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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 http://ow.ly/CkDPq). 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

Comments

  1. Great article, Michelle. I wanted to add that I do know someone who actually did leave his PhD off of his resume to get hired at a scientific company. Eight years later, he is still employed with that company, though his secret has come out. Would I call the ruse a success? His boss actually told him that he would never have been hired had people known about his degree. But, the company leadership has recently changed and no one is looking to kick him out now. Still, my opinion is that he is doing menial work that is well below his qualifications. Having failed to mention his PhD, he has also stuck himself into a pay grade corner. Yet, if he chose to quit his job now, he could use those eight years of industry experience as a great qualifier to land a better job just about anywhere.

    • Michelle Capes says:

      David: thank you very much for your comments. I have seen people come out of the very same degree program with extremely different skill sets based on what they did/didn’t do during graduate school. For example: networking at seminars, conferences, professional events, etc., as opposed to spending 16 (loudly bemoaned) hours per day in the lab. You can probably guess which student was known by everyone in the department AND most of the biotech community when he graduated! Everyone’s path IS unique, and the trick, as you mention, is to figure out how to make it work. The post-PhD learning curve can be very steep, but there are numerous resources available if one puts the effort into looking for them!

      Halina: Thank you for that feedback and the very interesting story! I do know that the “PhD? What PhD???” strategy has worked for some people and backfired for others. The ethics of the question really strike a chord with me, as I mentioned. But you also hit the nail on the head: even though your colleague now has a stable position, he has most likely painted himself into a corner as far as salary and career advancement are concerned. As you point out, he does have 8 extremely valuable years of industry experience. BUT: those 8 years were acquired at a lower skill level than what would be required for positions he’d likely to search for in the future (i.e., commensurate with the his degree AND experience). Don’t get me wrong: I’m sure that your colleague will not have any great difficulty should he decide to transition to a new company. But a very legitimate question for a new prospective employer to ask would be why he (no offense intended!) worked in a role that was “beneath him,” for example, an Associate Scientist I, rather than AS III or Senior Scientist: was he an inferior candidate for some reason? This would be very sticky for your colleague to answer because admitting to having lied about credentials (OK, omitted–WHATEVER!) is an immediate red flag.

      Thanks again for the comments!

      Best,
      Michelle

  2. This is an excellent article and has very good insights. I like the three differing stories. I completely agree that it is hard to measure the worth of a PhD and it is very individualistic and subjective. Therefore, one PhD might say it was worth it for them. The other one might say it wasn’t. Then there are those who are in-between and left with a
    Masters. Everyone’s path is unique and there is no right or wrong answer! Find what works for you. Cheers mate!

  3. Thank you for all the comments everyone! As I tried to outline in the intro of this article, getting a PhD is very individualistic and measuring its worth is very subjective. What may be right for one person-is wrong for another. So I came up with 12 different examples to illustrate this point:

    1) The Intellectual: See a PhD as being worth it for expanding one’s mind, knowledge of a field, and becoming an expert in a particular field.

    2) The Job-Lander: View a PhD as being worth it based on whether or not they could land a ‘good’ job and the type of job that they wanted (field based, industry based, location based, etc.).

    3) The Time-Saver: View a PhD as being worth it based on how long it took them to graduate, or how long it took to get into the workforce or end up with the job they ultimately wanted.

    4) The Money-Maker: Will only measure a PhD based on how much it led to in terms of a salary boost in the future (compared to non PhD holders like bachelor or master’s level). May also negatively view a PhD since it can take 5-7 years to get and this is time you will lose out on a real salary.

    5) The Impassioned: Strongly feel a PhD is worth it no matter what due to a love or passion for a particular field like science and being able to pursue it. A PhD in the academic environment gives you the freedom to pursue free-thought.

    6) The Self-Discoverer: Views a PhD as valuable since it led to something else or further validated that it was the right choice. Meaning, if someone got a PhD in science but went into a totally different field like being a financial analyst-they will claim the transferable skills acquired during a PhD also played a large role. OR a PhD will be viewed negatively since they discovered it wasn’t for them, or they didn’t have a strong interest towards the field they originally wanted to pursue and had to make a change. This can also tie into the reasons listed above since it can cost time and money during the self-discovery process.

    7) The Complacent: Don’t really care either way. They will often quote: “Well I didn’t have anything better to do other than get a PhD. And I don’t really know what else I would be doing.” They may also (most likely) will not care what happens after as well. It’s still a win-win.

    8) The Academic: Need a PhD to be a professor. Need to do a post-doc to become a Professor. Need a PhD to do a post-doc. Therefore, a PhD is necessary.

    9) The Opportunist: View a PhD as positive since it can lead to new opportunities. This could be credibility within a company and with customers, being viewed as the technical expert, or getting job promotions (i.e. senior scientist)-since the glass ceiling is raised or lifted. The opportunity could also lie with transitioning into a different field.

    10) The Industrialist: Doesn’t care about academia and this may have been apparent from Day 1, mid-PhD, or towards the end of the PhD. They only care about going into a field like industry and the worth of a PhD will depend on the hindrance or success of landing a job in this area. See #2.

    11) The Cynic: Will view a PhD as negative no matter what despite any of the ten reasons above.

    12) The Economist: Will justify a PhD based on tax-payer dollars and/or time spent training an individual and whether the NIH funding that was given to someone (i.e. in a STEM program) led to that individual staying in the original field they were trained in. Anything outside of this is viewed as a “waste”.

    The point here is to not view it in a negative light as a PhD can be a very positive thing. So if you have a PhD, there should be no regrets and the only direction that you should be moving is forward.

  4. Hi Michelle,

    I really enjoyed your article, because you provide such a good overview of the considerations that graduate students need to think about before getting a PhD. I especially enjoyed the stories and the different career paths you discussed. I think that it is important for PhD students and postdocs to consider as many alternative career paths as possible to make the best use of their talents and interests.

  5. Hey David, it’s nice not to post comments that are not in line with your view eh? There are some parts in the world where people experienced this kind of behavior which we here call censorship. Enjoy being worthless PhD because you have no clue what is it all going about 🙂

  6. Christina says:

    I appreciate the ongoing discussion about the value of earning a PhD, but feel there are critical issues which the majority of these discussions consistently overlook. That is defining the high personal cost of earning a PhD and doing a postdoc. In my area and many others, the postdoc salary is one third to one half that of median income, offers no unemployment protection, no retirement assistance, nor full health insurance. Combine this with the ever increasing number of years spent doing the average postdoc, and you have an entire generation of individuals facing the decision to sacrifice their opportunity to start a family or sacrifice the careers they love and spent years training for. This is a huge problem that will have a lasting impact on the health and competitiveness of our society, and warrants significantly more attention than is currently included in today’s discussions.

    • Michelle Capes says:

      Thank you for the comment, Christina. I agree that this certainly merits wider discussion, and it’s disgraceful that the situation has not yet been remedied.

  7. jaded postdoc says:

    Having gotten my PhD recently, I have to say that there aren’t any academic jobs. 1 Interview in the last year. Dozens of rejections. I’ve experienced a lot of the abuses mentioned in this article too. http://www.oneplusonemagazine.com/you-are-not-a-commodity-on-how-academics-and-other-labourers-should-stand-up-to-capitalist-abuses/

  8. bharat bhushan sharma says:

    WOnderful conclusion : “…….. 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. “

  9. michael cooper says:

    Interesting stuff. I am 69. ‘Took” my PhD from McGill in 1974. Had crap jobs in 3 companies and then became a ‘lab rat’ at a Canadian sub of a US company. Surprised my employers and myself as to how good I was at…when confronted with a problem…I broke it down, and found a solution. Started mixing with finance/sales/marketing/HR folks. Their issues also were able to be addressed using logic. I was kidded some by often saying ‘I’ll sleep on that’ and that there were little men and women somewhere in my head that would do the work whilst I slept. Over time I got to understand business. Did not do an MBA. Just observed and thought. Listened. Over time I got to manage people who were very good in their ‘fields’. What they may have missed and I did not, was that some folks like their own expertise. They become real good in their ‘box’. Rarely jump into another ‘box’ and see what ticks. I am fortunate that many people I worked with became friends….and we meet for brunch and such. Guess who has to pick the time and place? Love them all. I ended as the MD/President/Chairman of the company. Yes…a PhD is worth the 70 hour weeks…lots of beer…chasing women. I propose that it takes a few years to ‘get it’. One tries to be humble because few can explain to those who have not done it….that it was fun…with crap money.

    • Michelle Frank says:

      Thank you for the comment, Michael! Your experience is very interesting, especially since it demonstrates that being adaptable and open-minded helped you recognize a niche that you are uniquely qualified to fill. Thanks again for sharing your perspective!

  10. Hi Michelle! Your article touches on a personal passion of mine… having grown up surrounded by brilliant yet “under-appreciated” highly educated people, I am very empathetic with the plight of the PhD-Supermarket-Nightshift worker. There is certainly a lot of gloom and doom, and far too few rockstar success stories in Academia today! The question to me is not why (I mean, why not!), but rather what can I do about it? I explore this in a really simple way in my (free) eBook From Scholar to Dollar.

  11. very interesting and touching article and comments. I got my masters in physiology 4 years ago has been teaching since then and confused what to do next….Phd or some other thing else? a great input for my decision.

  12. your article is great, you give a humurous review for the students who wants pursue PhD, as a PhD scholar i wish i have been advised by somebody, as i didn’t receive the things for which i pursued PhD. But i must appreciate your work, i wish i do the same.

  13. Committing to a PhD is not a decision to take halfheartedly! I have just submitted my thesis and am awaiting my viva and my God it’s been a hell of a journey! I’ve summarised the top 5 reasons for and against doing a PhD based on my experience here- http://lifeasabutterfly.com/phd-5-reasons/ Great post by the way-very helpful for anyone just starting out!

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