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Is it Worth Doing a PhD After a Master’s?

Posted in: Career Development and Networking
Two lego scientists to represent someone doing a PhD

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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

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  1. Rob Chandler on December 16, 2017 at 12:29 pm

    I’m a mature PhD student and a granddad. That means I have had a life outside academia and a good career already. I have nothing to prove to anybody but myself and I am doing my PhD to give something back to society not to impress my potential boss, friends or family with the Dr title. I feel very sorry for smart young students who do not know what to do with their lives and approach research as a career not out of choice but with a total lack of adventure. I am always delighted to meet other mature PhD students like myself and talk about the “young” ones as highly educated idiots….ok give me some license, I’m allowed to say that because I’m old! Get a life folks, get a proper job, a job that enthuses you, a job that inspires you, a job where you loose track of time and wake up everyday knowing that you made the right choice.

    • Kathy Cote on June 1, 2018 at 11:52 pm

      I’m a grandmother and have a Master’s Degree and have always wanted a Ph.D. I am seriously looking into it, perhaps online courses to complete this. I am still teaching as a part-time adjunct at my alma mater. Do you have any resources or knowledge to share? I would greatly appreciate it. I am completely satisfied and happy with my life, but that Ph.D. keeps popping up. The challenge is the money to pay for it, since I do have past student loans. Your story inspires me! Thank you!

  2. Loreto on August 24, 2017 at 4:29 pm

    I believe you have a misconception about getting PhD.
    Phd is not only to became a professor at University .
    Doing a Phd develops a variety of skills and abilities that are transferable to any job in the industry or businesses.
    Industry and companies should hire more Phd in high position to improve things.

  3. Kriplani nikita on June 25, 2017 at 8:29 am

    Hii i m a commerce student i want to do phd because i want to become a can u help me how shd i go for this

  4. KOTSONIS on December 21, 2015 at 12:20 pm

    Well I am at the same position. I just finished my master project and I am working at a lab in Italy by Erasmus program. But I still don’t know if I want to continue and become a PhD condicate.

  5. JackBean on November 18, 2013 at 6:29 pm

    I wish I have thought more thoroughly about it. Probably considered the technician-version. Because I stayed to finish my project (which took me about two to three more years in the end and I stayed here now although I wanted to go abroad.

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