Are PhDs worth it?

You can use any definition of “worth it” you like, and you can comment on any type of PhD.
Basically, don’t ask me for clarification, just make assumptions.

It’s not a question that can be fairly answered unless you first query, ‘‘A Ph.D in what?’’ And how do you define worth? Some people really like money, other people really like learning.

If you’re in it for the money… Ph.Ds are definitely not the magic ticket to riches that many people regard them as, but there are some fields (such as clinical psychology) where you pretty much have to get one if you expect to get competetive opportunities and pay. Many universities don’t even offer an MS in Psychology. Neither is a Ph.D gauranteed job security… according to a book on graduate education (Getting What You Came For) if you have a Ph.D in math or science, you have an 8% chance of getting tenure.

And then there are fields like, oh let’s say, social work. In social work the Masters is considered a terminal/professional degree and Ph.Ds, while not unheard of, are rare. I highly doubt a Ph.D in Social Work has a tremendous impact on your salary anyway… we are notoriously underpaid.

But I never expected to make ungodly sums of money as a result of becoming more highly educated. I’d be quite happy at $44k a year (the current average salary for graduates from my particular school.) Right now I’m doing just fine on $36k, and am enjoying a higher standard of living than ever before. The only thing I’d maybe like some more of is money for retirement, and even the slightest salary increase can affect that.

If I decide to get a Ph.D in Social Work (which does look increasingly more likely), it will be because of the nature and diversity of the work I would be able to do, the ability to more easily assume leadership roles and work on macro issues, and of course the opportunity to do intensive research on specific areas of interest. The faculty at my future grad school, all of which have Ph.Ds in Social Work, seem to be living some kind of dream life where they get continuous direct experience helping actual people, they get to do research and community-oriented activities, and on top of that, they teach. A busy life, no doubt, but a totally fun one, the best of both worlds, the concrete and the academic. I don’t think I could ever be happy with just one or the other.

My field doesn’t apply to any other one, though. Which is sort of my point.

I think it depends on the field and what you plan to do. Both of my really good friends from undergrad got their Ph.ds. One did it in English literature, the other went to medical school and emerged with a Ph.d. instead of an M.D. (it’s a specific program at a very prestigious school). Both of them shared the same frustrations in terms of the process, but the second one is buffered by the fact that she can always go work in pharmaceuticals (she’s not at that point yet, just started her post-doc at another ivy). My friend with the doctorate in english lit just got 2 on-campus interviews at the last minute but has been looking for work for the last 2 years. Next year is the last year on her post-doc, so I hope something comes through for her.

I think in terms of job prospects, the Ph.d road is really really rough if your goal is academia. This seems to be the case even when the economy is good.

That 8% figure for tenure in the math and sciences seems very low unless you’re only considering tenure at big research universities or some similar restriction.

To get to the OP, the question is simply impossible to answer. You have to ask whether a PhD in a specific discipline from a specific institution is worth it to you, given your career goals and situation. I’m young, I have a little bit of money saved up from working, and there are many jobs in both academia and industry in my field, so a PhD is worth it to me (especially if it’s from one of the top programs in the field).

For other people, that equation is going to work out differently. If you’re looking at a PhD in the humanities, there’s a very good case to be made for not going at all unless you can get into a top program with full funding, and even then it is not a decision to be made lightly.

I know Ph.D.s who left six figure jobs to get their doctorate, now work as a professor for a fraction of their former salary, and other than conceding they sometimes miss the money they feel it’s the best thing they ever did because it allowed them to study and then immerse themselves in the subject they love. I know Ph.D.s whose main income is from hourly wage retail jobs stocking shelves and working cash registers (and adjuncting when they can) to pay their whopper student loans. So it depends waaaaaaay too much on the individual, the subject, the job market, what you’re hoping to accomplish with it, etc…

In the humanities I generally I consider going for a Ph.D. kind of like becoming an actor: do it only if you can’t not do it, if nothing else appeals at all, and if the thoughts of being broke all your life don’t terrify you. Some people really are so passionate about medieval literature or World War I that it’s worth it, some are content to be ‘buffs’.

I have to agree with the idea that it depends on your goals and field. I’m working on a PhD in Computer Science. If my goal was to maximize my earning potential, then a PhD could actually hurt that for a lot of jobs because most Computer Science majors end up in programming jobs and in most cases a BS will serve just fine, and in virtually all cases an MS will program just as well. In fact, I’ve heard stories about CS majors with PhDs who actually leave it off their resumé because it will make it easier to get some jobs.

For me, while I’m good at programming, I much more enjoy the parts of Computer Science that are only really covered in advanced degrees because I don’t want to just be a code jockey all day. While an MS degree could open some doors in that direction, a PhD will definitely make research type positions available to me that an MS alone will not.

Of course, I can’t really say whether it’s worth it for me until I’m actually done, but if it makes the job that I’m looking for possible then it absolutely will be. But in general, I think for a lot of people that are considering graduate degrees, chances are that it’s probably not worth it because it doesn’t have as much of a correlation to pay (and, like some have indicated, possibly even a negative one) that lower degrees have.

You can go get a PhD in math and go work for a hedge fund or something. Or get a PhD in economics and go work in a consulting firm. Those jobs can pay very very well.

Presumably your PhD in social work provides other intangible benefits.
Advanced degrees are means to an end. I don’t know why so many people go into college and beyond and waste all that time and money without a clear idea of what kind of work they want to do once they graduate.

Basically PhDs tell the world “this guy knows his freakin shit” about whatever subject you studied. Whether someone wants to pay you for that shit is another story.

I thought I could get away with no clarifications. :slight_smile:

Field: Computational Biology or computer science, or something like that

“Worth it”: having a happy life of learning and discovering new things. optimally, things that have a dramatic positive impact on human lives (such as the cure for a disease). if money were in the picture, I wouldn’t even be asking.

I have a masters in computer science. I orginally planned on getting a doctorate, but bailed after two years in grad school.

It depends what your goals are. If you’re just interested in working in industry then a doctorate is probably overkill. I specialized in computer graphics and spending the extra years to get my doctorate would not have made me any more qualified for 99% of the jobs out there.

However, if you’re interested in becoming a professor or doing original fundamental research then a doctorate is the route to go.

Really, what kinds of jobs are you looking to do? You’re not being particularly clear about what you’re really passionate about. If you want to do research, then chances are a PhD is worth it for having a happy life and discovering new things. If you’re not interested in that, and possibly even if you are, you may be better off with an MS. I know plenty of people that work in research that have both either degree, so it really more depends on what field. Like Pochacco said, if you’re into a field like graphics, chances are it’s not worth it just because the doors it will open for you are limited. For Computational Biology, while I’m not terribly well versed in it, I suspect that a PhD would open comparatively more doors and may be more likely to be worthwhile.

I had originally thought this was more of just an exercise. Really, if you’re considering getting a PhD, think about what you want to do and talk to a professor in that field that you can trust. The “is it worth it?” question is way too dependent on other factors to answer without a fair amount of clarification.

Absolutely, for me. I enjoyed college, and I got to stay in college another couple years. I only took classes I was interested in, I got paid a pittance, but that was more than I had ever earned before, so I felt like I had lots of money. I had a good time during my whole graduate education.

Even just financially, compared with leaving and getting a job earlier, it was probably at least a wash over the long run, with somewhat higher pay making up for fewer years working.

On preview, I see you broke down and clarified, but my answer still stands. If you enjoy being in college, what’s the rush to leave?

I have a PhD in physics. I currently work in the defense industry and I could not hold my current position without some sort of science PhD. In the jobs I’ve had, it’s not the details of my studies that are important, it’s the fact that the science PhD indicates I can solve research problems. In terms of salary, a PhD is about the same as bachelor-level engineering degree plus 5-some years of experience, but the PhD means I get promotions and raises faster.

I can’t say that the PhD made getting a job any easier, but the companies who want a PhD are willing to pay for it, in my experiences. One important thing to remember–because a PhD is a rather specialized, be prepared to move to a job, rather than expect to get a job near your location.

Plus, when people get snippety, I can tell them to address me as “Dr”. :smiley:

As Pleonast has said, a Ph.D. is an indication that you know how to do original research, and the persistence to carry it through to completion.

A lot of the jobs I’ve done could be handled by someone with a Master’s degree plus experience, and I’ve heard it said that you’ll never recoup the money you lose in pursuing the doctorate (especially if it takes you longer than average), but it definitely has a psychological boost to it. I know that I always wanted to get mine, and would’ve been terribly disappointed if I hadn’t.
It’s also been an advantage to me – I know of at least one door that was wedged open by my having that degree, and there are two positions I’ve held that probably would not have had without it.

I’ve gone back and forth about heading to school to get my Ph.D. in Government/History/Poli-Sci Partly because I like learning (and liked college), but mostly because having a Ph.D. would give me good options for collegiate teaching.

It’s unlikely that I’ll ever teach as a career, but frankly, just an M.A. and years of relevant professional experience buy you bupkus when it comes to collegiate teaching. Maybe an adjunct job if you’re lucky, but more likely, you’ll be stuck at a degree-mill community college teaching Boredom 101. That holds little appeal for me, but alas, that’s the way the world seems to work, so if I ever want to get a good teaching job at a good school even as a side gig, I need a Ph.D. (or, conversely, about 20+ more years of experience and a lot more luck).


additional clarification:

I already got a masters in comp sci a few years ago.

I worked in industry for a few years as a software developer, but although I made good money, I found work to not be satisfying from the sense of “am I making the most of my life?”

My wife is a university professor (law) and has a Ph.D; it helps in getting a decent teaching position, and adds to the financial pot that the school is willing to offer. On the minus side, we’ll be paying off her student loans until we’re both very, very old.


That’s a very important factor. I was paid to get my PhD, first as a teaching assistant and then as a research assistant. Having to pay to get a PhD makes it much harder to justify on a simple costs-benefits consideration.

Honestly, I think you might be better off figuring out how to get that sense of “making the most of my life” before you spend all that money on additional schooling. It might help to try a couple different jobs and then go back for a PhD