How Phds Can Be Worth $100k

Can I tell you that I want to be moderately wealthy? I know this isn’t something PhDs talk about much.

I don’t think it makes me bad. Although I’m driven by ideals—as most academics are—I still have a dream about a house in the country and occasionally going to a restaurant without my account going into overdraft.

Wealth is relative, of course. And the number $100,000 is pretty arbitrary. But it does sound kinda sexy.

However, if you’re like most PhD students, post-docs, and adjuncts, it sounds like a ridiculously unattainable figure, doesn’t it? That’s why I chose it.

I want you to hear this.

If you play your cards right, you should be worth about $100k within a few years of finishing your degree (this is North America).

I know this is a touchy subject. And yes, I know there are people screaming into their computer screens or phones right now. Maybe you’ve been out of your PhD for 10 or 20 years and have never made over $50k. I see you.

No matter where you are at, you owe it to yourself to think through how an advanced degree actually makes you valuable in the marketplace. Because, believe it or not, it can.

So I’d encourage you to be strategic. Be very strategic about understanding how PhDs bring value, where money comes from, and start building your financial literacy now.

Because if you don’t, the real world will not reward you.

Or, to put it more positively, so that you can be paid what you’re worth!

Here are 4 principles you need to understand to value yourself in the marketplace.

1. Learn to do something not a lot of people can do (AKA scarcity)

Not sure if you took an Economics 101 class, but it’s important to remember that things that are needed or desired but not plentiful are valuable. You know this if you’ve ever tried to hire a plumber or buy a diamond ring.

On the other hand, there are things that are plentiful but not really needed. Yes, I’m sorry to say my Humanities PhD fit into this category. Perhaps your PhD does too.

When the PhD itself became a commodity held by many, as the university simultaneously hacked apart the way it teaches, all of a sudden PhDs have nowhere that they’re really needed. No scarcity.

500 people can do what you can do.

If this is depressing, good. Let it sink in for a minute.

But then, realize this. Once you understand the principle of scarcity, or maybe a better way to say this is to recognize where the skills demands are, you can build a complementary skill set to your PhD that makes you super valuable.

My PhD in Religious Studies held minimal value in the marketplace—academic or non-academic. When I finished, I paid my dues running projects at a think tank.

I’m now a PhD who knows how to both run and fund full-cycle research projects, how to scope issues, convene stakeholders, and write final reports to government (according to their guidelines). I can do all this with no supervision, in a town (Ottawa) where virtually every organization needs to do this stuff.

All of a sudden, I have some value. And all of a sudden, I start to get more job interviews and consulting offers.

Academics have two basic ways to profit from scarcity in the non-academic marketplace.

  1. They can know things nobody else does that have value in the market place—like T-cell cloning or polymer manipulation. This is usually the case for STEM graduates.
  2. They can do things that not a lot of people can do. This might be running projects, editing at a high level, writing great copy, or being an engaging teacher.

Most academics never think this through.

For most academics, finding the scarcity in your skill set is a tricky equation. Everybody thinks that they can write, so most employers aren’t impressed that you’ve got “writing” listed as a skill on your resume.

But when the day comes that you write a report in half an hour and it’s persuasive, compelling, and impeccable, they take notice.

The point is that writing is a great skill to be a master of, but unfortunately, everybody and their dog thinks they can write. So it’s not as much of a technical edge in the marketplace. So it is worth learning some skills that not everyone (rightly or wrongly) lays claim to.

The related idea here is that there are situations when a PhD gives you a competitive edge. There are lots of people who could hypothetically manage a complex research project. But someone with experience managing complex projects who also has a PhD all of a sudden has an edge. If you’re looking to hire someone and all things are equal, you will probably pick the PhD to run your project. Because when people see the author of your report has a PhD, it means something.

Lots of people can be Policy Advisors. But a Policy Advisor with experience and a PhD stands out. If you have a solid skillset + a PhD you can start to get some traction.

I’ve found grant writing is another place where PhDs have an edge. Few people with master’s degrees can say that their grant writing has won tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants.

Homework

  • Think about how you could address some scarcity
  • Take stock of all your skills (not just academic) to try to evaluate how you bring value (Read this post on transferable skills and this one on high value skills your degree gave you)
  • Identify the skills or experiences you might want to gain to make yourself more valuable

2. Do complicated things (AKA complexity)

The second principle of making yourself valuable in the marketplace with a PhD is complexity.

If you’re like most PhDs, your brain has been programmed to deal with complexity in a way that a lot of people can’t. You will see the big picture of what a 300-page manuscript is trying to accomplish, but you’ll also notice the tiny grammatical error right in front of you.

Handling complexity with minimal supervision is highly valued in the marketplace. It’s what managers, presidents, CEOs, and other leaders do all day every day. They look at organizations as a whole, understand how each part works, and drive it forward in such a way that it works together.

You probably have this skill set. You just need to stop trying to apply it to Chaucer and start learning to apply it to the marketplace. Learn some business basics. Take some finance courses (I did this OpenYale course when I was in my PhD and loved it). Take a project management course. Really, just find ways to show that you handle complexity in organizations–whether complex projects, managing people, or dealing with budgets.

3. Serve as many people as possible (scale)

The more people you impact, the more money you make. Ok, this is not a perfect science. But impact and influence are the core of leadership and are directly linked to your input and ideas being highly desired.

I know PhDs who are leaders in their field, internationally respected outside of academia. One, for example, whose specialty is AI, gets invited to nearly every round-table across the country. There are PhDs who are thought leaders, who can consult at a rate of $1,000 a day. They command massive sums wherever they go and are in demand. Organizations clamor to make sure their name is on a report on their area of knowledge, because if X is on it, it’s good.

This, my friends, is a weird sort of PhD influencer you can be, and it comes from being a thought leader in your field combined with having a platform made up of lots of people who respect you (scale). (I wrote about this here.)

There are other ways to achieve scale too. Maybe you’ll become a public educator or write a book. The more people you influence, the more money you can make.

If this is what you want to be, start building yourself as a thought leader now. Start posting on LinkedIn, write for a non-academic following, and just basically get yourself out there.

4. Take control of your labor

Let me tell you something.

When you sell your time to an employer, they usually get the better value. Do you think they’d keep you around if they didn’t? They can sell your labor for a premium that makes them money off of the difference. If they couldn’t do this, you’d be laid off pretty quick.

You trade your actual value for the security of a paycheck and a pension. And the employer takes the risk–but also gets the reward.

If you’re willing to forego a bit of security to start your own business and take control of your labor, you might do very well. One of the most lucrative careers for PhDs is consulting. In this situation, you basically become self-employed and sell research, projects, advice, you name it to an employer for somewhere around the actual cost of what your labor is worth.

Conclusion

So these are my thoughts on making yourself worth $100,000 year. We all have the same value as individuals, but we don’t all have the same value in the marketplace. Learn to maximize your value and you’ll have a great career.

If you have something you want to build, consider joining the Roostervane community. There are a bunch of us there working to build everything from blogs to not-for-profits to companies. Come check us out!

Otherwise, keep fighting for your value my friend, and don’t be ashamed of it.

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