Why should you get a Ph. D.?

I ceremonially received my Ph. D. this past weekend from the University of Maine (woo!). My time as a Doctoral student/candidate (and my post-graduation time as well) has transformed me profoundly. I have few, if any, regrets, now that I’ve emerged on the other side. However, I recently had a conversation with someone who expressed some doubts about whether or not a Ph. D. was right for them, and I have known a few people who set out on the Ph. D. path only to fall short.

I have realized that, as with so much in academia, it is rare for someone to pull you aside and give you a low-down on—or a list of pros and cons for—darn near anything. No one told me, as an undergrad, that my TAs were, in most cases, Masters students only a bit ahead of me in the academic tunnel. Or that I would soon be one of those stressed-out Masters students, trying desperately to balance my teaching load and my research obligations. No one stopped to inform me that if I wanted to apply to Graduate School, I should get on taking the GRE before starting my applications (whoops). Or that there even was something called the GRE (sad but true). No one told me that a Ph. D. would involve passing comprehensive exams until after I matriculated (also sad but true).

Yes, I am aloof, but I doubt I’m alone in my aloofness! There are a lot of things that everyone in academia just assumes everyone else already knows, it seems. And we don’t. Or, at least, I didn’t. So, I thought it might be nice to open up a dialogue on topics falling within the category of “Things academics treat as tacitly understood but which really aren’t,” starting with this topic: Why should you consider getting your Ph. D.? I’ve listed several reasons for and against getting one below. These lists borrow somewhat from this very cool website on the topic, but I have been thinking about this question for a long time myself, and much of what that website has to say I had come to feel independently. So, consider this one man’s opinion, but with some level of perspective (albeit, with very little experience with the non-academic job landscape!).

Let me start by saying that I agree with Dr. Vogel, who was interviewed on the site linked to above; I think the needle on your “Ph.D. gauge” should start at “No.” I think you need to have at least several compelling reasons to get your Ph. D. before you take the leap. If at least 2-4 of the following don’t resonate with you, I would reconsider whether a Ph. D. is for you. This belief has nothing to do with trying to scare you out of getting one (it’s pretty awesome to have one); it has everything to do with ensuring that it’s something you actually want and should get.

Note: I have been saying and will continue to say “Ph. D.” throughout this article, but, really, I’m talking about any terminal degree, not just that particular one.

You should consider getting a Ph. D. if…(in no particular order)

  1. You want to be considered an “expert.” If you enjoy watching the History Channel or the Discovery Channel, and you dream of being one of those people interviewed about the latest dinosaur fossil find or about how best to communicate with aliens, then you might consider getting a Ph. D. Similarly, if you want to have a decent amount of sway in the policy arena, I would suspect a Doctorate could have some value there as well…if you are the type of scientist politicians would actually listen to!
  2. You want the prestige/lifestyle of being called “Doctor.” Those who have their Doctorates who tell you it isn’t the best kind of ego-trip to scrawl “Dr.” in front of their name every time they write it in a formal context are untrustworthy characters you shouldn’t mingle with. In all seriousness, though, don’t discount this reason as petty—a drive to be among the very best in your field is the same kind of drive that converts a small but elite set of athletes into Olympians, no? If you want to be “the best,” who’s to say that you shouldn’t try?
  3. You want to be a PI (Primary Investigator). If your dream career is as a researcher in the public or private sector, but you want to be the one calling the shots, it’s possible you may need your Ph. D. for that. In some fields, at least, having a Doctorate separates those who will get the senior research positions who dictate what research will be done from those who will be doing more of the day-to-day operations of that research. In the private sector, the delineation may be less stark though, and who gets to be “in charge” might have more to do with seniority than anything else.
  4. You want to be a professor. Probably the most obvious one on the list, and the only one for which a “yes” essentially compels you to get a Doctorate. With the sheer volume of Ph. Ds. being awarded each year, Colleges and Universities have no qualms about only considering Doctors, and, even then, often only those with considerable post-doctoral work on top of their degrees. In other words, if you want to be a professor, you had better get your Doctorate, but consider that you may not necessarily be successful in your quest before taking the plunge! You may have to beat out many other driven individuals like yourself to land that coveted gig. So, you know, have a backup plan!
  5. You work in a highly selective discipline that may require you to have a Ph. D. to get the job you want. I think this one also goes without saying. Practicing medicine or law without a Doctorate is basically impossible (illegal?). There are probably other disciplines where this is true, though. For example, I have heard it’s difficult to get a high-paying job as a clinical psychologist without graduate work, if not a Doctorate.
  6. You don’t want to enter the real world yet (or know you don’t like the real world). I’ll admit it: This was definitely part of what motivated me to get my Masters, but it wasn’t for my Ph. D. By that point, I was much more eager to continue on with my studies than I was frightened by the prospect of “real work,” thankfully! I would say this is probably the worst reason for getting a Ph. D. of those on this list, but, for some, it might be a valid reason. The academic life is a peculiar one, and it certainly has its perks if you’re of a particular personality type. For one thing, most of your peers and colleagues will be highly educated—maybe that’s your thing.
  7. You know you will have a really great relationship with your advisor.  I can’t even begin to express how important this is. Your Advisor will be your lifeline, your boss, your master, and your best friend for the entire, grueling length of your Ph. D. I can think of some friends I wouldn’t want to be that sutured to! If you are lucky enough to know someone who is willing and able to serve as your Advisor, and you know they are going to be great to work with, this should count as a huge point in favor of the Doctorate. For me, I knew I’d get along with my Advisor, Frank, from the moment I first communicated with him—he emailed me back almost immediately, and he was prompt like that the whole way through. Knowing you can count on and trust your advisor, even from thousands of miles away, in times of need is a big deal. In fact, I would make sure you know and like your advisor before you sign any paperwork!
  8. You have a clear vision for what you want to research. A Doctoral research agenda is a bizarrely singular creature. An Undergraduate degree often is designed to prepare you for a wide range of careers and challenges. A Doctorate does nearly the opposite; it prepares you to consider a particular subject at an incredibly fine-grained scale. Dr. Nute noted, hilariously, that a Ph. D. student needs to be as content with their research subject as Homer Simpson is with donuts—even if forced to consume nothing else, their love for it doesn’t abate. I think that that is a spot-on analogy. I’m singularly fascinated by fruits. I knew someone who was bizarrely fascinated by malaria. We are the types of people who should get their Doctorates; someone needs to be thinking hard about these things, so it might as well be those who actually like doing so!
  9. You are incredibly self-motivated. This is kind of a corollary to a few of the points above rather than a new point unto itself, but it’s no less important. Ph. D. programs are a lonely existence, for the most part. I had many days where I had to sit alone in a lab, counting buds or sifting stems, from before the sun rose to long after it set. No one, least of all your Advisor, is going to make you stay in that lab until the work is done. No one is going to make you head out sampling on the Fourth of July when several of your plots will be ready to harvest. No one is going to make you start writing your chapters, or prepare for comps, or read that next paper, or what have you. To get through this journey, you will have to be your own boss, in large part (unless your Advisor is very hands-on). Hopefully, you are good at being both the good cop and the bad cop in your own life!
  10. (Update–thanks Ann) You want to learn a particular process for solving problems and generating new knowledge. Beyond the ultimate outcome of getting the degree, there is also the process of getting one, and that can be an incredible reward in its own right. As several of the interviewees on the linked-to website note in their responses, Doctoral programs give you hands-on experience with a process of “doing science” within a relatively controlled, “safe” environment. You learn how to craft deep, probing questions and then how to take those questions from cradle to grave, with the help of your lab. The cool thing is that once you are practiced at this mode of inquiry, it is a discipline-less skill that could benefit you no matter where your research interests or your career path takes you. In essence, the journey is itself the reward.

Now, if that was the list for getting one’s Ph. D., it’s worth addressing those points that should make you reconsider.

You should consider not getting a Ph. D. if…(again, no particular order)

  1. (Updated) You don’t especially like politics or hazing. Academia can occasionally be a hot mess (although I am told that could be said of virtually any profession!). You have to keep in mind that academics are chronically overworked, and navigating that sometimes quagmire from the inside can be exhausting. So can all the instances where you’re made to “prove your worth,” like prelims, comps, and so forth. While I would argue that these “hazing rituals” absolutely serve important functions, they carry a lot of elements of “let’s make our students suffer as we have suffered” with them as well.
  2. You’d rather start earning money. Most doctoral students have stable funding, but the stipend is…modest. You won’t necessary go deeper in debt, but you won’t be going on many spending sprees either. It was hard, on my stipend, to justify buying dress shoes at one point. Think about that. Meanwhile, I know many with Bachelors degrees making 4x what I was making as a student or more, and they have had 5+ more years on me in which to be earning all that money. If money matters a lot to you, I wouldn’t necessarily consider a Doctorate unless you have to for the job you want.
  3. You’d rather start living your life. Beyond the lack of money and the stress and the long hours, getting a Ph. D., especially if you want to pursue a career as a professor, is a nomadic life. Many of us do research in far-off places, where our significant others can’t come with. Many of us then need to get a post-doc or three to hone our credentials before we get the professorship we’re hoping for. Not to mention that the program we may want to attend could be in, I dunno, central Maine, far from the comforts of a big city or from our families! If you want to settle down, buy a house, get a pet, start a family, and begin accumulating that particular set of memories and milestones, know that doing all of that is, to some extent, incompatible with the typical Ph. D. experience. Make sure you are comfortable with putting at least a few things on hold or on the maybe list if you want to get that terminal degree.
  4. Your field doesn’t require it. A lot of my friends from my undergraduate life got engineering degrees (which I am reminded of frequently), and they are doing quite well for themselves with just their Bachelors (or a 1-year professional certificate thereafter). I mean, they’re making more money (i.e., 6 figures) than I could ever hope to make. If you have your heart set on working in the private sector, in many cases a Ph. D. will overqualify you for some jobs. Scan tons of job boards before you apply to programs; make sure a terminal degree is something that will actually help you get the job you want. Incidentally, you do know what job you want, right?
  5. You think it’ll be just like getting your Bachelors/Masters. I assumed that getting my Masters would be “just more school.” I didn’t make that same mistake twice, but it’s easy to understand how someone might. Graduate school is an entirely different rhythm in a lot of ways, but even Masters and Doctorates are pretty different experiences. I actually felt more pressed for time as a Masters student—the deadlines are more rapidfire, the funding is more precarious, and you often have to split your time between teaching and research and coursework much more. As a Ph. D., you have a little bit more time, but a much larger and more amorphous endeavor to complete. If you do not pace yourself really well, it can sneak up on you in a terrifying way. I feel like I did pretty well with the pacing and still ended up having to write all four of my chapters in a six-month span in order to graduate when I wanted to. I wouldn’t recommend that!
  6. (Updated) You want to be broadly employable. Like I said, Doctorates prepare you to think about one thing very deeply. That isn’t always a selling point. Granted, some Doctorates will absolutely make you broadly employable and open up many doors for you, especially if you were able to acquire multiple technical skills in the process (programming, analytical chemistry, statistics, teaching, etc.). But other Doctorates are designed to make you highly employable for a narrower set of jobs. Consider making a list of the jobs you want as well as what skills you want to acquire, and then consider whether getting a Ph. D. will be the most efficient means of getting where you want to go.
  7. (Updated) You get queasy when your self-confidence wavers. I can promise you one thing: every Doctoral student has self-doubts about their research. Your committee and advisor will occasionally add a few more (even if accidentally), and your peers and teachers may as well. The “imposter syndrome” is real. If you have serious questions about whether or not your psyche can withstand a near-constant assault for five years, beware. Life is too short to be unhappy for that long! That said, enduring to the end of the Doctoral process might yield a newfound level of self-confidence. You might find courage and resolve and conviction you didn’t know you had.

So, how did I do? What did I miss? Is there anything you would disagree with? How many of the for/against points did you have, if you have gotten your Doctorate? Let me know what you think, and I will try to update this page as our collective conversation develops.