Pursuing a Ph.D. is a big undertaking and it’s worthwhile to consider WHY you want a Ph.D. One of my friends referred to our having gotten Ph.D.’s as “financial suicide”, which I certainly don’t agree with. HOWEVER, I think there’s some merit in the perspective that you should only pursue a Ph.D. if you want to be a professor – a Ph.D. is the union card of academia. For most other goals, there are more straightforward paths there.
Being a Ph.D. student is pretty great. I’ve often told people that they were 4 of the best years of my life. You’re given tons of autonomy, get to work on interesting projects, spend time with intelligent people, and will be working on a project that you feel will make the world a better place (or at least that you find fascinating). The pay isn’t great, but other than that it’s a pretty great life.
A number of my friends have taken jobs that they describe as being similar to graduate school, which always sounds super to me. If a job posting described a job that way it would have my interest.
One of my friends once said he didn’t understand people getting stressed out in graduate school. He explained that one of the big perks of graduate school is that it’s a period of time you don’t have to be too worried about things, and you’re losing a big advantage when you let it get to you. I agree with this, although I worried about things in graduate school more than I should have.
Competitive Job Market
I don’t feel that it’s deliberate deception, but universities NEED graduate students (to help with research, TA courses, to justify grants, as sessional instructors, etc.) and they’re willing to let graduate students believe the job market is better than it actually is. Throughout my Ph.D. I was happily planning to work as faculty, would mention this to professors and people around the department and it wasn’t until my last year when I actually started looking at the job postings and applying that I realized it was FAR, FAR harder to get a faculty position then I had been led to believe. I shared this view with a graduate student who was at an earlier point in their studies and had people thank me for cluing them in that it wasn’t a sure thing that they’d be professors at R1 universities after their defense.
Post-Academic, or alt-AC refers to people who completed a Ph.D., engaged in the academic system, then choose to leave it. My graduate school used to have an annual panel where the topic would be “what to do with your Ph.D.?” They would typically have a professor, a graduate student who went into industry, and sometimes someone who had done both.
There absolutely are options other than being a professor, and a Ph.D. prepares people for far more than they expect it to. In the STEM subjects, I’ve often told people that there are probably at least 3 or 4 companies worldwide that are working on a problem related to your thesis. if you get in touch with them, they’ll probably go nuts trying to hire you. Even if that isn’t true, there’s definite value in the sort of work you did to get your Ph.D. and you can find companies that will hire you based on it.
Additionally, you should have a skill set that helps you tackle large projects, which you can apply to non-traditional employment, such as starting your own company or something along those lines.
There are companies that hire Ph.D.’s to do research for them. Friends who have gone on to do this tell me that it’s a big change to go from researching whatever interests you to being given a project. Another friend is doing this sort of work (and was the group manager) with a Masters, so you don’t absolutely need a Ph.D. if this is what you want to do.
Research for its Own Sake
Often this is held up as the “noble reason” to go into research. I don’t necessarily agree with it being better than any other reason, but it is worth considering. If you’re passionate about a topic and want to dig deep into the details, getting a Ph.D. is one place where society will allow and help you to do so.
I believe that people should only do a Ph.D. – and probably a Masters – if it’s funded. By funded I mean the school provides you with sufficient resources to pay your tuition and living expenses while working on the degree.
If you don’t receive funding, it’s unknown whether the university actually wants you as a student or if they just want your tuition dollars.
Prestige is a pretty terrible reason to get a Ph.D. People aren’t really that impressed, and if you’re going to spend 4 years of your life just to try to get respect from strangers I’d suggest some therapy instead of enrolling in a graduate program.
Improved Financial / Job Prospects
At the end of the day, I think there is a clear payoff (career-wise) of getting a bachelor’s degree. It is far less certain that you will get the payoff from a graduate degree. When I had my Masters degree and worked in industry, most employers didn’t value it, and the best response I ever got to it was they considered it equivalent to 6 months of work experience. Gaining 4 years more experience in a field will undoubtedly improve your salary more than a Ph.D. will. Often times a Ph.D. will make it harder to find a job, as you may be considered “overqualified” and they’ll worry that you will leave when something better comes up.
Why did you decide to pursue a Ph.D. (or why are you considering it)?
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