To Ph.D. or not to Ph.D.

There are three main levels of academic degrees you can get in college. The first level is the bachelors degree. The name comes from the 13th century when junior members of guilds or universities were referred to as bachelors. It originated from “knight bachelors”, who were young or poor knights who could not gather their own vassals. The bachelors degree is kind of like the “you must be this tall” sign on roller coaster rides. It’s a basic requirement for most jobs, and it’s often sufficient.

The next level is the Master’s degree. The name originates from a variety of old words (Latin: magister, Old English: maegester, Spanish: maestro, etc) that reflect authority and in academics one who have the authority to teach at a university. The Master’s degrees gives you a little more knowledge in a specific area. Most professionals end up getting a Master’s degree at some point because it usually qualifies them for a pay raise, and often times the company will pay for the tuition.

The last level is the Doctorate of Philosophy or Ph.D. This is the highest academic degree you can obtain. (Note I’m not discussing specialized degrees like JDs or MDs). Interestingly, the Ph.D. as we know it, meaning requiring a research component, was first introduced in Germany in the 19th century. It was very successful and attracted many foreign students, especially from the U.S.

So, the point of this post is to discuss the pros and cons of pursuing that final degree, the Ph.D. When students, usually undegraduates, ask me about graduate school and going for a Ph.D., I always start with a warning. A Ph.D. is a double edged sword. It qualifies you for some specific kind of jobs related to research and development, but disqualifies you for a whole lot of other jobs. If I put this on a number line with all possible jobs from 1-10 with 1 being entry level, then a Bachelors and Master’s would give you access to 1-7 or 8 while a Ph.D. would give you access to 9-10 but deny you access to 1-8. The latter is not because you don’t have the skills for an entry level position, but because you are over-qualified and a company would not be able to pay you a proper salary in an entry level position. Even if you say you’re fine with less pay, the company would worry that you’re secretly unhappy and would quickly find a new position and leave. Getting a Ph.D. is also a long and often times arduous process. The typical Ph.D. takes 5+ years to finish and can take 10 years in some fields. Ph.D. students are also not paid very well. They tend to live just above the poverty line, and in some places they would technically qualify for welfare. So for the degree, you are giving up 5-10 years of a good salary if you had gotten a job with your bachelors or masters degree.

The other downside is a Ph.D.’s job usually doesn’t end at 5 pm. Most Ph.D.’s are hired into R&D or managerial positions where there are many tasks to do themselves or to oversee. The inevitable truth is it takes more than the standard 40 hours a week to get all the work done. So you will be taking work home with you, that’s almost a guarantee. For example, I often put in 10-20 hours a week outside of the office, either working on classes or research.

So what’s the upside of a Ph.D. then? Because there are a lot of downsides. The one single upside is you get to do research and hopefully interesting research. I know that doesn’t seem like much of an upside, but it works for some people. For all the years in school and long hours, your compensation is more work, oddly enough. Some may say this makes us crazy people who work only to do more work. I like to think of it as we find what we do fulfilling enough that the downsides do not seem that important.

Now admittedly I do wish I had more free time to do other things like play games, read for fun, and spend with my family. But I don’t mind reading for work or thinking about research when I’m sitting on the couch. I find it interesting if not exactly enjoyable. So I do not recommend a Ph.D. for most people. A “normal” person has hobbies outside of the job and would rather spend their time at their hobbies. But if you thinking a life of research and scholarship may be right for you, go talk to a Ph.D. I would strongly recommend doing some research at the undergraduate level when the risk is minimal to you. Undergraduate research gives you a chance to see what you would be spending 5+ years doing for the Ph.D., and an inkling into what your career may be like. Now in truth, there is a lot more to a Ph.D.’s job than just research. There’s also a lot of people management, time managements, budget management, and sometimes coming up with ideas for funding. The first three are not specific to a Ph.D. job and can be found in any upper managerial position. The last is less common, and usually difficult to teach. But I’ll leave that for another time.


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