Is a PhD the Right Choice for You? How to Decide How Much School You Can Handle
I’m currently a fourth year PhD candidate. I got here by accident. I was intimidated by the thought of entering a five year program and terrified by the statistics which showed how many people take much longer than that to finish their doctorate. But, at the same time, I loved the idea of furthering my education. I’ve always loved school and I didn’t feel done when I finished my bachelor’s degree. I wanted to learn more. I wanted to specialize.
So, I considered graduate school. But I primarily looked into master’s degrees. These programs were one to two years in length and felt much more manageable to me.
But, the more I thought about it, the more this didn’t feel right to me. Firstly, if I ever wanted to be a professor, I would need a doctorate. Secondly, if I ever wanted a doctorate in the future, it wouldn’t make sense to get a master’s degree first. Many doctoral programs don’t accept credits from past master’s degrees. So if I got a master’s degree first, I would be completing a master’s, only to complete the equivalent of another master’s along the way to my PhD. It would take more time to complete both degrees. Additionally, it would cost more money as most master’s degrees aren’t funded. Thirdly, a PhD is funded. For most programs, you are provided tuition remission as well as payment for working as a teaching assistant or research assistant.
So, I decided to apply to PhD programs. For me, it made more sense academically, financially and in terms of timing. Additionally, I figured that four years of undergraduate went by very quickly so five years of a PhD program couldn’t be all that bad. It’s not the right choice for everyone, but four years in, I think it was certainly the right choice for me.
As you’re deciding how much school is right for you, it's important to consider all of your options after your undergraduate degree. There are many choices.
Entering the Workforce
Your first option is to enter the workforce right away after your undergraduate degree. Many of my friends did this and I don’t think any of them regret it. They started making money right away, were able to start paying back their student loans sooner, and settled in nicely to a standard 9-5 with evenings and weekends off.
A benefit of going into the workforce right away is that if you do decide you want to go back to school later, there may be a chance that your employer will pay for it. A free master’s degree is nothing to scoff at. That said, it can be hard to balance work and school at the same time.
If you do stop work to go back to school, however, that can also present its own challenges. It's difficult to give up a salary to go back to school, potentially get back into debt, and have no income coming in when you’re used to a paycheck every couple of weeks.
If you never go back for a graduate degree, in some fields, you limit your potential for growth. In others, it couldn’t matter less. Try to talk to others in your desired career to see whether or not it's worth it to pursue higher education. If it won’t provide you any benefits in regard to your career, it may not be worth the investment.
Another option is a graduate certificate or other form of certification. These are advantageous because they typically don’t take that much time to complete and they’re cheaper than a graduate degree.
That said, they hold less weight than a graduate degree. Additionally, there may or may not be a certificate that fits well with your career aspirations. It’s very important to do your research to see if a certificate is worth it for your field. Try to talk to those more established in your field to see their opinions on certificate options.
A master’s degree is advantageous because it's the shortest graduate degree you can earn. Many fields have both one and two year options and more and more schools are creating online and part-time programs to allow students flexible scheduling. Additionally, some (this isn’t true for every field) master’s degrees do offer funding through scholarships or graduate assistantships/fellowships.
A con of getting a master’s degree is that as graduate school has become more common, master’s degrees in some fields have lost some of their weight. Further, for the ones that aren’t funded, master’s degrees can be very expensive. For those who already have student loans from their undergraduate, this adds additional stress and pressure.
A PhD is the highest level of education one can obtain. In many ways this is an advantage and holds a great deal of prestige. However, doctoral students learn a great deal about a very nuanced topic and sometimes this can be seen as a disadvantage to employers. That said, if you’re incredibly interested in a nuanced topic- it's the perfect choice!
Additionally, if you want to be a tenure track professor, you’ll need a doctorate. If your goal is to enter a non-academic job, it's important to consider whether a PhD is necessary, or will even be looked down upon on your applications. Some think those with doctorates are over-qualified and are therefore afraid to hire them, thinking that they’ll get bored quickly and move on.
A PhD is also quite the commitment. The average PhD program is five years but many schools have implemented program caps because it takes so many students so much longer to finish. At my school, if you don’t finish your dissertation within ten years, you’re out of the program. I am doing everything in my power to beat the statistics and finish in five. I love what I’m doing, but I don’t want to be in school forever.
A huge advantage to pursuing a doctorate is that they are funded. I am getting the highest level of education for free and to me, that is the most incredible thing. I have health insurance, free tuition, and I’m paid a stipend to act as a teaching assistant or research assistant each semester. I’m gaining experience doing research, learning about a subject I love, and not paying a dime out of pocket.
A large part of the decision of whether or not to pursue a doctorate is how strong your interest is in the topic and how important a doctoral degree is for the career you want to pursue. If the thought of five years learning specific details about a subject sounds unbearable, don’t start a doctorate just because you want the title. The rates of students who drop out of PhD programs before finishing are astronomical. If you’re not sure whether or not you want to partake on that journey, it may be a better idea to start with a master’s degree and see how things go. If you decide you still want to continue your education, try to find a PhD program where your master’s credits will transfer. Then, you can likely complete your doctoral degree in three years without wasting any time.
Of course, if you want to pursue a professional degree and become a doctor or a lawyer, a MD or JD is a necessary prerequisite. In that case, there is no other option.
When deciding whether or not to pursue graduate school, it's important to take a deep look at what you actually want the next few years of your life to look like. How do you want to spend your time?Ask yourself these questions.
Does the idea of a few more years of school excite you or terrify you? Listen to your intuition. Don’t attend a program just to earn the title.
Think about your personality. If you go straight into the workforce, could you ever give up your salary to go back to school? If you start a long graduate program, would you have the wherewithal to finish it?
Is a graduate degree necessary for your career? Would it be helpful? Would experience be more beneficial?
Do those in your desired career have a master’s degree? A certificate? A PhD? Nothing? Ask questions. Use those in the career you want to pursue as a resource.
It’s hard to know if you’re making the right choice regarding how you’re going to spend the next few years of your life. Every major life choice comes with similar apprehension. All you can do is make the best decision with the information you have. You can always adjust accordingly if later on you determine a different path would be a better choice.