Is a PhD Worth It? The Pros and Cons of Getting a Doctorate

University students in a group hug during graduation day

Entering the job market for the first time can be a stressful experience, especially if you don't feel completely prepared. When deciding how to take those first steps toward your ultimate career, and how to give yourself a chance at the best jobs, you may find yourself asking, 'Should I do a PhD?'.

While academics looking forward to a life of learning may consider this a no-brainer, there are important factors for everyone to consider. Finances, job prospects and quality of life issues can greatly affect the success of furthering your education.

To help you decide if the time and effort of a PhD is worth it, here are the major pros and cons of getting that doctorate.

The Pros

After four or more years of intellectual pursuits, adding a PhD may seem like overkill. Before you make your choice, let's look at all the benefits that are exclusive to earning the most advanced degree.

1. You Can Contribute New Knowledge to the World

Embarking on a PhD programme means delving into your preferred subject in a much deeper way than you have in any of your previous studies. The beauty of this advanced degree is that it allows you to sail in uncharted waters. Your goal is to find new information, draw new conclusions and, hopefully, make a significant contribution to your field.

Your intensive research, travel, collaboration and study will lead you on an unpredictable path to telling a story that no one has heard before. For some students, this pursuit of knowledge and discovery is enough to make all the hard work of earning a PhD worth it.

2. You'll Have Access to More Prestigious Jobs

One of the key benefits of a PhD is that it opens doors to careers at the highest levels. This can include leadership positions in science and engineering, government roles in economics and political science, and prestigious teaching posts for English and arts majors. Even if an advanced degree isn't required for the job you want, that PhD can give you an extra air of authority in your field and an edge over other candidates.

Another obvious upside to continuing your postgraduate studies is that landing these powerful positions can lead to large financial rewards. Some areas of study like medicine and the law tend to be more lucrative, but it can also depend on the type of job. For example, a university professor or researcher post can pay well for a wide variety of disciplines. Check out sites like the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the National Careers Service to investigate potential salaries.

3. Employers Look for Candidates with Your Superior Writing Skills

A study arranged by the National Commission on Writing discovered that blue-chip businesses (long-standing companies with stable stock growth) are spending more than $3 billion a year on remedial writing course for current employees. This includes staff with undergraduate degrees.

So, when a hiring manager peruses your CV and sees that you've earned a PhD, they'll know immediately that you've spent years honing your skills at compiling research, organising mountains of data and writing about your results in a cohesive and persuasive way. This will clearly set you apart from your competition, while landing your dream job will prove that pursuing that advanced degree was worth it.

4. You'll Improve on all Your Soft Skills

While pursuing your undergraduate degree, you likely noticed that you were learning more than just the subject matter taught in each class. Completing your studies also required time management skills, focus and problem solving.

Getting a doctorate requires even more of the soft skills that employers look for in applicants. Your intensive study and finished thesis should lead to improvements in your problem solving, critical thinking, patience and adaptability. These desirable skills won't just help you land a job but also excel in whatever career you choose to pursue.

5. You'll Collect an Extensive Network of Professional Colleagues

When weighing the pros and cons of earning a PhD, consider all the professional contacts you'll make during the course of your studies. Working closely with professors, department heads, experts in your field as well as fellow researchers helps you develop an important resource. This network of colleagues can provide continual assistance with references, job leads, career advice and collaboration.

6. You Can Wait for a More Favourable Job Market

Job prospects may not look that promising when you've completed your undergraduate degree, or even after you've been in the workforce for a few years. While there's no guarantee things will improve after a delay, some students may appreciate the benefit of a steady graduate assistant salary while they work on enhancing their CV with a doctorate.

If you couldn't get a good internship during or after your undergrad studies, the PhD work also gives you the time to build that professional network. These contacts could prove to be the key to breaking into a specialised or highly competitive field.

The Cons

You may still be thinking about all that time and commitment and wondering, 'Is a PhD worth it?'. While there are always positive results from improving your education, there are some downsides to getting your doctorate.

1. It's Expensive

This is a substantial factor for many students when weighing the merits of pursuing a PhD versus entering the job market right away. If you already have student loans, continuing your education will just increase your burden and add substantial pressure when you eventually begin your job search.

If cost is a concern, investigate graduate assistant jobs that help with expenses. Some programmes offer tuition assistance in return for teaching or research work. For those who already work full time and are hoping a PhD will help them advance in their career, consider keeping that job and pursuing your studies on a part-time basis.

2. Getting a PhD Can Be a Lonely Experience

Despite your interactions with professors and other students, pursuing a doctoral degree is ultimately a solitary pursuit. Your thesis topic is unique to you, and you'll spend a lot of time alone doing research and writing. Your social life can suffer, especially if you're also working in addition to your studies.

Career experts often talk about the necessity of work-life balance for physical and mental health, and this is just as important for PhD students as anyone else. It may take you a little longer to complete your degree, but it's worth taking the time to visit family and hang out with your friends. These positive interactions can help you stay motivated through the most tedious parts of your work.

3. You'll Experience Extreme Stress and Frustration

Pursuing a PhD may seem like a noble and interesting endeavour, and extended life as a student can appear more attractive than wading into the job market. You must be aware, however, that getting a doctorate can be a very stressful and frustrating experience.

A topic that seemed intriguing at first may not live up to years of scrutiny, causing boredom at best or requiring a complete thesis change at worst. Not all programmes are well-run, either, and you may have a supervisor who is too critical, offers poor advice or is just unavailable and unhelpful.

The difficulties of a PhD programme lead to rather substantial dropout rates. In the US alone, only 57% of PhD students obtained their degree within a decade after enrolling. If you want to be in the successful half of those stats, take extra time to review your choice of supervisor and topic focus. Ask every professor you have for advice on making the right decisions and talk with current graduate students to see what their experience has been.

4. There May Be Limited Job Openings

While getting a PhD can qualify you for better and higher-paying jobs, it can also put you in a position where you're competing for an extremely limited number of job openings. This is especially true of university jobs, where the number of advanced degree graduates far outpaces the need for full-time instructors, researchers and administrators.

Earning your PhD with a very obscure thesis in a niche speciality can also limit your options. When there are only a handful of jobs that suit your expertise, and they're already occupied, it can make you feel that your doctorate was a waste of time. Consider the job market before you make decisions about getting another degree. If you're determined to study in a niche area, think ahead of time about related fields or industries where your knowledge and skills will also prove useful to employers.

5. There May Be Little to No Financial Reward

While most studies concur that having a PhD increases your income potential substantially over the lifetime of your career, it's not a guarantee of job security or a financial windfall. A study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that 5 years after earning their doctorates, 45% of grads in Germany were still on temporary contracts and 13% ended up in lowly occupations.

Other European countries, including Slovakia, Belgium and Spain, had similar results. In the US, in fields like engineering, the difference in pay scales between employees with a master's degree and a PhD was a mere 7%. When that small bump in salary is weighed against the amount of debt taken on in order to get your degree, you may decide it's not worth it.

6. You Could Lose Out on Valuable Job Experience

New forms of technology continue to change how organisations operate, and those changes can happen fast. If you've already spent several years in school, toiling away in solitary study of obscure subjects can cause you to fall further behind in learning the skills you'll actually need for a future career.

Before you invest in getting a PhD, research your chosen field and learn which type of degree will give you the most value. Many scientific, financial and computing careers rely more on skills acquired on the job, rather than in coursework that can quickly become outdated.

Pursuing your PhD requires an incredible amount of commitment, and it's important to consider all the pros and cons before you take on that challenge. Research your chosen field carefully and evaluate the job market to help inform your decision.

Have you decided to pursue your PhD, or are you still considering your options? Join us in the comments below and let us know which pros and cons are the most crucial to you.