I was recently thinking about the advice that you get on PhD forums and university websites, and much of this advice is about why you SHOULD get a doctorate (i.e. PhD, DBA, etc). The problem with this perspective is that does not help you determine if doing a doctorate is right for you. I kind of think like an economist, and I always think that there are costs and benefits to every decision. Not every option is good for everyone, especially when thinking about pursuing a doctorate. There are a lot of costs that are associated with terminal degrees because they do take a long time, cost a fair bit of resources, and often have uncertain outcomes. Many people who start a PhD, do not complete it for many reasons that these websites about doing a PhD fail to mention.
So, a couple of caveats about the ideas in this post:
- I want to work with the assumption that you do not need to get a doctorate to get many of the outcomes you want, but you want to think about whether getting a doctorate is for you. For example, if you want to become a management consultant, I would highly recommend that you just get an MBA. Or, if you want to teach in the business school, you often just need an MBA, and then you can teach as an Adjunct Professor. If you are thinking of doing a doctorate to become a business executive, please read this post – it will save you soooo much time.
- This is going to be rather focused on getting a doctorate in a Business School, like a PhD in Business Administration or a Doctorate of Business Administration. Why? This is what I know as I am an Assistant Professor of Innovation, Strategy, and Entrepreneurship.
- This is my own personal experience, and does not represent either my own institution’s position or other’s views. I am going to share my own experience to help others that were in a similar position as me. There were very few people in my family that went to university for a long time, nevertheless going into academia. I think I was the only one for a while, and I don’t know of any of my relatives that are university professors. Now, this is changing with a new generation. If you were like me, I really did not know many people who I can get honest advice from. I am sure that I am not the only one that is in that position.
- This is part of my r3ciprocity.com project. I built a sharing economy proofreading software, in which people can help others or you can help on your written work. The goal of the project is to motivate people to help others, and as well to scratch my own itch. There was not really anything on the internet that was like this system, and I often need feedback on my own written work, so I thought I could be the one to build the proofreading software. Crazy idea, I know. After I built the software, I realized that I needed to market it some how. My wife and I were bootstrapping the software out of our own personal funds, so I did not have a lot of extra money to do a marketing campaign. So, I thought the best way to market this platform was to give even more with YouTube videos about PhD life, and this blog. Was this a stupid idea? Probably. Being immensely open about my thoughts and who I am has given me some personal grief, but, I also think that if I just help one person make a better decision, I will be happy.
At this point, I truly do not know if this project will ever work, but I have faith in the kindness of people. I can’t do this alone. I believe that most people are good, and that there are enough good people in this world, they will see value in this project. (As of lately, some people have been very helpful and many people have been indifferent to the project).
What Are The Most Obvious Reasons To Get A Doctorate (PhD / DBA)?
There are many obvious reasons to get a doctorate, particularly in business administration.
- You do get a mild increase in social status. Being a ‘Doctor’ has a cool ring to it. Admittedly, when I was 23, my PhD attraction was largely due to this social status. Maybe I was vain, or maybe it was something else. I just wish we could prescribe meds sometimes. The only thing I can prescribe is a bad joke. 😉
- A PhD salary is generally ‘pretty’ good. What pretty good means depends on the beholder. Most PhDs have a decent salary, although this widely varies between disciplines and sub-fields / concentrations. I have heard of some disciplines that make $30 k per year, and others that make well over six figures. If you do a PhD in Business, a rough estimate for most countries is somewhere around $80-120 k per year, but this varies depending on many factors, like country, your academic rank (ie. Assistant, Associate, Full Professor) or institution. Some PhD disciplines (finance) might make quite a bit more. The wages of a PhD really just depends.
- One thing I wanted to point out that is really strange with salaries. You only get paid for 9 months of the year. The other 3 months are the summer months, and most schools will not pay your salary during that time. However, many PhDs get grants for the summer months.
- Also, many PhDs in Business experience a thing called salary inversion. This is where the people you teach (MBAs) make more money than you do. Its an odd thing that happens.
- You get to do work that you love, or at least tolerate. 🙂 I mean you can pick the skills and subset of skills that you want to specialize in. You can be the world’s expert at X. Seriously. It really is not all that difficult to be an expert at something if you pick a small of niche.
- Most people around you are very smart, and you can have sharp conversations. Don’t underestimate this aspect of a PhD. Talking to smart people can be quite a joy!
You can watch my YouTube video about PhD in Business salaries:
Again, please do not take any of this as complaints. I truly love my job, and I love the students and people that I interact with on a daily basis. There are a lot of benefits to getting a PhD. You can go to this page on the advantages of doing a PhD in Business, or watch the following video that I made about the benefits of getting a PhD in Business:
Of course, there are many other factors to get a PhD, and you can go to a university website about that. It is a great career, but like everything you do, it is challenging. I want to be as honest as possible, as this is a large career choice for you, and you will never get a second chance at making this choice. I would rather that you have an honest thoughtful discussion with your family about whether to do a PhD in Business. You and your family should be well aware before you jump into this career.
I think I would be not fair to not have the information to make a educated choice on something in which you will spend decades doing, so…
What Are The Reasons Not To Get A Doctorate?
1. The Returns On Your PhD Education Are Far Too Long In The Future.
I remember doing my own net present value calculation on my salaries and wages as a business school professor, compared to what my salary and wages would have been as ‘just’ an engineer with a masters degree. My break-even point was when I was around 55. After that point, it made financial sense to get a PhD. Even if my estimates are wildly off, a good estimate is that you will need at least a decade to recoup the cost of pursuing a doctorate. (Again, I feel absolutely privileged to get paid anything to do what I do at the place where I am).
However, this does not account for many other factors that affect risk. If you drop out of the PhD program, die early, or have anything negative happen to you where you have to trade-off your career against life (ie. you have a sick child, you get divorced, etc.), the returns of getting a PhD are quite a bit worse. For example, it is actually somewhat common for people to leave of PhD programs before they complete the program. Now, there are many reasons why people leave, but the returns are quite low for a doctorate if you never complete the degree.
Again, I am not saying that you cannot be successful after you pursue a PhD, or not that there are many tacit or implicit rewards to having a PhD that cannot be financially measured. However, the financial odds are stacked against you, and you have to weigh the financial cost of getting a PhD versus its benefit. You should have a plan ‘b’ in the back of your mind, just in case the PhD does not work out for you.
Yes, I am well aware that people might have say that if you have a plan ‘b’ that you are not taking the career seriously. Personally, I think it is quite the opposite. You should always compare against a counterfactual (or best alternative), and at any moment that you believe the counterfactual is much better, you should consider your options. This keeps you grounded, and helps you make an informed choice about ‘why’ you are doing what you are doing. For example, I am well aware that I can maybe make more outside of academia (as most professors can), but I truly believe that the professors do is so important that I am willing to happily do what I do.
2. You Have To “Work” Long Hours If You Get A PhD.
I really love those movies that show graduate students goofing off in some lab some where (ie. Big Hero 6). I think to myself – what planet are the writers on? Most people that are doing a PhD do not feel like they have time to do many activities beyond a few hobbies. For me, I spend most of my time with my family and kids (standard Dad stuff like going to swim practice, baseball, getting groceries, COSTCO Run!, walking the dog, etc.). Actually, it is funny because my most rewarding time is not reading or partying, but rather cleaning our house. My wife and I used to fight over who got to clean when our kids were small. 🙂
Other than that, most of my time is spent writing and analyzing data. Although, I am not sure if I would call this ‘work.’ Writing is hard for me, yes, but much of this part is quite enjoyable. The only time it is a pain is you are stuck on making your writing clear. For me, I spend a great deal of time thinking and fretting over a few words in my papers. But, just because writing is painful and I am unhappy in the ‘act’ of writing does not mean it is worth it. If I did everything that was fun and made me happy all the time, there is no way I would ever run, workout, eat healthy food, or devote anytime to selfless acts like care for my kids. Even opening the door for a strange is rather pointless if you take the view that you should do what makes you happy – it takes work to open that door and makes you tired at the end of the day. Doing what is fun and makes you happy is a poor way to understand work, or life in general. I personally get joy from doing hard and difficult things that cause me great frustration at the moment. What matters is whether you would do that work again if given a chance. And, personally, when it comes to research, I would.
Just imagine that you will spend most of your time sitting (or like me, standing) at your desk writing. And, my point is that you should not consider a PhD as a way to actually slack off for the rest of your life. This myth of PhD life is far from the truth. A PhD is very difficult, and often very competitive. Just imagine that you have the brightest minds in the world all competing for the same space in academia. Of course, it is going to be challenging.
3. A PhD Will Likely Lead You To Cry Or Get Very Angry At Somebody Or Something Multiple Times.
One of the things that I have learned is that learning is very difficult to do. Inevitably, it is very frustrating, and the response that most people have when they learn is to get emotional. The emotional response is either positive or negative, but mostly for me, because of the cognition resources it takes to write, I experience negative emotions (anxiety, anger, etc) regularly. These negative emotions are part and parcel of doing research for me. It might not be for everyone.
Because there is a lot of uncertainty and ambiguity in a PhD in Business Administration, you also rarely have a clear answer of how long things will take, or how difficult it will be. Research is highly uncertain – papers are done when they are done. (Watch my video on uncertainty during a PhD). Again, this will lead you to be emotional, and take out your fears on others. (I sincerely apologize to all those that I did.) Just expect that you will have many bad days and the occasional great day during your PhD. These experiences continue to persist for me, but you kind of get used to the emotional responses over time, and I have learnt to separate these emotions from the actual PhD work.
I am pretty sure that I am not out of the ordinary. You just have to come to expect these emotional responses in academia.
4. You Will Spend Large Amounts Of Your Time Alone During Your PhD in Business Administration
My wife works in a medical practice (to protect her privacy, I won’t say where). In this practice, I am amazed by the hustle and bustle of the place. There is constant motion, and people are constantly talking and joking. Its loud. Its silly but professional. It is a fun practice, but I don’t think this is extraordinary for many workplaces.
Contrast this experience with doing a PhD. Much of the time you spend alone with your thoughts. Yes, you do come out and say ‘hi’ to a colleague or a student in the halls, but 80-90% of your time is thinking about an idea. This is quite nice if you are an introvert, but I personally never gave this aspect of the job as much thought as I should have. I always liked thinking about ideas, but the solo nature of doing a PhD can lead to strange things. For example, it is not uncommon to experience various mental health problems during a PhD (See my video on my own experiences during my PhD), or develop chronic back pain from being hunched over all day (This happened to me and virtually every PhD student that I came across). I would imagine many of us experienced these issues. (I have switched to a standing desk, which has helped a lot on both aspects – in terms of my mental well-being and back issues).
Just be sure that you are aware of that much of the career is a solo endeavor. You do collab and work with colleagues, but this type of work tends to be working together at a distance or intermittent. I have heard of some people who work together on papers in the same room (Tversky and Kahneman), but this is uncommon for many people.
5. While You Might Feel Successful In Your Current Job, Be Prepared To Feel Humbled During Your PhD
When you start your PhD, you have to start at the bottom rung of the career ladder. There is actually a pretty formal career progression in academia (PhD student, PhD candidate, Post-Doc, Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, Full Professor). When you start your PhD, you start at the very bottom, and you work your way up the ladder. This means that if you were a lawyer or a successful business-person before your PhD, nobody is going to care that much. You will have to build your academic career, and nobody will know who you are for a long time.
Ultimately, this is what people are screening you for when you apply for a PhD program (If interested in programs, see my post about getting into a PhD program in strategy and innovation). Yes, acceptance rates for PhDs in Business are generally quite low (around 1-10% of applicants get into most programs). However, the admissions office and Professors are not making the acceptance rates low on purpose. They are screening to make sure that you will survive and do well in the program. Again, many people that start a PhD will find other things to do and quit the program. Most people in a PhD program are already some the brightest people you will meet, and it is more about figuring out if you are going to enjoy the program.
My point is that you will have to get used to being humble and building your research career over decades (I have a post about starting your career in your 30s and why it takes a long time to build your research program). People are not going to care about who you are until you are quite senior in your career. However, many of us get a lot of joy out of the meritocracy of the academic life. It is one of the only careers that I know of where the more you put in, the more you get out.
6. Doing a PhD / Doctorate In Business Administration Effects Your Family-Life Choices.
You really need to have a serious discussion with your significant others before you start your doctorate in business. When I started my PhD degree in General Management (Ivey Business School), I don’t think neither my wife or I had any real idea of what was going to happen. Luckily, we got through the program (with a few scrapes and bruises), and I consider my outcome rather successful (we live in a beautiful town and I have amazing colleagues). However, you really need to sit down and have ‘dream meetings’ (Dave Ramsey – the personal finance guru talks about these meetings), and regularly discuss ‘why’ you are doing your doctorate.
Not every one of these meetings are going to go well, if you are like me, but you need to constantly be communicating and be open with your partner. By the way, don’t expect your significant other to understand or be terribly interested in your research. What is more important is that the both of you are on the same boat with why you are taking years to get a job. You also have to be clear that the job prospects are quite uncertain from the get-go. Its highly likely that you will get a good job with a PhD, but you do not know or where that will occur.
You also need to have some deep discussions about having children and elderly parents around during your doctorate. I would not change my life for a second (I have two wonderful kids), but you have to prioritize and work around your dependent’s schedule. Just be prepared that this decision seems easy and attractive, but it will be more difficult than you expect because you will feel like you want to prioritize study and research over everything else. I have an addictive personality, and I can feel addicted to research quite quickly.
Should You Get A Doctorate / PhD In Business?
Ultimately, the decision is quite personal, and you have to weigh the factors against doing a doctorate versus the factors for doing a doctorate. The question of whether you should pursue a PhD in any field depends a lot on what are you interested in, and why are you interested in that topic. There is no real reason to do a PhD if you not curious about the world. You have to want to study the thing in such a passionate way that you will do everything it takes to complete the PhD and succeed in the career.
So, think to yourself, what topic did you find the most interesting to study when you did your undergraduate degree or MBA? Can you see yourself studying this topic for years? Picking this topic will also help you leverage your current competencies and knowledge.
Based on this post, you might think that I have quite negative about the degree. This is not true – I love the fact that I did a PhD, and I truly did learn a lot about myself that I would not trade for anything. However, I want to be real and open as I possibly can.
This is a big decision for you, and you need to have full information. Obtaining a terminal degree is not for everyone, so please take your decision seriously.
Are You Still Interested In Doing a PhD In Business?
If you are still interested in doing a PhD in Business, I would recommend you watch a few of the videos that I created about the basics of getting into programs around the world. You might also want to read my post about becoming a business school professor. This is all of the advice I wish I had when I applied and started my PhD way back in 2005.
You are going to need to understand about the graduate school interview. I still remember mine – I am surprised that they accepted me into the program. I learnt a lot more since those days, and I hope this video will help you:
You might also want to watch my video about picking the concentration for your PhD. Believe it or not, the concentration of your PhD does matter a lot for your desire and career prospects. You have to think about what PhD concentration works for you:
Lastly, you might want to watch this video about what makes a great PhD student. I hope this helps:
In sum, I hope you choose wisely with your career, or doing a doctorate in business. Make sure that you talk to people, and discuss with your family about this big decision. If you are not serious about the career, and I persuaded you look at other options, that is awesome. If, however, you are still in love with the idea of getting a doctorate in business, I wish you all of the best. I know that you will prosper in this career.
I hope you liked this post. 🙂 I tried to be pretty thorough. Obviously, I am sure I missed many things about doing a PhD in Business, and if you want to learn more, please check out my r3ciprocity YouTube channel. I have a lot of helpful videos for graduate students.