Careers

How to Know if a PhD is the Right Choice for You

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As a career coach at a top research university, it’s no surprise that I come across master’s students interested in pursuing a PhD. Earning a doctorate is an accomplishment to be proud of; it challenges you, satisfies your intellectual curiosity about a specific subject, allows you to study and address the world’s most pressing problems, and it certainly brings prestige.

Going after a doctoral degree, however, is also a huge commitment in terms of time and money: According to the Doctorate Recipients from U.S. Universities: 2017 report, it could take between five and fifteen years to complete the degree, and depending on your area of study, you may graduate with significant debt. Though on average those with PhDs earn higher salaries than those with masters or bachelors degrees, it takes dedication, stamina and patience to get to that point. Considering that 50 percent of students leave before completing their doctoral studies, you may want to ask yourself the following questions to determine if a PhD is the right choice for you.


Is A PhD Essential in Your Target Field? 

First thing's first: Do you need a PhD? Plenty of career options exist that don’t require you to have a PhD in order to succeed and advance, so before diving into the grueling life of a doctoral student, find out if it’s necessary in your particular context. What are you trying to accomplish? In certain fields, like pharmaceutical sciences, psychology, biomedical sciences and academia, a doctoral degree is not only needed for growth and advancement, but it’s also required to practice in the field. Without a PhD, your options in those fields will be limited.

“I pursued a PhD in psychology because it offered me several career paths: I could pursue research, therapy, teaching, coaching, organizational work or a combination,” shares Dr. Dawn Graham, career director for the MBA Program for Executives at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “Knowing that careers will morph and the market will shift, it was important to me to have a variety of options in my chosen profession.” If a doctoral degree is not a must for your chosen career path, what would the value of pursuing one be? Understand the benefits before starting the application process.

Do You Have A Research Focus?

Once you’ve determined that a PhD can propel you forward in your career, you want to confirm that you are ready to embark on the journey. A main reason students don’t complete their doctoral studies is the challenge of finding a research subject they are curious about and on which they can collect enough data to complete a dissertation. “When considering a PhD, you should think about the fact that you will invest some time in coursework and two to three years of research to earn the degree,” advises Dr. Kevin Frick, vice dean for education at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School. “Is there a topic that you are so interested in that you want to invest much time researching with some guidance and a laser focus?” If not, you may not be ready for a doctoral program yet.

Not having a clear idea of what you’d like to research in your pursuit of a PhD will make it difficult to be accepted in a target program. As such, you may want to explore the field you are drawn to by reading relevant publications, attending field-specific conferences and other events, and speaking with those currently in the field. What are pressing issues you hear about? What is already being done to address the issues? What is not being done and is that something you may be interested in trying out? Being curious and paying attention to developments in your field can help you identify a research focus you want to explore.

Have You Identified A Potential Mentor? 

As you research doctoral programs in your field of interest, you may also want to research and follow the work of professors who study topics you are excited about studying. When you are a doctoral student, you will need to work closely and for a significant amount of time with a faculty supervisor. You want to make sure that person can offer you the support and guidance you need to grow and excel in your studies. To find potential mentors and learn more about their approach to research and mentorship, consider reaching out and connecting with faculty members in your field of interest. Read what they have published, try to attend a class they teach or hear them speak at a conference. If you are genuinely fascinated by the subject and the person researching it, reaching out to connect will be much easier.

Do You Love Writing? 

You may enjoy research and you may love your chosen subject, but if you are not a fan of writing -- writing a lot -- you will have a hard time during your doctoral studies. Completing a PhD demands hours of research, culminating in a written dissertation you have to defend in front of a committee. Depending on your field of interest, a dissertation may be 50 pages in length or it could be over 200 pages. In addition to your dissertation, you’ll be expected to author and co-author numerous articles during your time as a graduate student. Needless to say, you’ll need exceptional writing skills to get into and complete a PhD program, but you will also need the stamina and diligence to sit down and write every single day. Does that sound like something you’d like to do?

What Is Your Self-Care Plan?

Working on a doctoral degree is a stressful and often solitary affair, and it may be difficult to do anything outside of studying and research, but to avoid burnout, it’s vital to come up with a strategy on how you plan to balance your PhD studies and your social life. To ensure that your personal life and health are not negatively impacted, you may want to commit to a schedule that can keep you organized through the years of research and writing. Don’t forget the basics: eat well, sleep well and exercise. What is your go-to activity to make you feel pumped? Be sure to engage in it weekly as a way to recharge and energize.

Final Thoughts

If you are still not sure a PhD is the right choice for you, you may want to take a few years and gain experience in your field. Keep in mind that you don’t have to make a decision right now; sometimes, it’s best to explore first. “I took four years to work before earning my master’s degree, and then another four years of work before pursuing my PhD,” says Graham. “This experience ensured that I was mentally and financially ready for the challenge, and that I was certain about my path.” With a better understanding of your target field and how a PhD can help you advance in it, you’ll also be better prepared to convince an admissions committee that you are in front of them for the right reasons.