So you have a PhD.... was it worth it?

The title sums it up well. Would you do it again and did you find it worthwhile? Did you accomplish your desired career (professor, etc) without too much difficulty? And, now that you have a job with a PhD, what are the ups and downs and do you wish you had chosen a different path? For context, I’m a scientist considering this road. Thanks.

I headed to grad school with an MS (in mech. engineering) in mind, studying IC engines. As the end approached, my advisor asked me if I had any plan about graduating or any job lined up. When I said no, he invited me to stay for a Ph.D.

I wasn’t in any particular hurry to become an adult and join the real world, so I decided to stick around for the doctorate. Seriously, that’s about as deeply as I thought about it. School was paradise as far as I was concerned - live a half-mile from the lab, bike in in shorts/T-shirt/sandals - and the real world, with suits/ties and half-hour commutes seemed nauseating to me.

It worked pretty good: I deferred adulthood for another four years or so. Now that I’m out in the real world, I’ve been working in the same guvmint lab for almost 11 years. In the long run I don’t think the degree matters that much for what I’m doing here; colleagues with MS and BS degrees are just as respected, as long as they can do the work (designing/building/test novel engine/drivetrain concepts and related hardware). But I think the guys with BS degrees got their foot in the door by becoming interns here to begin with; that gave them some field experience and some demonstration that they were capable, i.e. it was a bit of a trial period for both employer and employee. In my group, I’m not sure we’ve hired any BS guys straight out of school without work experience.

Whether you go for the PhD or not, I would not suggest pursuing a long-term career in academia unless you are seriously, seriously motivated. Think even harder about it if you have a wife/kids. I’ve seen profs work berry, berry hard to achieve tenure, and even non-profs (my wife is a research scientist at a Big Ten school) work berry, berry hard to find funding. When money is tight people can get pretty back-stabby when it comes to taking credit for work, and you can also end up working with people who have inflated egos and unpleasant professional rivalries.

I have a PhD in the sociology of religion, but ended up not pursuing a career in academia (couldn’t find a tenure-track job). Have been working as a writer and editor for the last 20 years. Currently – for the last year and a half – freelancing while I look for a FT job.

Was the PhD “worth” it? I have no regrets about it – I got to spend five years thinking about some incredibly interesting stuff – but am not sure I would have gone that route if I’d really thought about it before going to grad school. (At the time – I was in my early 20s – the question people asked me wasn’t "do you want to go to grad school, " but “where do you want to go to grad school.”)

If you want to do any sort of research, it does open doors. I think the Ph.D. was essential to getting my articles on mythology and my book published, even though my Ph.D. was in Physics, not Classical Studies or Anthropology. With my Ph.D. I was able to get into the Widener Library Reading Room.

I’ve also been a Visiting Professor and a Visiting Scientist at two institutions, and I;m not sure I could have or would have been able to do that without the added weight of that doctoral degree.

So in my case, I think it did make a difference in what I could do.

PhD in English, currently in my third year as full-time faculty (and second year on the tenure track). I’d say it was definitely worth it, and would have been worth it even if I hadn’t gotten a job out of it, because grad school was a blast. I can’t think of a better way to spend my twenties than reading lots of Shakespeare and thinking about it and hanging out with interesting people who also like to read and think and teaching classes and scraping together enough money out of my stipend to go traveling in the summer. What’s not to love?

Now, whether academia is worth it as a career is another question – I mean, I do love what I do, but it took me three years of nonstop stress, exhaustion, and financial anxiety to find a fairly low-paying job in a remote rural area. I like (most of) my students and my colleagues, and I believe in the institution’s mission, but I’m starting to get incredibly depressed at the thought of spending the next thirty-odd years of my life in this town. And I’m one of the lucky ones, since I do have a job, and I had a decent enough financial package to get through grad school without debt.

I’d say it’s worth it if you love what you study so much that you would welcome the chance to immerse yourself in the subject for five to ten years even if you knew in advance that you were never going to get a job in that field, and if you have funding. If only one of those things is the case, you should probably do something else instead.

I’m not finished yet, but I can really relate to Joe Frickin Friday’s post. I get to have 3 more years of paid studying!! (this might be different in different countries, but here in the Netherlands I get a salary, have an (shared) office and am considered a part of faculty). In the two years I’ve been at it, I think I have developed a lot of my academic skills and don’t feel I’m lagging behind my friends that work proper jobs (in terms of pay, living arragements etc.) except that I have a lot more freedom and can fill in my own hours. I’ve also disovered I really like to teach.

There is nothing like having a PhD in Physics for scaring off horrible bores at parties!

Not at the parties I go to.

I need to crash those parties…


I watch this thread with great interest. I’m an MSW student who has been encouraged by my professors to apply to the Ph.D. program in social welfare. I figure professors of social welfare pretty much have my dream job – they get to do research (yay!), write papers (yay!) and teach (moderate yay!). On top of that, they play some pretty significant leadership roles in the development of community programs and social policy. And they freakin’ write BOOKS! It seems like the job plays to my strengths and my passions.

Despite how wonderful that sounds, I hear that it’s getting harder than ever to find academic jobs, and they don’t pay well. At my current university there is no doubt that politics are HUGE in determining success. The way the department is run is rather incestuous, meaning they give strong preference to people already affiliated with the university. (In my case, that’s an advantage.) I hate playing games, but a mentor of mine (who is now a Ph.D. herself) pointed out that playing politics at work is a part of life, no matter where you go. And to be honest, I’m pretty good at making allies and figuring out what people want from me. And as far as the ‘‘low pay,’’ well, that’s relative isn’t it? It’s probably going to be more than I’d make with an MSW.

So, this is a serious question, but it might sound stupid: For really prestigious universities, is the effect of job competition and low wages at all mitigated? Does it really matter if I have a Ph.D from a mid-level state university vs. top tier school, or is that just something they trick you into believing?

I ask because my university is very well-respected, and I’m wondering if the risk of pursuing a Ph.D. is somewhat mitigated by that fact.

Damn. Missed the edit window.

I wanted to add another factor to my decision:

I LOVE my current university, love the department, love the faculty. I could easily spend the next 5-6 years there kissing everyone’s ass. It’s easy ingratiating yourself to people you genuinely respect.

Virtually all my friends are Ph.D.s or Ph.D. candidates. I notice a clear split between the people who feel it was worth it (a few of them) and the majority, who feel that it was very interesting but ultimately too much work for the payoff.

The ones who are unhappy went straight through school, never taking time off to develop any kind of real career before going for their doctorate. They studied what they found interesting, but often found that the ultimate career choices for them were disappointing. Most have chosen not to pursue academia because success in that field requires one to be a workaholic and to play a very ornate political game. And they tend to find that the careers they are interested in do not require a Ph.D. They could have gotten a 2 year Masters and been qualified, instead of getting a 7 year Ph.D. And most of them are flat broke.

The ones who are happy went out after college and established themselves in a career they were interested in. Then, when they found out a Ph.D. was required to advance in the field, they went back to school. These folks are happy largely because they knew from Day One what their goal was. They had a plan. They got through school faster (4 years) and usually had a job lined up at the end through their contacts. Some of them got help paying for school from their job, which they kept and integrated with their education. These friends are also financially better off in the end.

All of them agree: do it with a clear goal in mind that is more than a theory about what you think you might like to do with your life. Get practical experience first that makes you confident you are working toward something.

Fascinating comment. I, too, am working outside my area of qualification, and it is worrying me a bit, but your comments are most reassuring. I have an engineering, computing and education background, and am a non-fiction author with one novel published as well. I have been given a doctoral scholarship in the English Program of a university - as a science writer. It’s a creative doctorate, in that part of the thesis is the manuscript of a book. At the age of 58, I could not be having more fun. But the surprising thing is the impact of a different discipline on my direction.

I was looking at natural history, and other aspects of science, and how it is encoded in oral tradition. I have ended up heading into mythology, anthropology and archaeology. My thesis topic has now changed completely, as has the topic of my next book(s).

The access to resources, and to people beyond the university, skyrocketed because I am linked to a university postgrad program. The freedom to play with ideas, and the time to do so, is too precious for words. I am very glad, however, that I am doing this as a mature age student, because I am drawing on so much of my previous experience, especially in teaching. As for the actual degree and career path - I would like to stay in academia as long as age permits. Constant debate with people who think quite differently to me is polishing my ideas in a way I could never do alone or just with friends.

PhD in computer science, and it absolutely was worth it. First, I had a wonderful time in grad school. (Except for when I was actually writing my dissertation.) Second, I decided not to teach when I realized that I would have to teach stupid people also, so I went to Bell Labs, where I was one of the club. I’ve been doing short range research ever since, in lots of different areas, and except for the year I was on the project from hell it has been a blast. I would have been very frustrated if I hadn’t gotten one.

My oldest daughter is in a PhD program now, and has been having a wonderful time also.

This is basically my experience as well. You absolutely should have a clear idea of what you want for your future and know that a PhD is required. Talk to people in the field to find out what types of jobs require a PhD (it varies dramatically from field to field; by field, I mean “molecular biology” not “science” or even “biology”). Happiness and satisfaction with the degree doesn’t always require taking time off between undergrad and grad school, but it does give you more insight into yourself and the working world if you don’t rush into grad school.

For me, the degree was worth it. I have a PhD in microbiology (molecular micro, specifically). It was difficult and I have definitely thought that other options could have worked out just as well or better. But, in the end, I really enjoy the academic/research life and a PhD is required for the jobs I’m interested in.

I think this varies greatly by discipline, but I went to Harvard for my doctorate. It’s very clear to all of us, unless you are the second coming of Lawrence Summers, there is no way in hell that Harvard would ever hire one of its graduates as a tenure-track professor. In education, at least, incestuous hiring is frowned upon. Harvard grads do often end up at Harvard, but that’s after they’ve earned tenure elsewhere.

There is a great mistrust of people who have come up in one institution and not been exposed to research, administration, institutional culture elsewhere. At least this is true in education.

Where you earn your degree matters because of the social networks you have access to. In my specialty, the big name schools are Michigan and UCLA. While Harvard is Harvard, Columbia is Columbia, and so forth, the big state schools have the research institutes that are well-known. I go to conferences and while there is a little bit of a Harvard mafia, the UCLA and Michigan posses are HUGE. And they all know each other, or at least know of each other.

I suppose I would say it matters how prestige is generated in your field. I was blissfully ignorant of job prospects when I started my doctorate, and I’m somewhat glad of that. If that was my focus, I might not have done it.

I wanted to be a “doctor,” hold a terminal degree in my field. The job part came later.

Most fun I’ve had while wearing socks.
The job search–lasting about four years after getting the doctorate was no fun–but just learning lots of fascinating stuff, plus learning that I was good at it? A total blast.

I’m working on a PhD in a branch of humanities, and I’m not having a blast. The work load can be crushing. The political stuff between students/faculty/school is no fun. You don’t generally get to do work that you’re interested in because you’re so slammed with your class and teaching loads. I’m often not sure whether I want to finish it at all.

My wife is in a similar boat.

It’s not all a bed of roses.

That said, I’ve got a good job right now as a lecturer at a university and I haven’t finished my PhD yet. I’m really lucky.

The general principle is that you are unlikely to get an academic position at an institution of higher prestige than the one you got your PhD from. You’ll be considered at peer institutions if you’re lucky. The institution you get your PhD from is usually the institution *least *likely to hire you for your first job. If your spouse will also have a PhD, it will be extremely difficult to find academic positions for both of you in the same place.

If you’d be going into it only interested in an academic job (not consulting or non-profit or government) look very carefully at the annual number of graduates and annual number of entry-level hires in your field.

I’m at Penn. I don’t have my heart set on teaching at Penn or anything, I just want to get my degree there (however, Penn hires Penn graduates up the wazoo.) Their Ph.D. program is a winner in my eyes for a number of reasons, one of which is how heavily they emphasize interdisciplinary research. Also, as stated before, I love the faculty, they know me and are comfortable with me and vice-versa. I could pick out two or three professors I’d be thrilled to do research with and I’ve only been here one semester. MSWs are admitted into the Penn Ph.D. program all the time, and potential scholars are rather aggressively recruited.

I believe this. I did my undergrad at Michigan and it’s well-known that they have an aversion to admitting Michigan undergrads to their graduate programs, and hiring Michigan grads as professors.

This, I think, hits on why it is so damned difficult to make informed career choices in academia. Every field is different, and apparently so is every school. One challenge in my particular program is that they aren’t really great at offering career advice. I have emailed them regarding their Ph.D. program and still haven’t heard a response. My logical next step would be to grab some current Ph.D. students and current professors and pick their brains.

And I mean, this again may sound like a stupid question, but do you think that the fact you got your Ph.D. at Harvard worked heavily in your favor? Did you look for work for a shorter period of time, do you make more money, simply for the name on your diploma? Or do you think the importance of that is overblown?

The MSW is the terminal degree in my field, and most social workers, when I tell them I want the Ph.D., wrinkle their noses and say, ‘Well, that’s only useful if you want to teach or do research or something.’’

So, I do want to teach. And do research. And write long-winded papers about the minutiae of social welfare. When I’m sitting in a classroom or reading some textbook or research article or something, I’m happy as a clam. I want to make a difference, but I want to do it by sitting in a musty old library and theorizing the hell out of things. Is that so wrong?