General Education

Should I Get a PhD? Reasons for Getting a PhD—Or Not.

Should I Get a PhD? Reasons for Getting a PhD—Or Not.
Life as a PhD student isn't easy, so you should only pursue this degree if you're serious about finishing it—because the sobering truth is that only 50% of doctoral students complete the degree. Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry October 18, 2019

The PhD is the pinnacle of academic achievement, the confirmation of expertise in your area of choice. But is it the right degree for you? If you're passionate about your subject and want to spend your life teaching and/or researching it, the answer is probably 'yes.'

Article continues here

Here’s a simple question: do you want a career as a university professor and/or a high-level researcher? If not, a PhD probably isn’t the right degree for you; you may be able to accomplish your goals more efficiently with a master’s degree or professional doctorate.

This isn’t to say that PhDs only teach or conduct research. Economics, engineering, hard science, and computer science PhDs may find it easier to land desirable management positions, directorships in research and development, or other highly specialized high-level roles. However, if your passion is business, history, or English, there’s a good chance you’ll end up spending the majority of your career teaching. That’s why to answer the question “Should I get a PhD?”, you’ll first have to know which degree works best for your field.

Many people decide to pursue a PhD after earning a bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree because they love research. However, the fact is that most PhDs spend far more time in the classroom than the lab or library. According to the Higher Education Research Institute surveys conducted by UCLA, a minority of professors produce the majority of published research—even at research universities. More than half of professors surveyed publish less than once per year.

Life as a PhD student isn’t easy, so you should only pursue this degree if you’re serious about finishing it. You’re saying, “Of course I’ll finish it,” but everyone says that, and the sobering truth is that only 50 percent of doctoral students complete the degree.

For PhD students:

  • The workload is huge
  • The money isn’t great
  • Stipends aren’t guaranteed

On the other hand, earning a PhD may be the only (or best) way to advance in your field.

Still wondering should I get a PhD? This article covers several issues to help answer that question, including:

  • PhD versus a professional doctorate degree
  • The PhD workload
  • How PhD funding works
  • Your post-degree job prospects
  • PhDs and pay
  • Other benefits of getting a PhD
  • Is a PhD the right degree for you?

PhD versus the professional doctorate degree

Not all doctoral degrees are PhDs. As you research degrees offered in your field, you may find that you can choose between PhD and a non-PhD “Doctor of…” For example, you could earn a PhD in Marketing, which would typically lead to a career in academics and/or research. Or, you could earn a Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) in Marketing, which would more likely lead to a career in specialized consulting or corporate research. There is crossover—some PhDs consult and some DBAs teach—but that’s how it typically works.

To put it more simply, pursuing a PhD is all about advancing knowledge in a field, while a professional doctorate will help you advance in a field. The PhD typically appeals to those who start and end their careers in academics and research, while the professional doctorate more likely attracts professionals looking to pump up their level of expertise. Again, these are trends, not hard-and-fast rules.

On the practical side, students in both types of programs conduct research and conclude their studies by producing a paper that they must defend: the dissertation for PhD candidates, and the doctoral study for professional doctorate candidates. Generally, these papers follow similar formats, and doctoral studies may be published just like dissertations.

The PhD workload

If you enjoy hard work and long hours, you’ll thrive in a PhD program. It’s important to consider that PhD programs don’t get easier as you move forward. In fact, they usually get more difficult. Most PhD students take nearly six years to complete PhD programs, during which time they write an average of 251.3 pages (the figure varies widely by discipline) summarizing a substantial body of original research. It is possible to finish a PhD program in less time if you’re willing and able to devote at least 40 hours per week of steady, full-time work to it. Accelerated PhD degree programs exist for certain disciplines, such as:

  • Nursing
  • Occupational and physical therapy
  • Counseling
  • Education

Writing and then defending a dissertation may be the most challenging part of getting a PhD, but there’s a lot of work that has to happen before you reach that stage. Most PhD programs include a coursework component and exams that set the stage for your dissertation years. Some also have project and certification requirements. You’ll need to decide on, propose, and defend a dissertation topic, and then do all the research necessary. After you submit your dissertation, you may be called upon to complete substantial rewrites before it is approved.

How PhD funding works

Contrary to what some people assume, PhD candidates are not always fully funded. The very best PhD programs (like those at Columbia University) tend to be fully funded because the best universities can afford to fund the education of their doctoral students.

Smaller universities may not have the resources to offer PhD candidates full funding, and online PhD programs seldom offer full funding. Your field of study will also play a role in how much PhD funding you receive. Plenty of PhD candidates work as teaching assistants or research assistants to help pay for school or to cover basic living expenses.

Fully-funded doesn’t always mean free. For one thing, you will end up paying for the cost of your education in time spent teaching and doing research for your university. Secondly, every school’s definition of full funding is a bit different. In an ideal world, a fully-funded PhD program would cover:

  • Tuition and fees
  • Books
  • Supplies
  • Living expenses
  • Health insurance
  • Research

That’s not always the case. Stipends can vary wildly between departments and schools, and full funding typically lasts for a specific number of years (four to six). If you don’t complete your PhD in the allotted time, you’re on the hook for expenses from then on. In the case of competitive funding, you’ll start competing with fellow students for a limited number of stipends.

Many people will tell you not to choose an unfunded PhD program because it will likely take you longer to complete your PhD, as you will need to spend some of your time working. You may also end up needing to take out more student loans. Finally, ask yourself whether you want to be in a program where some students are fully funded, but you’re not. The school has communicated through its funding choices that you are a second-class student. That’s not a good position to stake out in the highly competitive world of academics.

Your post-degree job prospects

The job outlook for people with a PhD depends on their field (the humanities, for example, have more PhDs than available jobs) as well as whether you’re looking for a tenure-track professorship or a career outside of academia. The competition for tenure-track teaching positions is fierce. Worse, those positions are steadily being eliminated. You may have to adjust your post-PhD career expectations if you’ve been dreaming of a sweet tenured professorship, or if you;e been operating under the assumption that your advanced degree will lead to big opportunities. Adam Ruben writes in Science Magazine that PhDs may face two types of bias. First: “The stereotype of the hyper-focused graduate school student or postdoc who knows absolutely everything about isothermal titration microcalorimetry but when tying their shoelaces still has to repeat ‘over, under, around, and through; meet Mister Bunny Rabbit, pull and through.'” Second: the perception that PhD holders are overqualified.

In general, PhD candidates are looked upon favorably by employers, but If you’d like to find out what the job prospects for PhDs in your field actually are, the 10,000 PhDs Project is a good place to start. Created by the University of Toronto in Canada, this online database has career data for 15 years worth of the school’s PhD graduates. You can search by:

  • Cohort
  • Department
  • Gender
  • Employment sector

You’ll find out where graduates are working (if they’re working) and in what roles.

PhDs and pay

The financial sacrifices you may have to make during your PhD years should be weighed against your potential earnings. The good news: you’ll likely earn more than a master’s degree holder over the course of your career. The median income for PhD holders across disciplines is $97,000, but how much you actually earn will depend on your field. The biggest differences in pay between PhDs and master’s degree holders can be found in:

  • Education
  • Health
  • Law
  • Social work
  • Social sciences

On the other hand, if you choose a professional doctorate instead of a PhD, you may make more in:

  • Sciences
  • Humanities
  • Communications

Michigan State University lists average salaries by degree level in a number of disciplines.

Earning a PhD is to boost your earning potential is not always the best idea. Look into whether your field is one where professional doctorate holders make more. You should also consider building a career outside of academia after earning your PhD. The journal Science found that math PhDs, science PhDs, and engineering PhDs could make $20,000 more working for private companies versus working for a university.

Other benefits to getting a PhD

There are a lot of other benefits to earning this advanced degree, like:

  • Some interesting career pathways in disciplines like analytics, research, and publishing are open only to PhD holders (because they can prove that they can tackle a complex problem and summarize it in a massive paper).
  • Jobs that are only open to PhD holders tend to pay more.
  • According to PayScale, PhD graduates report a very high level of job satisfaction.
  • You’ll make valuable professional connections during your PhD years whom you can potentially tap when you’re searching for new opportunities or putting together research teams.
  • If you’re fully funded, you’ll get paid to do work you’re passionate about (which may not necessarily have the kind of market value that leads to traditional employment).
  • Getting a PhD will distinguish you as an expert in your field and empower you to make a lasting contribution to that field.

Is a PhD the right degree for you?

When you’re wondering, “Should I get a PhD?,” ask yourself is whether you have the patience to work day in and day out on something that won’t have tangible value for many years and may never lead to big financial rewards__. Spending a lot of time on one potentially small subject is a big part of earning a PhD.

It sounds cheesy, but a successful PhD holder must gain enough satisfaction from the “journey” to stick with the research. The salary for PhDs is often not super-competitive, and getting the doctorate will feel like a never-ending slog. If that doesn’t put you off, you may just be PhD material.

Questions or feedback? Email


Related Articles

Categorized as: General EducationGeneralResources