I don’t know about you, but when I see the letters “PhD” after someone’s name, I feel a slight pang of jealousy. I opted to stop at a master’s degree, but my parents would have been so proud had I continued with a doctorate. However, I realize that parental pride should not be the sole motivator. Deciding to get a PhD should be a decision you really ponder before moving forward. The time commitment, financial burden and other considerations should be taken into account. Ask yourself the following questions if you are considering applying to PhD programs.
- Why do I want a PhD? Sure, the feeling of accomplishment upon finishing a doctorate would be unmatched, and your parents will be proud, but these are pretty flimsy reasons to pursue a higher education. Are your interests so specialized that a master’s won’t cut it? Is there a branch of research you cannot wait to explore? Is there a burning question you are trying to answer on your topic of choice? Are you so passionate about a topic that you cannot imagine stopping your education at just a bachelor’s or master’s degree?
- Do I really need a PhD? Consider your future plans and whether a PhD will help you attain your goals. For example, if you are going into academia, college professors generally need a PhD. However, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 2% of the labor force have a PhD so you can probably get your dream job without one.
- Do I want to spend the time? Getting a doctorate will take 5 years at a minimum, and as long as 7 or even more for some people. It’s hard work with a grueling schedule of coursework, research and teaching.
- Can I afford it? Most PhD programs offer full funding of tuition plus a living stipend for the duration, so the out of pocket expenses are usually minimal. However, if you think about the salary you could be making if you got a ‘real’ job as opposed to staying in school for another 5-7 years, the math can get a bit more complex.
- How will it affect my career progression? You should compare what your career trajectory will look like if you start working full time now, vs. if you start working in 5-7 years. If you don’t require a PhD, it may be more of a set-back than a help. However, if you plan to do research for a living, it may be very difficult to get a job without a doctorate.
Once you have gone through the above questions and feel that you have solid answers for each, your next step should be to talk to people with and without PhDs at various points in their careers. Use your LinkedIn network and college career alumni databases, friends and family. If you have access to a current PhD student or two, they can also give you the story on what being a PhD student is really like.
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