Is a Ph.D. Worth It?

phd worth it

Key Takeaways

  • A Ph.D. is essential for a career in academia but comes with significant time and financial investment.
  • Ph.D. graduates must be prepared for a competitive academic job market or pivot to non-academic roles.
  • Pursuing a Ph.D. should align with a deep interest in research and a clear understanding of potential career paths.

    The Prestige and Purpose of a Ph.D.

    The Doctor of Philosophy degree or Ph.D. is a terminal degree awarded by universities. Candidates earn the postgraduate degree after completion of rigorous coursework and original research.

    Note that the term “philosophy” isn’t about philosophy as a field of study. Instead, it’s about “philosophia”, the Greek word meaning “love of wisdom.” For this reason, Ph.D. candidates and holders should show their love for knowledge and wisdom.

    Universities in Bologna and Paris granted the first doctoral degrees. Granted, in the early 13th century, these were in medicine, law, and theology. Over the centuries, doctoral degrees spread throughout Europe and expanded in their coverage.

    Featured Programs

    By the late 19th century, Yale and Harvard pioneered the doctoral degrees we know today. Nowadays, Ph.D. programs emphasize specialized knowledge and original research through a dissertation.

    In the 21st century, the foremost Ph.D. degree value is in the advancement of knowledge and innovation. Both Ph.D. candidates and holders conduct original research in their fields of study. When Ph.D. programs say “original research,” it means a dissertation should:

    • Make a new or novel contribution to the current body of knowledge
    • Be an independent work of the Ph.D. candidate or holder
    • Follow acceptable and appropriate research methodologies
    • Show a critical engagement with current theories and literature
    • Pass peer review and dissemination

    For this reason, original research can:

    • Add new theories, insights, and information to the existing body of knowledge
    • Provide answers to current questions, issues, and concerns
    • Explore new areas of interest or emerging subtopics in current fields of study
    • Address gaps in the body of knowledge

    Original research has been and continues to be used in innovations across diverse industries. Advances in AI, quantum computing, mRNA vaccines, and precision agriculture are recent examples.

    Indeed, the comforts of modern life we enjoy today are the product of original research. Ph.D. candidates and holders are instrumental in their research and development.

    About recognition diverse industries recognize the value of Ph.D. degrees. Ph.D. holders are authoritative experts and mentors in their fields. Their research contributions and professional opinions gain respect among their communities. But they also know that their works are subject to scrutiny and criticism.

    Their prestige isn’t only because of their advanced technical knowledge and skills. Ph.D. holders have transferable skills that strengthen their leadership capacity. Their rigorous training encouraged intellectual independence, creativity, and the confidence to challenge orthodoxy.

    Among universities, a Ph.D. is a prerequisite for tenured faculty positions. Tenured professors teach undergraduate and graduate courses. Their job also involved conducting original research and supervising student research.

    Ph.D. holders are also employed outside of academia. Popular workplaces are think tanks, R&D-centric industries, and government. Suffice it to say that a Ph.D. gives its holders more freedom to explore their career options.

    But the prestige and purpose don’t come without a price. If you’re interested in it, you must prepare yourself for the rigorous challenges ahead.

    Diverse Paths: The Spectrum of Ph.D. Disciplines

    Most fields of study known to man have Ph.D. programs that interested individuals can enroll in.

    In the sciences, popular Ph.D. programs are in the:

    • Natural sciences – Physics, chemistry, geology, and biology
    • Life sciences – Immunology, neuroscience, biotechnology, and agronomy
    • Mathematics
    • Computer science – Machine learning, AI, and data science

    Ph.D. degrees in the arts and humanities include:

    • English and Comparative Literature
    • History
    • Art history
    • Musicology

    The social sciences are also popular areas of study, including:

    • Psychology with research on its branches like industrial-organizational psychology
    • Political science, where PhD students research political theory, politics, and public policy
    • Sociology, including research on social behavior and stratification
    • Economics with research on niches like labor and health economics

    Many Ph.D. programs cover the professional fields, too, including:

    • Engineering
    • Education
    • Social work
    • Public health

    Note that Ph.D. degrees aren’t the only doctoral degrees offered in colleges and universities. A quick look at their similarities and differences.

     Ph.D. DegreesProfessional Doctoral Degrees
    ExamplesPh.D. in Biology and Ph.D in EducationDoctor of Education (Ed.D.), Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.), and Doctor of Business Administration (D.B.A.)  
    PurposeAdvance knowledge through original research Emphasis on original and independent researchEmphasis on applied research and practical applications of basic research Solve real-world issues in their profession and society
    Curriculum and StructureCompletion of a dissertation More emphasis on research knowledge and skills than on didactic courseworkCompletion of a capstone project that provides a solution for a real-world issue More emphasis on practical knowledge and skills Hands-on learning experiences through case studies, consulting projects, and internships
    FieldsWide range of disciplines, including humanities and STEM fieldsWide range of disciplines, including humanities and STEM fields
    Career PathsAcademia and research-oriented occupationsMostly outside of academia in applied roles and advanced practice

    Both Ph.D. and professional doctorates have their merits. But, the differences in their purpose, curriculum, and career paths cater to different needs. You must consider whether these aspects align with your interests and goals.

    Weighing the Pros and Cons of a Ph.D. Journey

    Pros

    • Advanced knowledge and skills

    If you believe that your current master’s degree-level knowledge and skills aren’t enough, go for it. A Ph.D. can result in recognition of your expertise in your field.

    • Enhanced access to career advancement opportunities

    Your Ph.D. is a competitive edge in applications for tenure-track faculty positions and research-oriented occupations. Plus, it’s recognized in and out of academia.

    • Increased earning potential

    Ph.D. holders earn $2,109 in median weekly wages. This is $372 per week higher than for master’s degree holders. Ph.D. holders can also enjoy more job stability and security.

    Cons

    • Significant time and energy commitment

    Earning a Ph.D. takes 4-7 years. Your personal and professional lives will suffer, too.

    • Significant financial investment

    The numbers are sobering. The average cost of a Ph.D. is $81,900, and PhD students can incur $80,590 in student loans, on average.

    • Narrow focus

    A Ph.D. degree can limit your career opportunities, too, because of its specialized focus. Plus, being seen as overqualified is a risk.

    The Ph.D. Career Landscape: Academia and Beyond

    The beauty of doctoral degree careers is in their wide variety. In a knowledge-based economy, there’s a premium placed on Ph.D. holders and their contributions. Universities and governments recognize that a highly qualified workforce is a must for socioeconomic growth.

    Thus, Ph.D. candidates and holders can look forward to a strong job market. Colleges and universities are popular workplaces with many employment opportunities. Many Ph.D. holders start as adjunct professors but can advance to tenure track with work experience,

    Ph.D. holders also find well-paying jobs as fellows in research institutions and think tanks. Check out the RAND Corporation, American Enterprise Institute, and Pew Research Center.

    On another note, you’re probably wondering, “Is an online Ph.D. worth it in comparison with an on-campus Ph.D.?” Yes, it is. Academia and industries recognize online and on-campus Ph.D. degrees from accredited universities.

    What if you don’t want to work in academia and research institutions? You will find that your postgraduate research degree has versatile applications. Look for employment in these sectors:

    • International organizations (UN and WHO)
    • National security agencies (CIA and FBI)
    • Pharmaceutical industry
    • Corporate and scientific communications
    • Government policy and advising
    • Business, finance, and insurance research
    • Nonprofit management
    • Consulting and entrepreneurship

    More importantly, you must leverage your transferable skills and adapt your research skills to non-academic roles. By being adaptable, your Ph.D. will have premium value in whatever career you choose.

    Measuring the Value of a Ph.D.: Is It Right For You?

    Earning a Ph.D. isn’t for the faint of heart and wallet. But it’s still a popular degree in the United States despite the challenges. The open secret is in getting into it with your eyes wide open.

    • Assess your interests. Do you have a genuine interest in original research? Do your interests align with the Ph.D. program? Do you have the drive to achieve your goals?
    • Identify your career goals. Do the positions you’re interested in require a Ph.D.? How will a Ph.D. impact your career goals? Are you more interested in basic or applied research?
    • Determine your financial capacity. Do you have the necessary financial resources and support? Does the Ph.D. program offer financial aid options you’re qualified for?
    • Calculate your ROI. Does it cover the cost of your Ph.D. within an acceptable time frame? 
    • Consider the non-academic and academic market. Do the present and projected job market for Ph.D. holders provide reasonable expectations for viable employment? 

    If your answers are mostly “yes,” then a Ph.D. may be right for you.