62

I know a PhD is supposed to be an apprenticeship for future researchers. But what if you enjoy getting the PhD, but have no intention of doing research in the future? It seems like being a professor is really stressful and there is a lot of competition, and same thing for other sorts of non-grad-school research jobs. If you think this way, does this mean you shouldn't get a PhD, and why?

  • 10
    Do people say that? I think the point is that a PhD probably isn't a requirement unless you want a career in research, rather than that you shouldn't do one unless you want a career in research. Having said which, finding a PhD enjoyable is an indication that you would probably enjoy a career in research as well. – Dikran Marsupial Sep 3 '15 at 16:08
  • 5
    There are certainly many jobs outside academia that require a PhD, or at least where it is a big plus. For example the new data scientist job market. – Paul Hiemstra Sep 3 '15 at 17:13
  • 21
    @DikranMarsupial I firmly advise students not to pursue a PhD (in math or computer science) unless they cannot even imagine being happy without doing research. – JeffE Sep 3 '15 at 22:50
  • 4
    @JeffE I wouldn't have done a PhD on that basis, but I am glad that I did! Many students don't really have a good idea what research is about when they start a PhD (as this question shows); one of the most important things that you can learn during a PhD is that a career in research is not for you. Many students are very able when being taught, but turn out not to be very good at coming up with new ideas, and the only way to test whether you are able to do this is to have a go. I do agree though that a PhD requires a very substantial commitment and so warnings are a good idea (+1). – Dikran Marsupial Sep 4 '15 at 6:59
  • 3
    Answers to this question would be considerably more meaningful if we stick to a specific field. From the answers below it sounds like folks here aren't in any form of industry-related science or engineering field. It would be nice to get that out in the open explicitly if that's the case. – DanielSank Sep 4 '15 at 8:20

13 Answers 13

63

Research is not just the most important aspect of any PhD program worth the name; it's the entire point. Everything you do as part of the program (teaching duties aside) is to prepare you for a career as a researcher. So getting a PhD without any intention of putting this research training to use would be like spending years as a baking apprentice without any intention of becoming a baker: maybe not a complete waste if you really like baking (but not enough to make it a career?), but almost inarguably not the best use of your time.

Lots of people get PhDs and don't become researchers, but if these people had known beforehand what industry they would end up in, odds are they could have gotten a better jump start on their career by getting a Master's degree focused on that industry and entering the workforce after one or two years (rather than 5+ for the PhD). There are exceptions to this principle, but they are relatively uncommon, and usually involve industry jobs that somewhat resemble research anyway.

I can think of only two other justifications for getting a PhD: learning for learning's sake, and prestige. The former is a noble goal, but if all you want to do is learn without contributing to the body of knowledge in your field, this is contrary to the spirit of (good) PhD programs as stated above. Furthermore, you can learn all you want in your free time without entering a PhD program. Find out what the standard graduate-level textbooks are in your field, and work through them. If your knowledge gets up to the research level in a particular topic, you can start reading recent research articles. (Your local library will likely have access.) As for prestige, this may be subjective, but spending five years of your life for a piece of paper is unlikely to be satisfying in the long run. And, speaking as someone who has a PhD, you'll soon learn that most people will not really want to address you as "Doctor."

Having said all that, if you do like (or think you would like) research, but are put off solely by the expected competition and stress, I urge you to be more open-minded. Academia is certainly competitive and stressful, but so are most careers worth having.

| improve this answer | |
  • 41
    "Your local library will likely have access." In the United States, I think this is very unlikely. I just checked the Free Library of Philadelphia (the local library system in the major American city I grew up in), and under "Sciences" they list only four journals which the American Physical Society has made available to all libraries. After getting my PhD in mathematics I spent the summer in Philadelphia. With a Harvard PhD I persuaded the University of Pennsylvania to give me library access. If as a private citizen I had access to any math journals, I certainly didn't know about it. – Pete L. Clark Sep 3 '15 at 16:57
  • 6
    By the way, I think the rest of your answer is dead on. +1. – Pete L. Clark Sep 3 '15 at 16:58
  • 7
    What about someone who wants to be a college professor for the purposes of teaching? I know a Phd and professor and this was his chosen career path. He has not nearly as much interest in research, giving papers, etc., he just does those things to maintain his professorship. All the Phds or people working on their Phd that I know, save one, are teaching or are planning to teach. – Todd Wilcox Sep 3 '15 at 20:37
  • 3
    "Everything you do as part of the program (teaching duties aside) is to prepare you for a career as a researcher". Whilst I agree partly with the above statement, I do think that most skills that you learn during a PhD are easily transferrable into other careers. The truth is there aren't enough academic posts for all PhD candidates and it is inevitable that a large proportion will end up in industry. – John_dydx Sep 3 '15 at 20:40
  • 7
    (teaching duties aside) — [citation needed] If teaching doesn't help you become a better researcher, you're doing it wrong. – JeffE Sep 3 '15 at 22:53
28

Although the primary goal of a PhD is to train you in performing scientific research, a career in academia is definitely not the only possible result. In fact, more PhDs end up not staying in academia and not becoming a professor. A lot of people I did my PhD with either work for research institutes or consultancy companies. They are in positions where their abstract thinking skills serve them well, and are appreciated by their employers. I ended up in a data scientist like position, where my programming skills, abstract thinking, quickly learning complex topics, and data analysis skills really shine. In this field a PhD is not exactly a requirement, but a big plus nonetheless.

Where your PhD hurts you if you for example apply for pure programming roles. There you have to compete with people who have exclusively spent their time programming, and your research skills are not a plus. So, it is also a matter of finding the right position where a PhD adds value.

Note that this answer may depend on the country you live. My impression is that in the Netherlands the attitude towards PhDs is not very negative. The impression I get from this site is that this is less the case in the US.

| improve this answer | |
22

Why do people say you shouldn't do a PhD unless you want a career in research?

Wow, do people really say that? That's the most foolish advice I've ever heard.

An active researcher at a university produces some significant number of PhD students. There is simply no way for the number of research jobs to grow fast enough for all of those students to get research jobs. This is why people talk about PhD birth control.

Better advice would be:

  1. Don't do a PhD unless you think you'll enjoy doing research in the process of getting the PhD.
  2. If you have your heart set on a career in research, readjust your expectations and figure out a backup plan so you won't be bitter and unhappy in the overwhelmingly likely event that it doesn't work out that way.
| improve this answer | |
  • Possibly one of the best answers here. – DetlevCM Sep 4 '15 at 9:29
  • 1
    There is simply no way for the number of research jobs to grow fast enough for all of those students to get research jobs That is why there are a surprising number of PHD holders flipping burger for McDonald's. – Jonathon Sep 5 '15 at 4:09
  • 2
    I think that the "Answer" that the OP is referring to is the curt reply of people not wanting to get into the details of things like lost wages, opportunity costs, amount of time and effort that producing data for a dissertation can take, political environment regarding the current state of funding in academic science, and burn out. It isn't necessarily bad advice either, just incomplete. Also industry will tend to use the overqualified argument in not hiring someone for a role when a master's degree is sufficient and justifies a lower base salary. – AMR Sep 6 '15 at 0:38
  • 2
    You also have the paradoxical stigma of failure associated with the achievement of earning a PhD, in the sense that if you do not go on to get a significant post-doc and then get funding for your own projects (set up a lab) that you couldn't cut it, weren't very good, or were just plain unmotivated. There is also the perception of maturity. Some (with strong emphasis on Some) people stick out a PhD because they didn't want to face the "real world" beyond the walls of the academy. It goes hand in hand with the perception from the business world of Those who can, do, those who can't, teach. – AMR Sep 6 '15 at 0:44
13

People say it as a warning, not as a truth. Many bright young people, who love knowledge and discovery and love immersing themselves in a subject (even if the work is challenging), do a PhD because it feels like a dream job. But afterwards, they struggle to survive in the competitive research environment, and struggle to find a decent-paying job elsewhere. If anything it seems like the PhD set them back.

Nobody wants to see yet another young adult waste half a dozen years of their life. Hence this warning.

However, not all students are identical, and not all PhDs are created equal. The years I spent pursuing an engineering PhD (which I did not complete) were among the most valuable years in my life. Since I created my own highly innovative research topic, I quickly got a huge amount of experience in both pursuing, and communicating, controversial ideas. I learned how to manage the egos of the establishment, the critics who will shoot down anything that doesn't fit well with conventional ways of thinking, and how to express a complex new approach in a thirty-second or 2-page limit.

Now, I'm an entrepreneur and innovator, following my dream of bringing about real change in the world, and these skills are vital to me!

The warning is, you won't automatically get that out of a PhD. But if you're confident that you can make it happen, who is anyone else to say you can't?

| improve this answer | |
11

I think doing a PhD in a subject you like for the love of the subject/topic is a completely valid reason for doing one. Whilst a PhD is primarily structured with an academic career in mind, you do learn very useful transferable skills that are of great value to the industry-problem solving, quick to learn, logical thinking, etc. A career in academia may not be for everyone who completes a PhD and depending on the subject, there are arguably better prospects in industry with better financial remuneration.
As mentioned, there are lots of jobs in industry that specifically require a PhD qualification-quantitative analyst, engineering, etc (see siam).

So in most cases, whether you remain in academia or not, a PhD qualification will still serve you well. I do however think this is very much subject dependent.

| improve this answer | |
7

To take a different tack than some of the other answers: getting a PhD typically involves spending several years working your butt off for fairly low pay (or, in some fields, no pay, or even negative pay in that you may take on debt). That's in addition to other more minor negatives you may or may not encounter depending on the personalities you interact with; you may be treated as slave labor, browbeaten, ignored, or looked down on. For many people, the light at the end of the tunnel is the possibility of a career where they get to do research as a living. If that's the career you want, a PhD is usually required. If you don't want that, a PhD is a lot of work with limited payoff.

In short, the main difference between having a PhD and not having a PhD is that if you have a PhD you can be a professional researcher. If you don't want to do that, you probably don't need a PhD, so why go to the trouble of getting one?

That said, I personally don't agree that you should never get a PhD unless you want a career as a researcher. If you're in a good program, getting a PhD can be a fun and stimulating experience (although still a lot of work). The main thing I would say is, you should be deriving some net benefit from getting a PhD. You can benefit either from the experience of getting it, or from the doors it opens for you after you get it, but if what you're getting in those two areas isn't worth the effort you're putting in, you shouldn't do it.

| improve this answer | |
7

Academia vs industry perspective

So most of these answers seem to be written from the perspective of academia - not industry.

This is a bit late, but I think it might provide that valuable perspective.

I know a PhD is supposed to be an apprenticeship for future researchers. But what if you enjoy getting the PhD, but have no intention of doing research in the future? It seems like being a professor is really stressful and there is a lot of competition, and same thing for other sorts of non-grad-school research jobs. If you think this way, does this mean you shouldn't get a PhD, and why?

Companies hire people mostly because those people can make them money. Which makes the decision about having a PhD purely a question of, "does this allow you to add more value to the company?"

For many jobs, the answer is, "no, it does not." And so a PhD doesn't really add value in those cases.

As much as we'd like to dream that everyone has a perfect job, many jobs are just jobs. Many (most?) don't need the skills

Hiring manager perspective

If I'm looking to hire someone for a position, and my options are someone who is early career (we'll assume it takes 5 years after a bachelors to get a PhD total, probably optimistic..) and they are:

  • Person with a PhD and 0 years industry experience
  • Person with no PhD and 5 years industry experience

Who is more valuable to me? It's almost always going to be the person with no PhD and relevant business experience.

  • PhD will want higher salary
  • PhD will have less experience in a work environment (which can be VERY different than grad school)
  • Huge negative stigmas in industry against people with PhDs and their ability to get stuff done
  • Most jobs will not require the detailed depth of research a PhD provides
  • Often a PhD means you are not using as much of your undergraduate practical experience during your PhD (for example, a PhD in Computer Science normally doesn't do as much programming as someone working) and so it can hurt your undergrad experience.

When is a PhD useful for industry?

Now there are situations where a PhD is useful. It's of course not fair to make blanket statements that "all PhDs are not useful for industry jobs." Here are some situations where a PhD can be useful even if you have no interest in research:

  • You love the subject matter of your PhD and want to work in the field doing that sort of work. In this case your PhD work may be useful because it means you have a depth of knowledge deeper than someone who may have worked in industry during that time.
  • Keep in mind that if someone has worked in industry in that field for a while, they may still be preferred by managers
  • You want to work for a startup. Skills required and learned while doing a PhD translate reasonably well to what is required for a startup.
  • Some companies like hiring people with PhDs (Google, etc). But keep in mind you are going to be competing with tons of people who want to do research-y types of work at this point.

What are the drawbacks of doing a PhD if you don't want a career in research?

There are drawbacks of a PhD for someone in this position.

  • More limited job availability
  • Opportunity cost. Even if you get a stipend, for many (especially in technical fields) you are losing a significant opportunity cost in your career earnings.
    • Working 4 years at $25k vs 4 years at $50k is 100k in "lost" earnings
  • Companies may not value your PhD experience (especially if it doesn't directly related)
  • You lose 4 years of experience
  • People will associate a negative stigma against you (no this isn't fair, and yes it happens)
  • You probably will work harder/longer on your PhD than an industry job

So what?

I would recommend you be aware of the downsides of doing a PhD if you don't really want to use the research long-term in your career.

Ultimately it's your life, and you can do whatever you want.

But you need to figure out your goals and see whether this sort of choice meets them. It may, it may not, ultimately no one can answer it for you.

| improve this answer | |
5

You seem to have the answer already. PhD programs are training programs for research. We generally don't waste time and money training firefighters or cops that we don't deploy into service. The same reasons hold for PhD students. If you don't want to be a professional researcher, a PhD program is pretty inappropriate, a lot of work, and expensive for the funders.

| improve this answer | |
  • 6
    +1 However if the student is funding their own PhD, it is fine for them to study for a PhD just for the fun of it. I quite like the idea of going back to being a perpetual student, if I were rich, I'd seriously consider it! ;o) – Dikran Marsupial Sep 3 '15 at 16:13
  • 6
    I do not agree. The skills you learn as a PhD can also be beneficial to other, non-academic jobs. For example see the new data scientist job type, where a PhD is almost a requirement, and a PhD teaches you valuable skills needed for the jobs. Being trained a firefighter does not mean you have no transferable skills. It is just a matter of finding the right jobs. – Paul Hiemstra Sep 3 '15 at 17:11
  • 3
    Some of the best non-academic tech people I know have a PhD but don't do direct research anymore. They did some after their PhD, but don't now. I like the training that PhD students get, generally, but I wouldn't say it's cost-effective for sysadmins or basic data scientists. – Bill Barth Sep 3 '15 at 17:17
  • 1
    I'd say even in roles that contain minimal research in the classical sense (developing new things), a lot of skills taught in a PhD are valuable. – Paul Hiemstra Sep 4 '15 at 7:08
  • 1
    @DavidRicherby, yes, but going into a PhD program with the intention of not pursuing research after it has an air of fraudulency to it, especially if others are paying. There's a bargain or basic understanding here. You don't have to go on to be a prof, but there's some expectation that research will be pursued after. Bad feelings can be left around after if the student declares no intention to do research half-way through a program. Maybe your PhD program has no research training components to it, but I doubt that highly. – Bill Barth Sep 4 '15 at 13:25
3

Although there are many different contexts, depending on subject matter, I really don't think that there's any general understanding that getting a Ph.D. is "exactly" "preparation for research". For that matter, there does seem to be a general misunderstanding of the various possibilities for "research", given the noise about "impact factors", and the belief system in which a clever person doesn't need to know much to "do research", and so on. (True, at the other end are the gate-keepers, status-protectors...)

In my field, mathematics, I think the idea is that engaging seriously with live mathematics, with a few years' preparation, is the most plausible way to develop a sense of what it really is... whatever one does subsequently. Being a teacher of mathematics is arguably enhanced by having some idea of what the subject is, although, indeed, this does not automatically make anyone a good teacher. My students who have "gone into industry" generally report that everything else is easier than was their PhD work. Perhaps a good PhD extends one's horizons, one's self-knowledge. Gosh! :)

There is also that "scholarship" thing, ... Organizing and preserving human understanding?

I myself don't find the start-a-startup or bring-a-product-to-market version of "research "very interesting", and that helps explain why I'm not rich. :)

If one is interested in something-or-other, while it is in-principle possible to learn much of what's known on one's own, on-line, whatever, in fact there are some senior people whose expertise is not made obsolete, nor eclipsed, by on-line stuff. Then it's useful to be in close contact with them, if the goal is getting a sense of the extreme cutting-edge of the thing, whether it's "products" or understanding of very old things.

(Also, I note that the objection that doing a PhD with no plans to "do research" in a conventional sense is somehow "wasting resources" overlooks the point that nearly all RAs and TAs are paid very low wages, hence, are a terrific bargain...)

In fact, I do claim that the miracle of "getting a PhD" is that if one has no serious financial obligations, that point in one's life is a marvellous opportunity to behave very idealistically... and worry about "making a living" later. (Yes, if the "opportunity cost" bothers you, then don't do a PhD.) That is, people with the luck to have the opportunity to be "pure intellectuals" for a few years when they're young and idealistic and energetic do indeed have good fortune. Worrying about optimizing job situations can wait, maybe?

| improve this answer | |
2

In Sweden you have the possibility to become a industrial doctoral student. This might be a good compromize if you like to research but want to end up in industry and in an R&D department on a (larger) company.

Example from Chalmers University of Technology: http://www.chalmers.se/en/research/doctoral-programmes/becoming-a-doctoral-student/Pages/industrial-doctoral-students.aspx

| improve this answer | |
1

I have worked as a researcher for 20 years and studied part-time courses in business and information analysis but never did do a PhD. A colleague of mine who did do a 7 year PhD following a BA and MA said the reason he did it was to stay in academia, however he felt like that much work involved in carrying out research even though his subject was psychology would be better spent applying the techniques and tools that he had learned to work as a researcher, running large postal surveys, analysing statistical data, managing research projects etc. I realised that he knew SPSS inside out, could explain statistical terms and concepts to me that I couldn't understand and teach me certain research methods that I hadn't heard about. So with all of those advanced skills, I'd agree that research work would be a job that wouldn't be too difficult to get following University.

| improve this answer | |
0

Let's assume you are researching about information retrieval, and you found a better formula for retrieval documents based on a query and it is more effective than existing methods adopted by companies. That company will call you and ask you to come to their company and apply your research there. My point here is, it is not the degree or you that will make a difference, but the research that you made will make the difference in the exact place to be applied, so make sure about your research and do it in an active area, don't be like, I have a PHD. Good luck!

| improve this answer | |
  • Ok, this is how you can profit from a Phd, but not this was the question. The question was, why is it said so that Phd values its price only if one wants a career is research. – peterh - Reinstate Monica Nov 26 '19 at 22:33
-4

I saw an article today on my Linkedin Pulse titled: 24 Highpaying jobs for people who hate stress

At least half of them requires master to PhD level education. So I'd say that's not true, but it depends on what your PhD is on.

Also, I'd like to point out an article from Hootsuite yesterday (though this may only apply to the tech industry for now). The article claims that traditionally, the only way to climb up the corporate staircase is to slowly move up the manager position( and then manage more... a team, a department, a company, etc.) However, they claim that companies like google (and themselves) long recognized that some highly skilled people are not fit to be managers and don't want to manage other people, so they set up alternative career track "the guru track". This basically allows people with high knowledge in a specific topic to move up, without having to manage. I don't know if this is the path the industry (and any other industry) is heading, but if this becomes more common, I suspect that graduate education will be more valued than they are now in the corporate world.

| improve this answer | |
  • 2
    I don't see what this has to do with the question. – David Richerby Sep 4 '15 at 18:14
  • "People say you shouldn't do a phd unless you want a career in research" -- my answer is to counter that belief that says, no, you don't need a career in research to have value in a PhD. Why does it not? – CleverNode Sep 5 '15 at 18:16
  • 1
    Because it doesn't address the question of why people say what they say. The question is "Why do people say X?" Your answer is "X is false." Great. but why do people say X? – David Richerby Sep 5 '15 at 18:19

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.