Updated August 18, 2020
Is a PhD worth it?
I’ve seen this question lurking around the hallowed threads of Twitter lately—a place I spend more time than I’d like to confess.
A few people admit to regretting their PhD. Most—myself included — said that they don’t (I wrote about why in this post). But regret is different. We often say we don’t regret stupid things we’ve done or bad things that happen to us. This means we learned from them, not that we wanted them to happen.
But if you were to ask is a PhD worth it, it’s a different and more complicated question. Students who are considering PhDs occasionally ask me the question, and I never know how to answer. And as complicated as the answer is for me, I can’t possibly say whether it will be worth it for them. I only know from experience that for many PhDs the answer is no.
So I decided to look at this question from five different directions, five different ways that a PhD could be worth it. Then I give my opinion on each one. You can tell me if I got the right ones of if I’m way off base. So here we go.
Is a PhD worth it for your finances?
My guess: Not usually
People waste a lot of their best years living on a grad stipend. To be honest, my money situation was pretty good in grad school. I won a large national grant, I got a ton of extra money in travel grants, and my Canadian province gave me grants for students with dependents. But even with a decent income, I was still in financial limbo–not really building wealth of any sort. And many students scrape by on very small stipends while they study.
When it comes to entering the marketplace, research from Canada and the United States shows that PhD students eventually out-earn their counterparts with Master’s degrees. It takes PhDs a few years to find their stride, but most of us eventually do fine for earnings if we leave academia. Which is great, and perhaps surprising to many PhDs who think that a barista counter is the only non-academic future they have.
The challenge is not income–it’s time. If you as a PhD grad make marginally more than a Master’s graduate, but they entered the workforce a decade earlier, it takes a long time for even an extra $10,000 a year to catch up. The Master’s grad has had the time to build their net worth and network, perhaps buy a house, pay down debt, invest, and just generally get financially healthy.
While PhDs do fine in earnings in the long run, the opportunity cost of getting the PhD is significant.
The only real way to remedy this—if you’ve done a PhD and accumulating wealth is important to you, is to strategically maximize your earnings and your value in the marketplace to close the wealth gap. This takes education, self-discipline, and creativity, but it is possible.
I tried to calculate the opportunity cost of prolonging entry into the workforce in this post.
Is a PhD worth it for your career?
My guess: Impossible to tell
Most of my jobs have given me the perfect opportunity to see exactly where I could be if I’d stopped at a Master’s degree, often working alongside or for those who did and are further ahead. In terms of nuts and bolts of building career experience section on a resume, which is often the most important part, a PhD is rarely worth it. (Some STEM careers do require a PhD.)
However, at the start of my post-graduate educational journey, I was working part-time running teen programs and full time as a landscaper. I had an undergraduate degree. Despite my job and a half, I was still poor. My life had no direction, and had I not begun my Master’s to PhD journey I probably would have stayed there.
The PhD transformed me personally. It did this by developing my skills, or course. But even more so, it taught me that anything is possible. It took a poor kid from a mining town in northern Canada and gave me access to the world. It made my dreams of living abroad come true. I learned that anything is possible. And that will never go away.
It’s changed the course of my life and, subsequently, my career.
It’s impossible for you to know if it’s worth it for your career. But you can build a hell of a career with it.
Is a PhD Worth it for your personal brand
My guess: Probably
There’s some debate over whether to put a Dr. or PhD before or after your name. People argue over whether it helps in the non-academic marketplace. Some feel that it just doesn’t translate to whatever their new reality is. Some have been told by some manager somewhere that they’re overqualified and pulled themselves back, sometimes wiping the PhD off their resume altogether.
I get it.
The truth is, the world often won’t know what to do with your PhD. And that’s okay. Well-meaning people won’t understand how you fit into the landscape, and you may have to fight tooth and nail for your place in it. People may tell you they can’t use you, or they might go with what they know—which is someone less qualified and less-educated.
But before you’re tempted to scratch that PhD off the end of your name or resume, remember that you clawed and fought for it. That PhD or Dr. represents your greatness, your hunger. It represents the fact that you’ve achieved amazing things, things most humans haven’t. Don’t you dare apologize for that. And be very careful about wiping that away.
I see too many PhDs contract their greatness, trying to shrink into the box they think the world wants them to be in.
But I believe that PhDs should push harder and build themselves bigger. They should build their own box.
I don’t know your story. I don’t know the obstacles you’ve faced, so you do what you gotta do. But if you ask me, you’ve got greatness in you. It’s pretty hard to put that greatness back in the box.
In my mind, someone with a PhD at the end of their name represents an indomitable leader. So grow your possibilities bigger and keep fighting. And make your personal brand match those three little letters after your name. Do this so that the world around can’t help but see you as a leader. More importantly, do it so that you don’t forget you are.
Is a PhD worth it for your sense of purpose?
My guess: Impossible to tell
Remember the sense of meaning and purpose that drew you into a PhD program? Was it still there at the end? If yours was, you’re lucky. I directed my purpose into getting hired in a tenure-track job, and got very hurt when it didn’t happen.
And people have vastly different experiences within programs.
Some people go through crap. But for them their research is everything and putting up with crap is worth it to feel like they have a sense of purpose. Many PhDs who are drawn into programs chasing a sense of purpose leave deeply wounded and disenchanted, ironically having less purpose when they started.
While new PhDs often talk about the PhD as a path do doing “something meaningful,” those of us who have been through entire programs have often seen too much. We’ve either seen or experienced tremendous loss of self. Some have friends who didn’t make it out the other end of the PhD program.
But there are some PhDs who have a great experience in their programs and feel tremendously fulfilled.
As I reflect on it, I don’t think a sense of purpose is inherently fulfilled or disappointed by a PhD program. There are too many variables.
However, if you’re counting on a PhD program to give you a sense of purpose, I’d be very careful. I’d be even more cautious if purpose for you means “tenure-track professor.” Think broadly about what success means to you and keep an open mind.
Is a PhD worth it for your potential?
My guess: Absolutely
Every human being has unlimited potential, of course. But here’s the thing that really can make your PhD worth it. The PhD can amplify your potential. It gives you a global reach, it gives you a recognizable brand, and it gives you a mind like no other.
One of my heroes is Brené Brown. She’s taken research and transformed the world with it, speaking to everyone from Wall-Street leaders to blue-collar workers about vulnerability, shame, and purpose. She took her PhD and did amazing things with it.
Your potential at the end of your PhD is greater than it has ever been.
The question is, what will you do with that potential?
Many PhD students are held back, not by their potential, but by the fact that they’ve learned to believe that they’re worthless. Your potential is unlimited, but when you are beaten and exhausted, dragging out of a PhD program with barely any self-worth left, it’s very hard to reach your potential. You first need to repair your confidence.
But if you can do that, if you can nurture your confidence and your greatness every day until you begin to believe in yourself again, you can take your potential and do anything you want with it.
In short: Is a PhD worth it?
It’s up to you to make it worth it
I don’t think that whether a PhD is worth it or not is some fixed-in-stone thing. In fact, it depends on what you do with it.
So why not make it worth it? Work hard on yourself to transform into a leader worthy of the letters after your name, and don’t be afraid to learn how to leverage every asset the PhD gave you.
One of the reasons I took my PhD and launched my own company is that I saw how much more impact I could have and money I could be making as a consultant (perhaps eventually with a few employees). As long as I worked for someone else, I could see that my income would likely be capped. Working for myself was a good way to maximize my output and take control of the income.
It’s up to you to make it worth it. Pick what’s important to you and how the degree helps you get there, and chase it. Keep an open mind about where life will take you, but always be asking yourself how you can make more of it.