Should I do a PhD?Feb 16, 2023
If you listen to every pundit out there, you’ll hear the loud voices all say that you shouldn’t do a PhD. You don’t need it. It’s not worth it.
Is that true?
First, the numbers.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the more education you have the higher your salary is.
Additionally, those with more education tend to have lower unemployment. Those with a doctorate have an unemployment rate of 1.5%, while those with a bachelors are at 3%. This is a significant change.
The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports that roughly 70% of graduating PhDs are working or continuing in research, while 30% are seeking employment. That means on graduation day, 70% of PhDs know what they’re doing next.
Yes, 30% is still a high ‘unemployment’ rate, but this is at the time of graduation. Many PhDs figure out their next move in the next 6 months, not 6 years.
Yeah, but what about non STEM fields? How do PhDs in those fields fare?
The National Science Foundation surveys graduating PhDs each year and reports that about 72% of STEM graduates are employed at graduation while the Arts and Humanities are around 60%. This means STEM majors are slightly more employable than their Arts and Humanities counterparts. This is an advantage, but not the huge drop off your well meaning Uncle would lead you to believe.
But, what are my options with a PhD?
Now that you know PhDs typically make more money and have lower unemployment, you might be thinking “yeah, but am I going to be doing a job I hate?” or “Am I going to be stuck in academia?”.
The answer to both is: it’s whatever you decide to do.
I think this is the crux of the issue. When people get an MD degree, they typically know what they’ll do.
The PhD is much broader and can be applied in a variety of ways. From being a medical writer, or data scientist to policy legislator. The options are limitless when you have your PhD.
But, you have to be willing to seek out opportunities and use your PhD to your advantage. Amazing roles are not going to fall in your lap.
Will my PhD program be a torture chamber?
When considering where you want to spend the next 4-6 years, you should absolutely consider how you will succeed as a whole human being. It is no surprise that mental health issues plague PhD programs, just as they do in medicine.
Nature reports that many PhDs suffer from loneliness and feelings of depression, which were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The sometimes high-pressure environment can create anxiety in PhDs, and should not be ignored. Every research group and team is different, and you should critically evaluate what environment you are signing up for.
These 2 recent PhD graduates share their experience with mental health throughout the PhD, and show that many students experience highs and lows. One student, Elvis, was featured on Forbes 30 under 30, and has started a company with his thesis work. The other student, Zach, reports that his work was featured on CNN and he continues to advocate for mental health within academia.
But, should I do it?
No one can tell you exactly how your PhD will impact your life. There may be amazing unforeseen outcomes (like creating a patent, or advising policy to the president) or there may be terrible lows (like depression or restarting your failed project for the 4th time). You ultimately must decide if this investment in your time and energy is worth it. You’ll still be 35 years old no matter what, but do you want Dr. in front of your name?
A few questions to help you decide:
- Do I need a PhD to do what I want?
- Will my financial future be better with a PhD?
- Do I have the mental stamina to complete a rigorous program for 4 years?
- Am I pursuing this degree for other people than myself?
- Would I rather try and possibly fail, or sit on the sidelines?
- Where do I see myself in 10 years with my PhD? Without it?
These should spur thought and lead you to your answer.
Remember, there is no “right” answer. Many people live their whole lives without getting a PhD (in fact only 3% of the US population has a PhD), and yet many of us can’t stand to not go after a challenge.
Decide and do. Staying in indecision is keeping you from creating a truly fulfilling life. Now go make it happen.