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There are many posts here with situation specific asks for advice on should one obtain a PhD, try a different PhD program, etc.

As someone who recently finished a PhD, I have been asked by students, friends, younger folks, this very question:

"Should I get a PhD? What do you think?"

What are the key questions/points that guide you through this conversation and process of giving advice?

I acknowledge advice and guidance might vary between countries and programs, and I have some beginning thoughts to answer this question.

  • Help them determine their goals
  • Would a PhD help them achieve their goals?
  • Don't assume your experience will be their experience

What else can help guide this conversation?

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I think the dialog about their career and life goals are spot on, like you talk about in your questions.

I always start with Why do you want a PhD?

Specifically, I ask people what are your career and life goals?

Depending upon their goals I try to cover the following points:

  • Academic job market: Personally, I try to either steer people away from academic jobs or at least tell them they are statistically unlikely to land an academic job and should have a fall back plan.
  • Do they need a PhD for their job? For some fields, a master's degree might get them their dream job and a PhD overqualify them, especially for applied fields.
  • Where do you want to work? Do they want a research job in either industry or government? Often these jobs are easier to get than academic jobs.
  • Money: Science fields usually pay for a PhD and are money neutral. Although a loss of productive years, at least you are not getting more student debt to obtain a degree. Also, for many fields a MS degree is the optimal choice for maximizing one's lifetime income.
  • Location: Where do you want to live?
  • Sub-field: You can study the same topic in different fields. For example, you might look at soil microbiomes in a soil science department, an agronomy department, a biology department, a theoretical ecology department, or a forestry department. You might even get the same papers from your dissertation, but have very different career options and experiences depending upon your advisor and field.
  • Advisor: Most undergrads I talk with do not realize the importance of choosing a good advisor.
  • Other nuances of my subfield: For example, do you need a MS to get into a PhD program? What are funding options for a PhD? How long does grad school typically take? What are qual and/or comp exams like?
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Maybe this is too personal for an answer, but I think that if a person asks that question, then the obvious answer is no. If you aren't absolutely driven to do it, then it probably isn't what you really want. If you are just "looking for a nice career" then you aren't driven enough.

But if you are absolutely driven by the need to understand "stuff" at a deep level, then maybe it is for you. This implies that you are willing to sacrifice other things (hopefully not other people, though) in the need to achieve that understanding - even of things not yet known. The particular "stuff" isn't nearly as important as the burning need to dig into it.

Another deep driver might be a massive unrequited desire to teach at some level above secondary. Even undergraduate faculty basically require a doctorate, even when serious research is but a small part of the requirements.

Academics and other researchers can achieve a comfortable life style. But the rewards of a doctorate are mostly internal. If the drivers in your life aren't like that, then it will be hard to make it work.

So, for the question itself, ask them what their drivers are. What do they want to achieve? What would make them happy in ten years about both the future and the previous ten years?

If they ask you "Should I..." then maybe not. But if they ask "How can I...", then you have something to work with.

I was driven. I stumbled once, which brought the future into doubt. The intense desire was enough to push me through, even though my family might have wished me to change direction. It wasn't an option. Luckily I found some allies and supporters who helped me get going again.

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    I think this is generally accurate, but/and this is complicated by the palpable fact that different people (and in different backgrounds) do have different senses about all the criteria you mention. "If you are driven to it" is manifest differently depending on lots of other feedback, of course, like the classic nearly-uniform discouragement of women in STEM in the U.S. and elsewhere. But, again, yes, it's not really "a career choice", in any case. Jul 22 '21 at 17:42
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    I wouldn't necessarily say "the answer should or would be no", but as I mentioned in my answer below, that person would need more time and experiences before they can answer the question of "is a PhD right for me?" It would definitely be foolish to jump in a PhD without knowing anything about what research entails, but once you have that experience, then you can make a more informed decision.
    – Daveguy
    Jul 22 '21 at 18:30
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    @Buffy - When my wife and I attended a parents session at a college where my son intended to pursue a BFA in musical theatre, a parent asked if her child should also study something "to fall back on" in case a theatre career didn't work out. The faculty member running the session (who later became our son's mentor) said that if the child is not fully committed to theatre, they should probably pursue a different career. A different field, and a different level, but definitely in line with your point. Jul 22 '21 at 23:37
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One thing you haven't noted is that a PhD is mainly, if not all about, research. The way PhD admissions has focused more on research experience, as opposed to grades, I would say get multiple experiences beforehand that will help one determine if a PhD is right for them. This includes (mainly elaborating on OP's first two bullet points):

  • Getting as much research experience (preferably related to what you may want to focus on, but also even if not necessarily related) to help one figure out what they specifically want to focus on if they were to do a PhD or help them figure out if research is for them. This includes opportunities at their undergraduate/MS institution, or, if there aren't as many opportunities in the field of interest, programs like NSF REU's at other schools to help people get such research opportunities/experience.
  • Maybe working in industry or some non-academic job that would help them see what life is like as part of a corporate job, etc. and if they want this long-term as opposed to an academic or any MS/PhD-related career. During my REU, we had these weekly chat sessions with PhD students, a few of them who had worked before starting their PhD; in addition to one of the professors organizing the REU who had done the same, most, if not all, of them said it helped confirm that PhD/academics is what they wanted to do.

Another bullet point I'd like to add, is can you be frugal with money during the 5-8 years you are getting your PhD? Assuming you take a fully-funded offer (like you should, otherwise treat it as a soft reject) and get a living stipend, you should be aware that that stipend is much much less than if you took even a very entry-level IT job. Learning how to be frugal (including saving up money beforehand) will definitely help a lot financially for one before and during the PhD process.

(responding to a comment below: if all you care about is earning a six-figure salary fast, then PhD is not what you want because at the least you are delaying this for a full five years)

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    Hmmm, maybe "Can you be frugal forever?". If money is your driver, then drive elsewhere, I think.
    – Buffy
    Jul 22 '21 at 17:15
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    I ... can't disagree with this.
    – Daveguy
    Jul 22 '21 at 17:22
  • "you are delaying this for a full five years" Or by three years, if you're doing a PhD that requires a Master's Degree, rather than including one.
    – nick012000
    Jul 25 '21 at 2:51

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