold true for life in general…

  12. Precious

    September 5, 2016 at 8:11 pm

    I am just about to complete my PhD and it is my greatest desire that one day, public and private sectors will give research and development the level of attention and resources required to take us to the next level. The top Universities we pay millions to attend, attain/maintain their statuses based partly on their research output and impact which as we all know, is huge thanks to the PhD students who do all the dirty work. Thus in my opinion, no one, I mean NO ONE should be allowed to pay for a PhD. It is a job; not just 9-5, it’s a 24/365 work except times when you intentionally decide to switch off. This is because a successful PhD should consist a NOVEL Original theory/proposition/idea/proof not found in literature. Many fundamental theories and innovations were born out of a PhD with our popular GOOGLE search engine the product of PhD students, Larry Page and Sergey Brin at Stanford University.
    So yes, you can contribute to the world by dropping out of school or by getting to the peak of it, I find it rather disturbing to discourage people to go after their dreams and passion.
    In fact, just like Ada rightly said, many job positions within multinationals require PhD graduates, not necessarily to continue in your area of research, but to harness their skills in problem identification, complex problem solving abilities, attention to details and perseverance.
    Finally, there’s a thing called PASSION!!! Success does not always have to me measured by how much you earn. So please, if you feel the drive, take the bold step. Just remember, some days could be a valley of *** ( because you are proposing something entirely new, but you will definitely make it through successfully and enjoy a fulfilled life.

  13. Cee

    September 5, 2016 at 8:36 pm

    Mr Analyst 2 does not make a trend.

  14. The real D

    September 5, 2016 at 11:41 pm

    Many people have pointed out loop holes with the author’s argument. I honestly was just lost as to the purpose. The intro then the actual body I am not certain there was concrete connection with both unless I am just slow, since e don tey way I sit down with BN like this.

    What I am struggling with is how someone went from millionaire in $$$ to being flat broke due to PHd, if you had millionsss even if you did not get assistantship or scholarship for your PHd (I am assuming this individuals are in the states since author used $$$) you cannot blow millions on just doctorate and then go into debt again!!! The individuals financial situation has nothing to do with pursuing a doctorate. Not forgetting that for most doctorate students in the States; assistantship, scholarship are plentiful. Only doctorates in the medical field such as DPT, PharmD, MD e.t.c don’t enjoy this sort of aid and that because they generally rake in the dough upon graduation and even these professionals do not end up in millions in debt more like a couple $100,000 not millions (exaggeration maybe by the author) and these are the ones that either go to Ivy League schools or live a completely comfortable life on loans while in school.

    I am guessing the author’s argument is that one should not pursue a doctorate unless it is something you strongly desire and may be needed but using the examples in the introduction he/she gave made the presented argument, flawed. From a monetary stand point at least based on my environment a doctoral degree in any STEM area puts you in a position to earn a lot more money than you would without it.

    Lastly, someone talked about MBA, which MBA una dey go to? Most MBA programs I know push for entrepreneurial skills, part of the curriculum of many MBA programs I am familiar with actually have their students come up with business ideas that they must pursue while in school. I will confess I have not looked into many other programs outside my own immediate scope so I may be wrong on this.

  15. awesomenessssssssssssssssssss

    October 13, 2016 at 6:19 pm

    i love your article. You are so awesome.

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