To PhD or not to PhD

Education is something that is entirely yours. It’s an achievement that reminds you each day of the hard work you put in studying and of how immensely capable you are. It is empowering, a gift that will forever be yours and that you will never lose. Most importantly, it opens up so many paths in which you can take your future! Still in the early stages of my career, I have come across a variety of people, each with their own perception about where they are today. Some complain about the overall value of a PhD and others aggressively advocate it. Personally, I entered graduate school as a PhD candidate but soon changed my mind and switched to a master’s instead. I was looking to get my career started sooner. With a bachelor’s in Chemistry with High Distinction, I decided I had a solid science background to get a higher degree to strengthen my candidacy during job searches. If you’re thinking about higher education, consider the following factors:

Field/Subject of Interest

  In what direction, and how far in that direction, are you expecting to go in your career? This will help you decide what form of higher education is ideal for you and in what subject you should proceed. Think about the nature of the degree you would need. Math, English, Chemistry: I call these core/pure subjects. These usually focus on an in-depth understanding of the subject, and majoring in these subjects usually prepares you for a higher degree. In order to grow in these subjects, the usual trend is to opt for a master’s or a PhD. But let’s not underestimate their individual importance. These core subjects are a part of various types of curriculums, some often being prerequisites for graduation itself in order to make students well rounded. Consider combining a pure subject with applicable skills! Technical degrees usually prepare you more for immediate employment. Because of the applicable nature of the highly technical hard skills learned (eg. programming languages, instrumentation, project management, etc.), people in these fields are more immediately ready to work and may not necessarily feel the professional need for a higher degree. Professional education can include nursing, teaching, counseling, and doctorate degrees (eg. PhD, MD, JD). These are forms of specialized higher education that prepare you directly for a particular job type and most often require a license to legally practice. Additionally, a combination of a bachelor’s and a master’s/PhD can often also lead to a licensed position, such as a teacher.
Stepping "stones" of the career exploration and advancement process.
Stepping "stones" of the career exploration and advancement process. Illustration by Duygu Tanriverdi.

Long-term Professional Goals & Time Commitment

  A bachelor’s degree usually takes four years, a masters can take two or more years, and a PhD can take an average of five years to successfully complete. Often, one can directly join a PhD program after a bachelor’s completion. Consider this significant time commitment of at least five years. It requires dedication not only to finish the required coursework but also to successfully complete a thesis/dissertation or project. However, this time investment can make you a more valuable employee for any organization. If you’re seeking to be self-employed, you can really set your own requirements. You may not need a higher degree. While self-employment can be satisfying and empowering, it’s also laden with responsibility and may not immediately bring a large income. Consider grounding yourself financially before beginning a business, and be well versed about all the practical, legal, and financial aspects of it. Like any other job, networking is always key here! If you’re aspiring to be in a lead role (eg. Account Manager, Senior Scientist, Independent Investigator, etc.), a PhD (often in combination with valuable post-doctoral experience) is usually a requirement. On the other side, there are industry positions that offer lead roles such as Scientist, Engineer, Manager, etc. to people with a master’s and a considerable amount of experience instead. Think realistically about the time commitment in terms of the years of education and/or amount of experience required.  

Financial Condition

  Consider your financial capability and support system (both financial and personal). Financing a higher degree is not necessarily cheap, so besides loans, research university/college scholarships ahead of time and build a strong academic standing. Similarly, if finances are an important factor for you, research adequately about your career’s future financial prospects.  

Job Search & Experience

  Job searches are described very subjectively and in very relative terms. A higher degree makes you more specialized in your field, which helps you stand out, but there are also fewer specialized jobs out in the market. Specialization can make the job search harder but often can also mean a better salary. Having said that, if you have a considerable amount of experience instead, that also can make you a more specialized candidate in the long run.  

I’m not sure if I want to study further. Who do I talk to?

  There is no doubt that getting a higher degree is not only expensive but also time-consuming. It is possible to have a satisfactory career and advance up in the ladder with the right experience, hard work, dedication, and of course, a growing and solid professional network. Start by clearing out your confusions and try the following:
  • Brainstorming your interests and finding a career which you can enjoy and be passionate about
  • Arranging a meeting with academic advisors or directors of universities/colleges where you would apply
  • Consulting your current academic advisors
  • Reaching out to anyone you know who may already be in your field of interest
  • Seeking internships/co-ops over vacations
  • Shadowing professionals in their careers
  • Meeting with professional career counselors
  • Posting your questions to education/career-oriented discussion boards
Disclaimer All the views and opinions of this article solely originate from the imagination and experiences of the author and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of iN Education, Inc. Originally published on the Zealousness blog in 2014. Revised and updated in 2022. Read more career and education related articles on Zealousness blog Career & exploration - iN Education Inc. (ineducationonline.org).

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