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Is it worth doing a PhD? This is a question that probably plagues every research student at some point in their career.
The decision to pursue a PhD after getting your Master’s degree is a difficult one. A PhD is a huge undertaking emotionally, mentally and financially. It takes 3-4 years to complete, during which you are on a pretty basic stipend (OK, you’re poor).
You also need the ability to continually motivate yourself through the times when your experiments are not working (most of the time). Oh, and you might not see as much of your friends and family as you would like, especially when you’re writing up your thesis.
People pursue PhDs for a variety of reasons: some know from the start that they want to run labs at a university, some feel pressured to go for the top degree in their field, some see it as a natural progression after receiving their Master’s, and some continue on in academia because they just don’t know what to do next.
For all, it is a highly personal decision, but one that shouldn’t be taken lightly.
During my undergraduate degree, I had the opportunity to work in a research laboratory as part of a summer vacation scholarship. The PhD student supervising me on a day-to-day basis gave me a really useful piece of advice: don’t do a Master’s or a PhD just for the sake of doing one. She encouraged me to thoroughly explore my options and not to merely drift into a postgraduate course just because I didn’t know what else to do.
So, is it worth doing a PhD? The following questions might help you to decide.
1. Is it Worth Doing a PhD to Pursue Your Chosen Career Path?
Not every job requires a PhD for you to be successful. In fact, many do not. If you are not planning to stay in academia long-term, then a PhD may be of no additional benefit to you. Picture the type of job you would like to have once you are finished with your education; our handy article lists some options.
Having a PhD might give you an edge over other candidates and help you secure a position, even if a PhD is not required for a particular job. However, it can also work against you, potentially making you overqualified and less likely to get the job.
Have a career discussion with as many people as possible to get different opinions and viewpoints. Try to talk to people who have chosen a variety of career paths. Also, talk to people who have done or are doing a PhD; their experience and insight can be invaluable.
2. Have You Explored Other Options?
For example, like gaining experience in industry or working in a laboratory as a research assistant or technician?
It’s hard to make a clear-headed decision when you are caught up in the middle of things. Sometimes it is better to take a step back and pursue an option without making a multi-year commitment.
Working as a research assistant in an academic laboratory for a year or so is a great way to figure out if you enjoy working in the academic environment and more specifically within a particular laboratory. This kind of experience should confirm if doing a PhD is right for you.
3. Have you Found a Supervisor and a Topic?
Remember that you’ll be committing to both the topic and the supervisor for 3-4 years!
A good PhD supervisor is worth their weight in gold and finding a good mentor should be a priority. Furthermore, you need to be passionate about your research topic to motivate you during the tremendously tough times. Make sure you work on something you care about.
4. Do You Have Support from Family and Friends?
Talk to your support network, i.e. your friends and family. They are the ones you will rely on heavily while doing the PhD for emotional support (parents may also be a source of financial support).
If you are looking for further advice, make sure you check out our article with pointers for PhD students. Are you sure that a PhD is the right move for you? Search for PhDs in Biological and Medical Sciences to find the right PhD to suit you.
5. Can You Afford to Do a PhD?
Doing a PhD can be costly. There may be fees, and you’ll need to be able to live, so factor in rent, food, and bills too. Depending on where you live and plan on studying, you may be able to get a grant or stipend to help cover the costs.
If you are considering working on the side, note that this might not be feasible. Often PhD work is more than a full-time job, leaving you little room to earn on the side. That said, there might be options for paid work as part of your PhD – for example as a teaching assistant (remember those helpful people during your lab practical? They were probably PhD students!).
In addition, you need to factor in what you’ll be missing out on compared with entering the workforce – you’ll most likely not be contributing to a pension or retirement fund or other benefits of a full-time job (e.g. health care).
You also need to consider that if you plan on leaving academia after a PhD, you may still be on an ‘entry-level’ salary and therefore be several years behind where you could have been if you’d not done a PhD.
Originally published November 13, 2013. Reviewed and updated on December 8, 2020