Getting a PhD is a huge investment of time, money, and energy. Not to mention the time you take being out of the workforce while pursuing academics. As long as there have been advanced degrees, there have been people questioning whether there’s a sufficient return on the investments, so we took to LinkedIn to ask what people really think about getting a PhD.
According to a LinkedIn poll conducted in December 2021 (N=1365 people), a large number of people believe that a PhD is not worth it. Only 43% of respondents answered “yes,” to the question, “is a PhD worth it?” Of the remaining respondents, 25% said “no,” a PhD is not worth it, and 31% said “maybe.”
I conducted the same survey in December 2022 (N=138). 56% responded “yes” and “18%” responded “maybe.” 26% responded “no.”
If you’re trying to decide whether a PhD is “worth it,” there are several factors you should consider. The decision to pursue academics and obtain an advanced degree is a personal one, and there is no one-size-fits-all answer to the question.
When Is It Worth It to Get a PhD?
In some cases, getting a PhD is absolutely worth it. But it truly depends on each individual person and what they hope to achieve and accomplish in their life. Still, there are some people who are better suited to get more out of a PhD program than others. The fact remains, however, that there are a lot of people who feel PhDs are undervalued.
So, who are the people who are most likely to feel that a PhD is worth it?
Take this quiz to find out if you should pursue a PhD or an industry job.
The Intellectually Curious
People that love to learn and who are intellectually curious by nature may get a lot more out of a PhD program than those who don’t feel that way. Since PhD programs are based on pursuing and defining new knowledge, people who love researching and investigating are best suited to be happy throughout their PhD program and beyond.
People are motivated to pursue degrees for all sorts of reasons. Some of the time, it’s because they believe it will help increase their earning potential. In other cases, it’s because they want to pursue a very specialized career path that requires a doctoral degree. Still, time and time again, we find that enjoyment of learning and intrinsic curiosity is closely related to the tendency to pursue academics.
To go even further, we can look at how likely someone is to stick with their postgraduate studies and complete their PhD Feelings of autonomy are closely related to success in PhD programs, and curiosity and the ability to perform research based on interests is tied to autonomy in academics. Research has supported this fact.
Curious people tend to pursue innovations and seek out different ways to look at the world. Focusing on learning and creating new knowledge is at the core of the PhD, so it makes perfect sense that these would be the people most likely to get satisfaction out of the rigorous process required to obtain the degree.
The Joyful Laborers
Those who will get the most satisfaction from a PhD and believe that everything they put into the process was “worth it” are those who also tend to enjoy working. While that may seem blasphemous because, well, the definition of work to most people is doing something they have to rather than something they want to do, there are people who enjoy the work itself.
Of course, not every PhD loves to work. There are plenty of successful individuals who actively dislike working. However, those who are most likely to see greater value in the PhD are probably those who truly enjoy what they do (or did) while pursuing the degree.
Anyone with a PhD will likely agree that it was the most stressful time in their life, but they may also comment that they loved it. They probably don’t want to go back and do it again, but at the same time, they most likely look back on that time and see it as something they truly enjoyed.
This is partially due to the fact that the workload is so rigorous that many people wouldn’t try to pursue a PhD if they didn’t have that partial attitude toward academic work. Plus, it’s easier to enjoy work when you know you’re working toward some other goal or purpose. It’s like going through the grind at your job, knowing that there’s a promotion on the horizon. It makes it all a little easier to manage.
The other reason is that the work normally comes in the form of learning and researching, which is something PhD candidates typically enjoy.
Those Who Get “High on Ideas”
Anyone who’s experienced this feeling knows exactly what I’m talking about. Some people get a real “high” from the rush of a new idea. From the moment that the spark of a new idea comes into your brain and you start working through the problem, there’s an excitement that rushes through your body.
When you find your flow and eventually solve whatever you’re working on (or maybe just find some tiny bit of knowledge that you didn’t know before), it creates a feeling of euphoria.
There’s real science behind this effect, too. Whether you call it an “ah-ha” moment or a “lightbulb moment,” there’s something that happens in the brain when creativity leads to a solution. When your brain knows you’re really onto something, there’s a measurable increase in activity within the orbitofrontal cortex.
That’s the same area of the brain that responds to pleasure like food (or, in some cases, drugs). So, those who are more sensitive to rewards may have even more activity in this part of the brain and feel a very similar sensation to an actual “high” (but without the drugs, of course).
Those creative people who love the feeling of chasing an idea or working through problems are most likely those who get a lot of value from the PhD process.
Book Worms and Wordsmiths
People who love to read and write are those who will find the most joy and value in a PhD Program. Of course, pursuing a PhD requires a lot of reading and writing, but those who are the best suited for a life in academia won’t hate the workload.
Depending on your field, you may end up doing a significant amount of math or science-related work, but reading and writing will consume most of your time while researching. To break it down a little more precisely, most people end up spending about 80% of their time writing and about 20% reading. So, if you’re someone who hates writing and don’t see yourself continuing to write once you finish school, you probably won’t see as much value in your PhD as someone who does love to write.
As a researcher, you’re primarily paid to write. Yes, you’ll spend time researching which involves reading and looking at existing literature, but as a PhD your goal is to add to the existing knowledge base. That requires putting your findings into research papers and publishing your research and results.
Still, there are plenty of opportunities for PhDs outside of academia (check out this excellent article we wrote), which creates a space for those who don’t particularly enjoy all the reading and writing.
People who enjoy academics and the research involved with PhD programs (and the workload) are those who can “think-dream” in the way that other people “daydream.” If you can spend time just thinking about ideas and lose yourself in your thoughts, and if you can visualize ideas to get your flow moving, you’ll probably be someone who gets more out of your PhD than someone who has trouble brainstorming and thinking about ideas and knowledge.
The concept of being able to see things that other people can’t see or imagine ideas in new ways is something that many academics can do well. That part of the brain can be difficult to activate, and not everyone thinks in that way. Still, people who have those traits are those who will likely feel that a PhD is a valuable accomplishment.
Hidden Costs of a PhD
Anyone who feels like a PhD isn’t worth it probably believes the cost is too high. In many cases, the financial cost is much too great to get a return on the investment (ROI) in the form of higher-paying job opportunities. The connection between PhDs, income, and wealth is complex, which is why we’ve dedicated a post to it that you can read here.
In addition to the exorbitant costs associated with tuition, there’s also the cost of living in the area, wherever your school is located, even if it’s some of the highest costs of living in the country. You’ll also have to consider funding for your research, availability of funding, and what you might have to pay out of pocket. Plus, there’s tons of competition in research, which is a whole other issue in academia.
There are also the hidden emotional and mental-health-related costs of pursuing a PhD. Plenty of students struggle with anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns during their academic pursuits. It can be difficult to cope with high-stress situations and the difficulties with work-life balance when you’re pursuing a degree.
Plenty of people feel like they’re not good enough or not smart enough for grad school, so if you’re struggling with those kinds of feelings, know that you’re not alone. The best thing to do is to talk to someone – a friend, relative, counselor, or professor. Talk with other students. The struggle is real, and there are plenty of people out there who understand what you’re going through. The most important thing is to not give up!
Also, while you’re in school, you may be missing out on opportunities that you’d otherwise be getting in the workforce. You pay an opportunity cost on missed networking, lack of real-world job experience, and the fact that not all employers value your time in academia.
For some tips on how to improve your mental health as a researcher or PhD, check out this video.
Whether or not a PhD is worth it really depends on each individual person and what they get out of the experience. There’s value in more than just how much your salary is when you get out into the workforce. Those who are most likely to feel like their PhD was worth it are those who have the 5 traits we covered here.
Still, any time you spend in academia ultimately depends on what you make of it. PhD life is difficult, and it’s hard work, but many people believe it was a great time in their life even with all the stress.
Ultimately, you’ll have to weigh your personal feelings and preferences, your strengths and weaknesses, and your goals to decide whether a PhD will be worth it for you.