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Is A PhD Really Worth It? Or A Waste of Time?

Some may look back 5 years or even 10 years post-PhD and say it was definitely worth it. Others may be fresh out of graduate school and have a different view/opinion or may only feel frustration.

It may be defined by the job you ended up with (or ultimately want), the opportunities that your PhD led to, or how you define success. Others may say the PhD gave them more credibility, upwards mobility, and technical expertise needed for their job. Others may have pursued a different field apart from their PhD training and claim the PhD served a much different purpose (such as self-discovery).

The skills learned during a PhD are also invaluable in many ways, but the reality is that these transferable skills still don’t seem to be enough by themselves to land your first job in many cases (although very job and company dependent). But whether a PhD program ‘fully’ trains or prepares you for the job market or not, still doesn’t define its worth. The point is that a PhD-even if it doesn’t pay off now-certainly can (or will) later. But one very important point to make is this:

How you define the value of a PhD or if it was worth 5-7 years of your life (and time out of the workforce)-is entirely individualistic.

With that said, let’s go into this article-which is written by Michelle Capes, along with 2 other PhD’s who offer their perspective. Please keep an open mind as you read through the comments, as each PhD will have their own experiences which may be different from your own.

Is A PhD Really Worth It? – Michelle Capes

I am often asked whether my PhD was worth it. Would I do it again?

PhD programs are almost universally trial-by-fire experiences. When they’re completed, many new PhDs find out that they’re underprepared for finding jobs in anything but academia.

This should come as no surprise to any PhD. But the real question is what are you doing about it? With the flood of articles that are heightening awareness and pitching the idea of careers outside of academia as the norm, it all becomes diluted unless you actually put it into action.

As they begin their job hunt, they run up against the “overqualified, inexperienced” wall with a resounding thud. They are often turned away from entry-level positions in favor of bachelors and master’s level candidates, and become disillusioned about having earned their PhD at all.

I decided to ask couple of my colleagues about their thoughts on this question before weighing in with comments of my own. This article will give you three different answers and perspectives on the question “Is A PhD Worth It?” From there, you decide (it is very individualistic).

Debbie completed her PhD in 2012 and is currently on her second postdoc. Although she had funding for another year, she realized that complacency was not an option. She got a head start on her job search by participating in frequent networking events, serving on a committee to organize biotech events in the community, and building up leadership cred by acting as president of her university’s postdoctoral association.

She is no stranger to the frustrations of the job hunt, having weathered some truly frustrating situations: being told, for example, during an informational interview with an industry scientist that she should complete a third postdoc in order to broaden her skill set, and losing out as #2 on the short list after several exhausting interviews.

At the time of this writing, Debbie has accepted a position as Associate Medical Writer at a large contract research organization.

Debbie’s response to “Was your PhD worth it?” was this:

The answer is no longer the obvious ‘yes’ that it would have been in the past. With a tough job market and increasingly high [hiring] standards, having a PhD doesn’t seem to mean as much as it did in the past. However, there is more to the picture as well. Getting my PhD ensured that I was trained to think as a scientist. It altered my whole thought process for the better and that shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Debbie also spoke about her sense of accomplishment:

I kept working through some tough times and finished my degree. I’m proud of that. I eventually realized that the job market is going to be tough at any level – it is what it is. No matter what level you are at, what job you are trying to get, if you apply yourself to networking and distinguishing yourself from the herd, eventually you will earn yourself a good job.

I knew Holly while I was in graduate school, when she was completing a postdoc in a neighboring lab. After the postdoc, Holly became assistant scientist in a clinical research lab, then left for a position with a global leader in the medical device industry. Her pathway toward deciding to pursue a career outside of academia sounds (unsurprisingly) familiar.

Here’s Holly’s response:

Yes, my PhD was completely worth it, although for surprising reasons. Following my decision to pursue a career in the industry, I was unsure of what to expect since I had previously been pursuing an academic track. The decision was largely due to frustration with:

(1) the grant landscape 

(2) the lengthy amount of time to impact patient’s lives pursuing academic research (I was interested in bench-to-bedside science).

The benefit of having a PhD was realized as early as my interview. I had pursued a clinical research position and discovered that while PhD’s in the bench-science arena are very common, if not required, in clinical research, it is not necessarily expected. My PhD, along with some experience in clinical research, and the ability to communicate effectively, landed me the job.

The most surprising element of my training which has given me the best advantage? My post-doctoral years. These years have set me apart from other colleagues who have a PhD. Having 1 or more post-doctoral years has shown my ability to expand my knowledge into another area, and also the ability to manage my own research ideas and projects.

In my experience, research in the industry is not only about what you know – it’s also about project management and the ability to communicate across groups of people.”

Holly continues:

Another benefit of the PhD is the characterization that you are a learner.

‘Learner’ personalities love to expand and grow, which is encouraged in the industry. If [they are] going into industry, someone with a PhD should understand their value is not necessarily the knowledge they bring to the company (although that is important), but the characteristics that are needed to finish a PhD which include:

(1) persistence, (2) resilience, (3) idea generation, (4) project management, and, (5) dedication.

This list is not comprehensive, but gives a view into the dimensions [that] a PhD has to offer. Potential PhD students, current students and post-graduates should reflect on what their PhD experience will or has taught them, not just about the science, but the soft skills that help to set them apart – I wish it hadn’t taken me so long to figure it out; it might have paid off even sooner.

And I’m back (Michelle Capes).

For my part, I am very happy to have earned my PhD and I would do it again, although not for the original reason I had in mind when I began my program. Sure, I gained a lot of expertise in a niche area of science, and that was all very interesting. But I knew it wouldn’t sustain me for my entire professional career.

When I made the decision to leave academia, I had to capitalize on the other things I learned during grad school and my postdoc, beginning with marketing myself effectively during my job search.

I attained a position as a scientific recruiter precisely because I had a PhD. The agency prided itself on “scientists recruiting scientists,” and having that credential after my name lent credibility to their selling point. (In fact, when my first set of business cards arrived without my credentials, they were immediately re-ordered at the supervisor’s request.)

Now that I have launched my own business venture, I realize that the network I built during graduate school and my postdoc is priceless. I have numerous contacts, both in academia and industry, who know me well and are willing to vouch for my abilities, refer potential clients, and put me in touch with additional colleagues.

It was during the PhD program that I got my first experience doing many of the things that I now offer as services through my business, including grant writing and editing, writing articles, and mentoring. When I pitch these services to prospective clients, having a PhD imparts a high degree of clout. It’s also helpful to be able to point to the successful grant applications I prepared during grad school and my postdoc.

Let’s re-visit the original question: “Is a PhD Worth It?”

I’ve related three positive responses about the value of a PhD. However, a simple Google search will turn up a plethora of negative responses, along with doom-and-gloom articles relating the poor job prospects for PhDs.

If you’re asking this question and you already have your PhD, it probably means that you’re not planning to stay in academia. It likely also means that you’ve made the realization that your training didn’t include the part about looking for jobs, writing resumes, interviewing, etc.

You’re in good company: many other PhDs are waking up to the hard reality that there simply are not enough academic positions for the 64,000-odd PhDs awarded every year in the U.S. alone. Some would make the case that this imbalance is a good thing, because more students are given the chance to succeed and to benefit from one-on-one advice from professors during their education (Source: The Wire).

Regardless, the realization that too many PhDs were being cranked out for the number of tenured academic positions available set in as early as the 1990’s. Way back then, PhDs were forced to search for employment in other sectors, belatedly realizing that they were woefully unprepared to transition into such careers.

That the situation has not been remediated almost twenty-five years later is reprehensible, especially now that funding crunches are forcing not only new PhDs and postdocs into the non-academic career path, but also established professors.

I recently read an article on The New York Times titled “When Education Brings Depression.” The comments (which admittedly got off-topic) about the article ranged from personal experiences of depression in grad school to questioning the point of going through graduate school at all, with one reader (we’ll identify her as Suzanne) complaining, “If I had it to do over again, I would never have devoted all those years to a doctorate. Graduate school is definitely a total scam.”

To which “lxp19” replied the following (emphasis added):

It [grad school] is only a scam if you only went into it to get a job…if you went into it thinking it was the ticket to a job…or if you were misled by the department, who sold it as a ticket to a job. Education is about a lot more than getting a particular job. I agree that grad schools need to promote and prepare students for a broader spectrum of professional opportunities.

But learning to understand the world in more depth, to develop our own ideas in more depth is not a scam. But it may be an expensive proposition that does not quickly turn into a lucrative career.

One article I came across recently provides a colorful narrative explaining that the only PhD worth getting is in economics, and pointing out the drawbacks of pursuing a PhD in other fields.  The author suggests that those who pursue a PhD in the life sciences are either “suicidal fool[s]” or “incomprehensible sociopath[s].”

Further, he cautions, “if you are considering getting a lab science PhD, please immediately hit yourself in the face with a brick. Now you know what it’s like.”

However, the author brings up several caveats, among which was my major bugaboo with the article: “if enough people read and believe this blog post, it will cease to be true. There’s a piece of economics for you: as soon as people become aware that a thing is overvalued, they will start bidding up its price.” Every time there’s a mention of a shortage in X sector, you can be reasonably sure that there will be an excess in 10 years’ time.

(Side thought: You don’t get a PhD for money. If you are-it is for the wrong reasons)

A great example of this is the purported STEM shortage touted by the Obama administration. Though the debate continues to this day as to whether that shortage actually exists, one piece of evidence stands out to me. The National Institutes of Health recently trotted out a program to help new biomedical PhDs find alternative careers in the face of “unattractive” job prospects in the field.

Regardless of the situation across STEM fields as a whole, the situation at the top seems clear: there are too many biomedical PhDs. The overwhelming numbers of resumes that flood in for nearly every industry position posted further bolsters this conclusion.

As a recruiter, I was frequently contacted by PhDs wanting to apply for positions advertized for bachelor’s-level candidates.

The conversations would go something like this: Candidate X calls to inquire about a position with Y Biotech Company. “I’m familiar with that position,” I might say, “and it’s honestly too entry-level for someone with your credentials.” I say this based on the fact that I’ve spoken personally with the hiring manager for the position to see what points they might be flexible on. Hiring a PhD to do menial tasks is not one of them.

Candidate X protests, “but I’m willing to do any kind of [grunt work] and I’m okay with the [horrible] salary. I just want to get my foot in the door in industry.” There it is. Candidate X has told me a whole lot of things about him-/herself that are not conducive to getting a job at Y Biotech.

At this point in the conversation I’m already put off. And then it happens. Candidate X drops the bomb. “Would it help to leave the PhD off my resume?”

This question has sparked numerous, sometimes heated debates—one of which has been raging on LinkedIn since 2011, with almost 400 comments (see This seems like a no-brainer to me: it’s completely unethical. Starting a new position under false pretenses is never a good thing. And nobody—not even the PhDs themselves—really believes that a PhD will be happy with an entry-level industry position involving, say, calibrating lab equipment.

Employers are savvy to this strategy: candidate X will exploit valuable company resources and training to get the critical “1-2 years of industry experience” that every job description seems to require, and then pursue a better opportunity elsewhere. Trying to convince them otherwise simply will not work.

Let’s recap again. Despite my earlier positive reflections on whether getting a PhD is worthwhile, I believe (and I’m sure I’m not alone here) that there should be far, far fewer students entering PhD programs. The job market, be it in academia or industry, just can’t support such a top-heavy pool of candidates, and there are plenty of embittered, unemployed, or underemployed PhDs to prove it.

If you do decide to pursue a PhD, you should know exactly what you want to get out of it. Choose your advisor carefully: if yours is the old-school, 24/7/365 in-the-lab type of person, you will have very little opportunity to do anything other than lab work, let alone career development. When you finish, you’ll be well prepared to be a postdoc. If you decide to pursue a career outside of academia, you will have a very hard time.

Realize that you need MORE than just a PhD. You have to squeeze as many transferable/soft skills as you possibly can out of your degree program. THESE are the skills that will allow you to make a successful transition.

EDUCATE YOURSELF about other sectors and career paths where your skills apply.  A lot of PhDs I’ve spoken to have a very narrow view of career opportunities for PhDs in STEM. They are accustomed to doing research in academia, so the default answer for industry seems to be R&D Scientist.

There are so many more opportunities out there that capitalize on your PhD training! You are severely limiting your chances of finding a job if “R&D Scientist” is the only avenue you pursue. I highly recommend checking out Toby Freedman’s book, “Careers in Biotechnology and Drug Development” to investigate the diverse career paths that are available.

Make a list of possible careers, and write down the value proposition you bring to each one. What I mean is this: just about anyone can do a Western blot or run a PCR. But do you have the sort of dynamism it takes to head up a lab, lead a project, or be effective in a customer-facing role? Did you organize seminars or conferences? Serve in a leadership role? Manage the lab? Mentor people?

Believe me: if you are up against 30 other PhD-level molecular biologists, there have to be extra qualities that differentiate you­ from the herd.

 “Was your PhD worth it?”

If you’re asking yourself this question, here’s my advice: It doesn’t matter. You got your PhD. Be proud of your accomplishment and move on: a defeatist attitude will not get you a job. Remember that YOU get to create the lens that potential employers view you through, and that starts with crafting a positive narrative to explain who you are and what you want to achieve.

Further Reading

goingtodophd        phdisnotenough        youngscientistadvice

The culture of non-responsibility must be changed

Point of view: How postdocs benefit from building a union

Hit the Ground Running: Life After Academia (The PostDocWay) 

PhD as a training of the mind

Why won’t anyone respect me for the years of work I’ve done (instead of getting ‘work experience’) and give me a job?

Enough doom and gloom Part 3: Standing upon the great infrastructure of science

About the Author:

Michelle Capes earned her Ph.D. in Physiology in 2010 and was an AHA-funded postdoctoral fellow until 2013, when she transitioned into a private sector role as a scientific recruiter. As such, she has a unique perspective on the challenges facing academicians looking to transition into industry–both from the side of the job hunter, and as a recruiter trying to match candidates’ skill sets with available industry positions. Michelle has now ventured out on her own to found Adeptify, the brain-child of her dual passions for career advice and freelance writing