Is Getting a PHD Worth It?

Is Getting a PHD Worth It

I recently asked a friend who’s opinion I hold dearly, Is Getting a PHD Worth It? He pointed me towards an article in The Economist, with the eye-catching title (for one, who is himself studying for one) ‘The disposable academic – Why doing a PhD is often a waste of time’.  Obviously my initial reaction was along the lines of, ‘Thanks Dave, what a great motivational article you’ve found for a young researcher,’ (though perhaps slightly less politely put than that) but I soon found myself seriously considering what the article had to say.

So, Is Getting a PHD Worth It? If you ask The Economist, the short answer is – no.  However, I disagree, and in particular I find the narrow definition given by the article to how much a PhD is ‘worth’ to be very short-sighted indeed.

“The earnings premium for a PhD is 26%. But the premium for a master’s degree, which can be accomplished in as little as one year, is almost as high, at 23%… The premium for a PhD is actually smaller than for a master’s degree in engineering and technology”

So, clearly individual earnings is the measure by which we must measure how much a PhD is ‘worth’.  In fairness I suppose I shouldn’t have expected anything else from ‘The Economist’.  In my opinion, if you choose to undertake a PhD primarily for financial gain, you are not only doing it for the wrong reasons, but you are taking a major gamble.  Of course it is possible that you will earn substantially more if you are able to find a job in your specific area of research, but in a lot of cases that may well not happen.

‘Why’ I hear you ask?  A PhD is supposed to represent a substantial, new piece of research, suitable for publication in a peer-reviewed context.  As such, it’s very difficult to predict what, if any employment will be available as a result – it may be that your research forms an entirely new field of work, or that your PhD represents only a fragment of a much larger project – either way, it may well not be viable to hire someone into such a role on a commercial or long-term academic basis.

That’s not to say that research is a ‘blind’ or random endeavour; far from it in fact.  However, the purpose of fundamental research is not simply to prove that something will work, but also to show what will not work – and strangely enough, there aren’t many jobs going in things that don’t work!

“Although a doctorate is designed as training for a job in academia, the number of PhD positions is unrelated to the number of job openings.”

The idea that someone undertakes a PhD just to become an academic is outdated in my opinion.  The reasons for doing a PhD are far more varied than a singular simplistic hope of personal financial benefit – people undertake research simply for the love of the subject, to extend understanding of a particular field or to try and create new opportunities for themselves.

In my experience very few are determined to become academics from the outset and I don’t believe this is limited to those in science and engineering.  For a broader perspective, I asked some other postgraduate students at The University Of Sheffield for their own opinions as to why people undertake a PhD:

“The first priority, I would guess, is precisely one’s desire to engage in a different hierarchy of values: instead of thinking of money as the ultimate sign of success, we appeal to academic excellence in the form of the accrual and dissemination of knowledge and/or wisdom. Of course, we do not completely opt out of the need for money. We merely transform it into a standard of sufficiency, where we aim for ‘enough’, and instead seek to grow by a standard of excellence – that of being a truly genial researcher and/or teacher.” – Josh Forstenzer (Political Philosophy)

“My reason for doing a PhD was the sense of despair I felt looking down the list of graduate jobs. I just felt like I wanted to do something that had “intrinsic value”. I’m also interested in my thesis – there are not many opportunities in your life to pontificate about power, ideology and language!” – Sam Browse (English Language)

Incidentally, both write their own blogs, and have some very interesting things to say on a variety of issues, hence the links above!

Clearly, there are many different reasons for undertaking a PhD, and many different possible outcomes from your research.  An important point that The Economist fails to mention, is that PhDs are an incredibly cheap source of high-level research, that forms the basis of new innovations, technologies, processes and ideas that fuel our national economic and social development – in my opinion that is the real value of a PhD, not some narrow-minded and short-sighted vision of personal financial gain.

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