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Should I get a PhD?

Updated on July 22, 2013

After getting a college degree in the university, people may consider to pursue a higher academic degree, which is Doctor of Philosophy (PhD). This postgraduate study is done mainly by research in a highly specialized topic in a particular academic field, supported by relevant higher-level coursework. If you like to delve deeper into a particular area, you may want to consider getting into a PhD program. However, we should know what we are getting ourselves into and think twice before committing ourselves for few years (4-6 years). People may have their own reason of taking up a PhD and some of them are listed below. The pros and cons of each reasons are elaborated on each point:

  1. I want to get a job with higher salary
    According to Nature journal, the average salary for PhD holders are not far compared to non-PhD, unless you are in Asia (1). However, before considering the salary we may need to consider the job availability of PhD holders. Obtaining a PhD degree will give you an edge in academics and relevant industries, but it may give you some disadvantages in other industries for being overqualified. Why would employer bother to hire and pay you higher premium if they can find a degree holder willing to work with standard salary? In fact, graduate study will make you highly specialized in one field and this may restrict the path to other industries. Therefore, unless you want to commit yourself to either academics or relevant industries, taking up PhD degree does not give you much competitive edge as compared to degree holders.
  2. I want to become a Professor
    You may be the brightest mind that work for the advancement of humanity with your innovations and ideas. You may be the best student in your undergraduate, first class honours, summa cum laude, etc. However, let's get this straight: the competition in academics is extremely intense and unless you are confident of your brilliance, getting a job in academics may be challenging. Take a look at the proportion of PhD student to the professor in most laboratories. In Asia and America, they are likely to be about 10 to 1 in average. This means that out of the 10 people, 9 will be squeezed out of competition before you can rise up to become a professor. Well, that's if your professor retires from his or her job and hence gives the position to the young people. Chances are professors don't retire; they simply retain their position as emeritus professor. Another possibility is that some professors did not get their tenure and quit their positions to create job vacancies for you. Well, only the brightest of the brightest mind will survive the natural selection in the academics. So, if you are ready to jump to the wilderness and strive to survive, I wish you all the best.
  3. I love school! I want to defer getting a job by staying in school
    Get yourself out of the academics cave and get a life out there. Don't be afraid to face the real world since sooner or later you will have to face it. If this is your reason, please consider twice before committing yourself to graduate school. Unlike normal jobs, you are expected to finish your graduate school. If you don't like your job, you can quit. But if you don't like your PhD study, you may find yourself in a difficult position to quit.
  4. My professor says that I'm very smart and I should do a PhD
    Congratulations for the compliment. There are two possibilities though. The first possibility is that he/she really means it and hopes that you can join the next generation of professors. This is the task that every professor should do: look at the potential of their students and advise them on their career choice. The second possibility is that they need more low-paid labours to do research. In some university, the PhD student will be paid by the respective departments and hence the professors are able to get completely free and highly-motivated labours. Sounds too good to be true for them? Hence, don't be deceived and flattered with your professors' compliments. Only we ourselves know the potential, skill, and interest that we possess. Don't make others' opinions to be our primary reason to take a PhD.
  5. I want to set myself apart from the crowd of degree holders
    This is true in the last few decades. However, recently there is a surge of PhD graduates and therefore taking a PhD may not distinguish you as much as it is before. The world is producing more and more PhD every year and it keeps growing especially in the developing countries (1). We know the theory of supply and demand; with more demand, the purchasing power of PhD graduates will decline. In addition, academics and the relevant industries for PhD have not grown as fast as the output growth of PhD graduates. Hence, they need to find jobs in other industries, but the current PhD curriculum does not include professional development necessary to prepare them for the job market (2). This leads to many employers complaining that many PhD graduates are unequipped for jobs apart from being in academics. PhDs are excellent in technical skills but lacking in soft skills. In the decade to come, PhDs will be more common and you'll be buried in the crowd. we may need something else to set ourselves apart from the crowd.
  6. I love learning
    One common misconception: if you love learning, you will do well in graduate school. Doing research during your PhD study is not just about learning. Learning is just one side of the coin, and the other side is about creating knowledge. We need learning skills to understand the current state of knowledge that we are researching on. After that, we need creativity and analytical skills to solve the scientific problems. Sometimes, we need to think out of the box to bring forth new knowledge on the topic of interest. People who are good at learning may or may not be good in creating new knowledge. Good learners may be better suited to be educator, trainer, or in other industries.
  7. I need to buy time
    This is another common reason especially if you get a scholarship with decent stipend. People utilize this chance to get them another 4-6 years to think of their career options or vocations before entering the job market. Some others go to graduate school because the current job market is tight and there are not much job openings at the time of their graduation. The option of taking up a PhD will give them some precious time although they don't really like research.
  8. I want to contribute to society
    If you want to contribute to the society, there are many better things that you can do. Contributing scientific knowledge to the pool of knowledge is one thing. However, doing research takes plenty of time and the results may not be manifested for use in our lifetime (if ever at all). Hence, it may not satisfy your longing for contributing to the society.
  9. I want prestige
    Some people take a PhD because they want to be addressed as Dr. X instead of the more ubiquitous Mr. X. However, without the necessary skills, knowledge, and interests, they may realize that they are just getting themselves into lion's den. If they fail their PhD, they will be the joke of the whole town and their pride will be shattered to pieces.
  10. I love science!
    What is the extent of your love to science? Do you think of science everyday? Do you bring science to your dream at night? Do you spend more time for science than for your family and even for yourself? Yes? Combine that with your 1500 grams of brain and you reserve yourself a faculty position. Look at the successful professor and you will find that not only they like to do science, but it is also their inspiration and obsession. That's why they readily sacrifice most of their time including the weekends to do science (note that it can also be due to performance pressure from the university or the research institute). If you are ready to spend so much time for doing science for the sake of science itself, you are welcome to the club. If not, you can imagine that the reward that you get for the effort that you put is not proportional. Hence, the love of science is quite a determining factor for taking a PhD. Liking science may not be enough. You need to be completely and continuously infatuated. If you do, taking PhD is the first stepping-stone for your dream.

Do you find yourself doubting on taking PhD after reading? Think one more time and if you still can't make up your mind then you'd rather forget about taking a PhD. One can analogize PhD for marriage: it requires commitment. If you commit yourself for taking a PhD, you will find your career options after graduation more limited (mainly in academics and relevant industries).

There are many reasons why people choose to enter the graduate school. The bottom line is clear: the good reason for getting a PhD is because you truly love research and science. Otherwise, the amount of time and effort that you need to invest is not proportional to the reward that you will get. The true reward of doing science is doing science itself. When you love doing it, you wouldn't mind if you need to spend extra time and energy, as your reward and joy is derived from doing science itself.

My hope is that the points presented above are neutral and neither encourage nor discourage people to take PhD. I tried my best to present the real picture of PhD life and prospect. Do you often find that PhD become a joke either in comics or movie? It is not because PhD itself is a joke, but because many people have half-baked decision on taking PhD and they end up making a joke on PhD for entertainment purpose. So, the ultimate answer of whether you should take a PhD depends on you. Good luck!

(1) The PhD Factory. Nature 472, 276-279 (2011) | doi:10.1038/472276a
(2) Broadening PhD curricula. Nature Biotechnology 30, 113–114 (2012) doi:10.1038/nbt.2091


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