Don’t Worry About The Costs Of Your Doctorate


As someone who is trained in decision-making and the financial aspects of life, I can’t believe that I am going to say this: Don’t worry about the costs of getting your PhD.

I am not saying to forget about these costs. People that market PhD Programs to you are going to wash over these costs. We forget that the things we do in life have large costs. I am not going to do that. I believe in full and transparent information.

Doing Research Has Large Costs.

The costs of doing a PhD are LARGE, and they are very real. There are financial costs doing a doctorate are much larger than most people realize. Opportunity costs – the costs of forgoing wages to get your PhD typically range in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The emotional costs of doing your doctorate are LARGE, and they are very real. You will cry. You will doubt yourself. You will think what you are doing is a complete waste of time.

Most people look at the life of a scientist, inventor, researcher, or professor or whoever and wonder “wouldn’t life be nice if I had that career.” What people don’t see is the number of times you have cried, been anxious about not knowing what to do, or are unrelentingly unforgiving of yourself for screwing something up in the past. The struggle inside is very real for most of us.

Just read any scientific magazine or even read journal articles about the history of science, and most of these articles will tell you that the costs of doing research far outweigh the benefits.

When I think about science, I cannot help but think about the book about entrepreneurial failure called Born Losers. Like entrepreneurship, we romanticize the benefits of winning, while there is a large costs that are associated with research and science.

Don’t Dwell On The Costs Of Getting Your PhD.

What I am telling you is to not dwell on these costs. When you make a decision, don’t dwell on these costs. It does not make you feel happy. Indeed, if you are already pursuing a doctorate or have one, these costs are already ‘sunk,’ meaning they should not be included in future decision-making.

What I am saying instead is for you to dwell on dwell on the opportunities that you may get, and work towards those opportunities. Like entrepreneurship, all of those failures you get along the way, provide valuable lessons in science and research in how to not only become a better researcher, but also how to live your life to the fullest.

The Opportunities Of A PhD

For me, getting a PhD and pursuing a research career has amplified who I already am.

The Value Of Hardwork

Getting a doctorate, for me, has really showed me that nothing in this life is easy. It takes considerable hardwork, no matter what field you’re in and what you are doing. I am not saying that luck does not matter, and there is a lot of research that suggests luck is important (See the Matthew Effect by Merton). What it has helped me see is that opportunities and the possibility of luck do not accrue unless you put in the hardwork.

The work of a scientist or research is rarely hard per se in the moment (unless you count worn out typing fingers), but it is challenging to do the same thing every day despite the conditions that you face.

The results of science are never going to be easily and readily available unless you work hard to reveal those results. You have to take many little steps that are painstaking in research. I’ll be the first to tell you that these little steps are often extremely ugly and messy. Nobody will ever tell you about all of little mistakes that you make in each one of those steps.

Moreover, the pace of change is incremental: The day-to-day of a scientist or researcher is small little steps. However, it is through the accumulation of little steps over a long time that turn into something magical.

It has also taught me that there is no hack, quickfix, or instant solution. The only thing we have access to is hard work. Getting up every day, and doing grumbly and mundane hardwork.

It has taught me to focus on the work. The joy comes from the journey of doing the hardwork, not achieving the end goal. Publications are really not that exciting. The only celebration you are going to have is a piece of cake, then life goes back to normal: Doing more grumbly and mundane hardwork. Every single day.

You Don’t Have To Be The Best Or Smart.

Getting a doctorate has also showed me that I do not have to be the best or smart. Yes, there are very smart people in the career. There are a lot of people that are better researchers than me.

What I have learned is that being a professor, scientist, or researcher is really about just moving things. When I worry about being the best, I inevitably feel bad. The only thing I can worry about is moving forward everyday.

Don’t worry about being the best. The only thing you can worry about is moving things everyday. You might not be the smartest, but you can be the person who moves the most boxes. You can make the largest impact by simply moving boxes. Everyday don’t stop moving boxes.

When I worry about success is the moment when I start doing sleazy things in my work and in my life. Doing the right thing is slow and unproductive, and most people likely won’t see it. However, it is the way that I have made the most progress in my own life.

You Learn That YOU Are The Special Sauce

Doing a doctorate and becoming a professor has taught me that YOU ARE the special sauce. When you start out in research, you believe that everything has already be done. Trust me. It has. What is different is your take on the world.

What you learn is to trust you judgment, and to see the world through your own eyes. Everybody sees things differently.

Further, if you are anything like me, you like experience a lot research frustrations. Things just do not work as they should. Frustrations are normal experiences in academic life.

However, you learn to deal with these frustrations through framing the problem. Every problem is an opportunity to see the world differently. You will begin to develop confidence in your ability to develop workarounds to get your research projects off the ground.

The Opportunity Of Doing A PhD

What I am saying is that the opportunity of doing a PhD are not readily apparent. The opportunity comes in the form of very subtle things in who become.

You begin to realize that there is no magic, no network, no mysterious investor or foundation that is going to make your project successful.

You develop strength in your ability to do the work. Like all meaningful things in life, there is nothing in science that is going to have immediate returns.

What you develop is a sense of hope. You know that if you put in the work with no immediate returns, that you will likely have an investment that will pay off when you wait a decade or century.

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