Opinion: When to pursue — or forget about — a Ph.D.

A student at a consultation session. Obtaining a Ph.D. is a little like taking out an insurance policy — it can give you a lot more freedom in career choice. Below are five reasons to get a Ph.D. and five reasons to reconsider. Photo by: Georgia Southern University / CC BY-NC-ND

Typical Ph.D. programs comprise one to two years of classes, followed by two to four years of research in which you learn how to define a pressing problem and develop an original solution.

You have the opportunity to deeply pursue your academic discipline, work independently and persist in the face of political, technical and institutional obstacles. You emerge with a strong work ethic, the confidence to persist through challenging problems and extensive experience in integrating information, subjects and disciplines.

Although an initial long-term commitment, Ph.D. graduates are well placed to embark on careers in international development and social enterprise. But being academically talented, enjoying school and your subject matter does not necessarily make you a good fit. Below are several reasons to pursue — or forget about — a Ph.D.

Five reasons to get a Ph.D.:

1. To become a subject-matter expert.

You will spend roughly five years studying your favorite subject in great depth while devoting a substantial amount of your time to original research. You will have neither the time nor the money to do much else, so you need to really love your subject. The skills acquired are highly transferable and valuable when seeking opportunities for innovation, both in comprehending problems and in developing well-researched, well-tested, sustainable solutions.

2. To learn in a focused, dedicated, disciplined manner.

Ph.D. students spend a lot of time working independently, often in isolation, so you need to be able to motivate and organize yourself and bounce back from inevitable setbacks. A Ph.D. can include conducting in-depth literature reviews, developing innovative data collection methods, designing statistically sound experiments, finding or creating metrics, communicating results, managing personalities and sufficiently addressing a need within a field of research.

Successfully navigating this process will be challenging, tiring and at times deeply frustrating — but ultimately rewarding when success is achieved.

3. To meet requirements for certain jobs.

For better or for worse, a Ph.D. has become the de facto qualification for some careers. In the natural sciences, and increasingly in engineering positions, a Ph.D. is commonly required together with one or more postdoctoral appointments to qualify for scientific research or university teaching positions. An increasing number of senior staff at large bilaterals like the U.S. Agency for International Development and multilateral organizations like the U.N. system have doctorates.

4. To get on the fast track.

The credibility associated with a Ph.D. provides better overall prospects in all kinds of organizations, including a fast-track to more senior posts and easier access to specialized resources. Obtaining a Ph.D. is a little like taking out an insurance policy — it can give you a lot more freedom in career choice. You don’t necessarily need it, but it’s good to have and will not over qualify you for sought-after positions.

5. To build your network.

Universities are amazing connectors of people and resources from diverse disciplines. As a Ph.D. student, you will have opportunities to attend research seminars, national and international conferences, and, in the process, meet many interesting people. This network of contacts provides you with new friendships, respected colleagues with whom you can discuss your ideas and contacts for career opportunities.

Five reasons not to get a Ph.D.:

1. Because you have nothing else to do.

Being academically talented, enjoying school and your subject matter does not make you a good fit for a Ph.D. Embarking on a graduate program just because you want to keep studying is not a good reason. If you’re uncertain, get a job outside academia when you graduate. This will help you think through your reasons for investing four to five years of your prime in earning a Ph.D.

2. Because you want to become an entrepreneur.

You do not need a Ph.D. to be an entrepreneur, though it might help you access resources. Look no further than Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. Go back in history and look at the giants of industry. Two of the best known, Tesla and Ford, had no advanced degrees. Completing a Ph.D. will certainly help you acquire the skills already mentioned, but the degree itself is not a prerequisite to being a successful entrepreneur. For that you need a brilliant idea, passion and tenacity.

3. To be well-compensated (financially or academically) for your work.

Although you may get a stipend that pays for food and shelter, funding is typically tied to grants or academic semesters and can therefore be inconsistent and unreliable. It may be difficult to see your friends advancing in careers and establishing wealth while you spend several years in school. The knowledge, networking and publications gained through the process will significantly elevate your credibility throughout the course of your career — but that seldom applies to your salary.

4. To get three letters after your name or to be called “doctor.”

This is the worst reason! Without a genuine interest in the material and the process, you are wasting your time and that of everyone else. The Ph.D. letters might help with credibility when forging new relationships and applying for grants, but the true value is the expertise, the academic networking, the results of the project you spearheaded and the passion you developed for the subject.

5. Because you have in-demand technical skills or are already an expert.

If you have the strong technical skills that meet the needs of a desired position, then you probably do not need a Ph.D. If you only want to sharpen technical skills, you may be frustrated by the amount of literature review, writing, communication and synthesis expected by a doctoral program. A Ph.D. is much more challenging than a high-level technical training course, it requires completion of intellectually demanding research.

If you want to pursue a Ph.D., you must do so because you have an intellectual thirst for learning and knowledge, a desire to answer a question that no one else has answered and the tenacity to pursue this in the face of extreme adversity. It is a fantastic experience to touch the absolute frontier of human knowledge in one small area. The skills acquired are highly transferable and valuable when seeking opportunities for social innovation, both in comprehending problems and in developing well-researched, well-tested and sustainable solutions.

This article is an abbreviated version of a chapter from the book, “Solving Problems that Matter (and Getting Paid for It),” edited by Khanjan Mehta, that delves into STEM careers in social innovation and global sustainable development.

You know you need a postgraduate degree to advance in a global development career, but deciding on a program, degree and specialization can be overwhelming. Devex and our partners are digging into all things graduate school and global development in a weeklong series called Grad School Week. Join online events and read more advice on pursuing a postgraduate education here.

About the authors

  • Toby Cumberbatch

    Toby Cumberbatch is a professor of electrical engineering at the Cooper Union in New York City. His principal interests are developing engineering practices to address the real needs of people in remote, rural communities through Engineering for the Middle of Nowhere.
  • Pritpal Singh

    Pritpal Singh is professor and chair of the electrical and computer engineering department at Villanova University. Over his 30-year career in academia, Singh has been involved in many international development projects, including the design and implementation of a solar water pumping system in the Dominican Republic, running a solar business in India and the development of a telehealth project in Nicaragua.

Join the Discussion