What You Can Do With A Ph.D.

A couple of discussions that I had this week, plus coming across this post, got me thinking about what people end up doing with their university degrees – especially with Ph.D.s. Yes, people with Ph.D.’s generally teach or do research, and can have very narrow academic specialties that might not seem to have a lot to do with life in the real world. But some people with Ph.D.s fall into careers that are very different from what their doctoral degree is about. So, just for fun, here’s a little list of famous people who have Ph.D.s but are famous for other reasons. (Note: this list only includes people with earned Ph.Ds., not honourary Ph.D.s.)

Famous Person How You Know Them What Their Ph.D. is In
Mayim Bialik actress (Blossom, The Big Bang Theory) neuroscience
Brian May guitarist in Queen astrophysics
Milo Aukerman singer in The Descendents biochemistry
Angela Merkel chancellor of Germany quantum chemistry
E.J. Dionne Washington Post columnist sociology
Rachel Maddow host of current affairs show on MSNBC politics
Barbara Ehrenreich author (Nickel and Dimed) and commentator cellular immunology
Greg Graffin singer in Bad Religion zoology
Newt Gingrich politician modern European history
Sterling Morrison guitarist in the Velvet Underground medieval literature

Dr. May rocks the house. (Credit: Laurence Boyce/Creative Commons)

And a couple of people who almost got there or who are about to get there:

Famous Person How You Know Them Subject of their Ph.D., and What Happened
Dexter Holland singer in The Offspring molecular biology; dropped out of USC Ph.D. program to pursue music full-time
David Duchovny actor (The X-Files, Californication) English literature; dropped out of Yale Ph.D. program to become an actor
James Franco actor/writer (127 Hours) English; still enrolled in Ph.D. program at Yale
Peter Weller actor (Robocop) Italian renaissance art history; plans to complete dissertation at UCLA this year

There’s a wide range of academic interests on this list, but it’s also notable that these people all pursued their degrees at different times in their lives. Some finished their Ph.D.s before embarking on their primary careers. Others took their programs during slow times in their work, or after their initial careers had wound down. And a few started their Ph.D. programs, dropped out to do other things, and then came back decades later to finish. Not only are these people great examples of “lifelong learning”, they’re also great examples of how education can take you to all kinds of different places – even ones where you never expected to go.

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