Tackling a PhD is a major commitment that should only be made for the right reasons. Various psychological, financial, and career impacts need to be considered, as must what the alternatives to PhD study have to offer. To help you navigate this complex terrain, this article brings together the main pros and cons you’ll want to weigh up before throwing yourself into 3 – 4 years of doctoral research.
You’ll get the chance to expand humanity’s bank of knowledge
Imagining PhD research might conjure a begoggled scientist giddily shouting “eureka” in the glow of a groundbreaking discovery. This is obviously a romanticised image. Yet the thrill of discovery really does elevate even the most run-of-the-mill PhD journey. You’re unlikely to create a theory of everything or win a Nobel Prize on the back of your doctoral research, but contributing novel insight to your field isn’t merely on the cards, it’s expected. And once you’ve contributed this knowledge, the next time you hear someone say, “you know what they’re saying now?”, you can revel in knowing that you’re among the rarefied “they” being referred to.
You’ll get to work in an intellectually enriching environment
Studying for a PhD will bring you into contact with people at the bleeding-edge of knowledge creation. Aside from receiving one-to-one mentoring from your supervisor, you’ll also regularly interact with other PhD students, attend seminars where the latest findings and theories are scrutinised, and participate in academic conferences with leading thinkers in your field. These experiences will broaden your intellectual horizons and supply continual food for thought. They’ll also provide a wealth of networking opportunities that, if seized, will pay personal and professional dividends for years to come.
You’ll develop hard and soft transferable skills
You can’t get a PhD without developing lots of useful skills along the way. Your ability to manage your time, solve problems, communicate effectively, and work independently will necessarily expand. If you get the chance to supervise student projects or run tutorials, you’ll hone leadership skills around mentoring, teaching, and motivating others.
You’ll also cultivate technical skills valued in the workplace. Depending on your project and field, these can range from qualitative data analysis to computer programming. Whatever the specifics, you’ll leave your programme able to critically analyse complex information to form independent conclusions. This high-level skill is not only valued by employers; it should serve you well in all facets of life.
Funded opportunities mean that you’ll no longer accrue debt while learning
The prospect of further postponing employment to embark on three or more years of postgraduate study might seem a little crazy when you’ve already amassed a small fortune of student debt. If so, you’ll be pleased to know that multiple streams of funding are available to cover tuition and living costs for PhD students. For example, most university departments will offer a limited number of fully-funded PhD studentships each year, studentships that can be found via the CareersinHE.com jobs portal. These are either attached to predefined projects or open to prospective students submitting their own research proposals. Certain charities also offer grants for PhD students that can cover all or part of tuition and living expenses. All sources of funding are competitive, but if successful, poverty needn’t prevent you from pursuing a PhD.
Delaying your entry into the job market means forgoing valuable work experience
Even with a fully-funded studentship in place, there are opportunity costs to dedicating three or more years to PhD study. Due to their highly specialised nature, PhDs in many fields, including maths and social sciences, offer no earnings premium over a master’s degree. Across all sectors, this earning premium averages out at just 3%. Considering that 3 – 4 years of industry experience is enough to begin ascending the ladder of most careers, the financial benefit of having a PhD outside of a research-focused career is dubious. Therefore, if you’re unsure you want to pursue a research career long-term, entering the world of work now may mean faster career progression and higher earnings in the long run.
Competition for scarce research jobs can be fierce
If your heart is set on a research career, you should know that having a PhD is only the first step on a long and often unsuccessful journey to landing a permanent research position. Unfortunately for ambitious PhD students, universities churn out many more doctors of philosophy each year than they recruit permanent members of research staff. To put this into perspective, only 3.5% of PhD graduates in STEM subjects ever land a permanent academic research position, while just 17% obtain a research job outside of academia (industry, government etc.). This means that around 4 in 5 STEM PhDs end up in non-research careers. Of course, not everyone who does a PhD goes on to pursue a research career. But those who do must fight over a limited number of permanent contracts.
PhD study can be a lonely experience
Though you will interact with professors and students, PhDs are, in the end, solitary endeavours. Much of your time will be spent in independent study, and you may only meet with your supervisor(s) every couple of weeks. Moreover, because your thesis topic must be original, you will rapidly become the world expert in your very specific niche. No one will have as much insight into your research as you do. While support should be available, this means that you must ultimately be the one responsible for solving problems, dealing with setbacks, and steering the direction of your thesis.
Inevitable setbacks will put your grit and determination to the test
The road to getting a PhD is invariably bumpy. Don’t be surprised if it also involves some forced diversions, the occasional U-turn, or running out of fuel altogether. You could have the most elegant theory in the world, but if your data doesn’t come out the way you expect, you might find yourself back at the drawing board with little to show for months of work. Trialling many wrong answers before finally finding a promising lead is part of the deal, but that doesn’t make it any less demoralising each time you’re forced to relinquish a good idea. A certain robustness to failure is needed if you’re to persevere through the long periods of stagnation that precede most breakthroughs. Fortunately, the difficulties you surmount along the way are precisely what make these breakthroughs so satisfying.
Deciding whether to do a PhD isn’t easy. Whether or not it is the right choice for you will largely come down to what motivates you, what you prioritise, and how you respond to setbacks. If you’re looking to accelerate your career, boost your earning potential, and work within a structured environment, a PhD may fail to deliver. If instead you’re driven by a passion for discovery, relish the thought of directing your own project, and feel confident you can weather disappointments and setbacks, a PhD offers a chance to test yourself and gift new knowledge to the world while prising open a limited, but coveted, set of doors.
There may not be a pot of gold waiting for you at the end of your PhD, but you’ll collect a pot’s worth of gold along the way.