Don’t Do A PhD, Do This Instead: PhD Alternatives

If you are thinking of a PhD, you should think about doing these alternatives instead.


A PhD is a major investment in your life and has significant opportunity costs. You really need to be passionate if you are going to succeed at the PhD. So, there may be some questions that you need to ask yourself before deciding if a PhD will be right for you.

Do I love my field?

A lot of thought and consideration goes into deciding on a PhD program- which schools are reputable, where would I have to live, when do I need to apply, etc.? With all of these miscellaneous aspects to figure out, it is easy to lose sight of what’s most important: passion.

This post was written by a recent doctorate graduate (it is anonymous to keep the discussion frank) on behalf of Dave Maslach. This is part of the R3ciprocity project (Check out the YouTube Channel or the writing feedback website). R3ciprocity helps students, faculty, and research folk by providing a real and authentic look into doing research. The R3ciprocity Project started out as a side-project, where David Maslach created an App to help others get feedback on their work ( – it is seriously inexpensive and easy to use. You have to try it!), but it is beginning to grow into a real movement. It provides solutions and hope to researchers around the world. For more on this topic and to see what Dave has to say about these PhD alternatives, watch this video:

Wondering how Doc students are evaluated? Check out this in-depth post.

People have many different reasons for starting a PhD program, such as wanting to be intellectually challenged or be able to work in a university setting and each reason is just as valid as the next. Unfortunately, it isn’t uncommon for students to start a program with good reason but then drop out because they lose motivation.

In all honesty, a PhD program can be a long and daunting process. You may find yourself feeling overwhelmed and frustrated if you are investing all of your time and efforts into work that you are not passionate about.

However, if you do love your field, your research-filled days can be emotionally fulfilling and enjoyable. Having a personally satisfying reason to complete your PhD will make it less likely that you will wake up one morning and wonder what you got yourself into.

Look for the Positive in the Present

Before jumping into a PhD program, first take the time to really look at the positive changes that you have already made.

You’ve successfully finished your undergraduate degree while also surviving the everyday perils of life. You may have a family, a pet or coworkers with whom you have also managed to share your life. You’ve gained new knowledge and abilities that you can now apply in multiple different facets.

Use your new, class-free time to apply your acquired knowledge in other ways that may help you ensure a positive future. If continuing academics seems right for you, there are other things that you could do now that will give you a leg-up when you finally apply for a PhD program.

Are you thinking you might be overqualified with a doctorate degree? Read this post to learn if you will be.

Graduate schools will often look at an applicant’s research experience when trying to decide who to admit into their programs, so taking time to gain some additional experience, whether at an institute or through a paid gig, will give you an advantage, especially when competition is high. These additional experiences will grant you time to practice skills that may be critical to your success in your program. They could also help you get stronger letters of recommendation or a new avenue of financial support.

This could also be the opportunity to “try before you buy.” If there’s a way to work in the field you are interested in before starting a PhD, then try it. You may be reaffirmed in your interests, but you may also find out quickly that this area is not right for you. Trying it out before making a huge commitment could save you lots of time and money.

Try Other Avenues First

Now, I realize that this recommendation might appear to be a little self-serving because it will restrict the supply of PhDs and increase the value of the services that I provide; however, you really ought to try all other avenues first before you think about a PhD.

Higher education could seem like the only option after completing a PhD program, but you may be surprised at what else is out there if you take the time to explore other career options. If you do find out that other industries are not for you, then you can return to academics and research with new knowledge and insight from your experiences.

Try getting a part-time teaching job or adjunct position at your local community college. This will give you some real-world insight into the life of teaching at the collegiate level without the huge commitment. Depending on the requirements of your local colleges, you may be able to find the position you are looking for without having to earn a PhD.

Use your time to write. Write about your background, your experiences, your thoughts and ideas. Write about your interests and your current understanding about the areas you want to study. Writing may help you process some of the uncertainties you may be experiencing as you think about your future. Who knows, one day this material may help you make an important decision or turn into part of a published article.

Think About Job Prospects

Those that complete a PhD program are skilled professionals that are well trained to start their career. However, statistics show that a minority of PhD holders actually manage to stay working in academia long term.

Many students get into a PhD program hoping to graduate and go right into a tenure-track position. However, these academic positions are few and far between. We know that a PhD is designed to train students for a job in academia, but the number of job openings are limited at best. Most graduates end up settling for a non-tenure track position or just a part-time position, that is equally as demanding, but without the tenure salary.

Have you thought realistically about your job prospects?

With an oversupply of PhD holders, finding a job may be a little bit more difficult that you had envisioned. Even graduates that are able to find employment outside of universities aren’t guaranteed success.

Create a list of jobs that seem interesting to you and research what required skils and background they require. Conduct some interviews with people that have interesting jobs in your fields of interest. Try to think of jobs where you think your current skills and background would be well-utilized. Can you find a job out there that checks all the boxes and doesn’t require a PhD?

Will doing a PhD actually enhance the type of career you want?

After finishing your undergraduate or masters degree, you probably have new a new skillset you could try out in various career fields. There are many industry research positions that do not require a PhD, but will still allow you to apply your education.

You should explore these alternatives first.

Try pursuing a satisfying career outside of academia.

Give Yourself a Break

Another thing to try would be to take a holiday, or a break, from work and think about whether you are satisfied or unhappy with your life.

Instead of diving right into your PhD program, take some time to travel, reconnect with yourself and your family, and enjoy life outside the life of academia. Go dancing, take on a new hobby or get a part-time job. Use this time to identify some new personal goals you’d like to achieve and develop a realistic plan to achieve these goals.

Sometimes referred to as a “Gap Year,” this time off before starting a new program can be your opportunity to reflect on the next stage in life. Even if your break is a time to relax and decompress, that’s ok.

Take some time each day to read the latest literature in your area of interest. Using the time off to conduct independent research could be another way to spend your break. You must discover what the career is about before you choose it. If you retain the same desire, then you are likely to be passionate about the career.

Doing this may help you gain focus on how and what you research if that’s what’s in your future. This may also allow you to gain a different perspective on what you want out of your career and life in general.

A break from a set program and required research may also help you become a better student if you decide to continue your education later on. Time away from academia may force you to focus on growing other skills such as investing, managing your time outside of a classroom, finding your role in the community, and learning ways to take care of your mental health. Building social relationships and learning to take care of yourself will help you both mentally and physically as you take on the next chapter of your life; whatever that may be.

While it can be more difficult to go back to school and get into the swing of things if there is an extended break, the time off can also be helpful to reinvigorate the passion that got you into education in the first place. In addition, a break could help prevent a burn out if you do decide to take on a PhD program in the long run.

Learn More About Your Interests

You may be one of the lucky ones that lands your dream job in research but for the rest out there, it may be worth it to think about some substitute paths where your education and experience is still relevant.

Also, as you are taking time to reflect, keep in mind that the area that you studied during your time in your undergraduate or masters program does not have to dictate what you study in the future.

As you transition into a job or other college program, this may be the perfect time to change your research area. This is the time to try out other areas of interest before deciding how and where you spend the next several years.

Taking the time to explore what else is out there can help you find an alternative that you may love even more. If not, you will still have your previous area of study to fall back on.

Review Your Intentions

If you are pursuing a PhD for the status, I would build a reputation in other ways. Besides gaining an awesome new title of “Doctor,” having a PhD doesn’t entitle you to much else. The amount of work available in the field of academics is typically very low which means competition is very high. So, look for other ways that you can gain status in your religious organization or community. Be an apprentice. Start working with someone as a research assistant and see if you like it. Consider the fact that a PhD may not offer any financial benefit over a master’s degree. In some instances, it may even reduce possible earnings.

Ask yourself, “What am I hoping to get out of the PhD?

Reflect on whether you need or want a PhD.

Analyze your aspirations and goals to see if you really need a PhD to achieve any of these. Some students pursue a PhD out of a love for learning while others just do it to put off getting a job. One British study showed that about a third of PhD graduates admitted to going into their doctoral program without a real passion or reason to continue.

If you really intend to continue into the realm of academia, then the answer is mostly likely, yes. Almost every academic position, especially at research institutes, will require a PhD. Research positions may also require this advanced degree for career advancements or promotions.

However, this isn’t always the case.

Reach out to people that currently work in your field of interest to gain a better understanding of what will be necessary and what the work will be like. Talking to others will also provide different perspectives of what your “dream job” may actually be like day-to-day.

Examine your motivations for wanting to obtain a PhD.

If going through a PhD program isn’t necessary to achieve your bigger plan, then take a timeout;  

enjoy the real world for a while before investing in more schooling. Unless you enjoy being in school just for the sake of learning, feel out the current job market, tackle intellectual problems, and explore new areas of interest.

You can click here to take a quiz about whether a PhD will be a good fit for you. If you want to read more posts like this from the R3ciprocity project, check out:

Recent Posts