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What are the benefits of having a PhD degree? Why are PhD programs so competitive? I mean, why do many people apply for PhD programs?

In STEM fields, it is usually possible to get a better-paid job in industry with a bachelor's or master's degree. On the other hand, PhD programs are usually long, hard and low-paying — if there is any paying at all — and job prospects for PhD graduates are not that impressive too. So, what am I missing? Why do so many talented people try to get into PhD programs if they can get better jobs outside academia? Is it merely because of personal interest in research, teaching or learning?

Although opinions are important, I sincerely appreciate it if facts and experiences are shared. I agree that this question can be opinion-based but one of the reasons why I am asking this is that choosing to do a PhD degree and possibly pursuing an academic career is a very important decision. Based on personal experience, I have seen many fresh graduates who face the same question (and also a few people that, first, made a decision then faced the question, only to realize that it is late) and I hope that, apart from satiating my personal curiosity, it will provide factual and helpful information for those who have not made their minds yet.

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    "better jobs outside academia" - better in what respect? Paid better? Most likely. But better in terms of freedom in choice of tasks, flexibility in working style, ownership of what you work on, autonomy in collaboration with internal and external partners, authority to draw further people in to your tasks, etc.? Probably not so much. – O. R. Mapper Jul 23 '17 at 10:43
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    Because is not all about money and better payed jobs do not make better jobs. – PsySp Jul 23 '17 at 10:59
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    This question should be closed. It is too broad to be answered. Rather, it does create conflicting views and opinions. Many things are unclear in the question as well. The PhD status depends on country, field, and various other parameters. – Coder Jul 23 '17 at 11:03
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    @iammax: Choosing a PhD over a masters is not possible in many places. Masters is a prerequisite for even being considered for starting a PhD. – mathreadler Jul 23 '17 at 19:29
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    This question can be reworded to require a less opinion based answer. It is a useful question and I'm upvoting it. – user21264 Jul 24 '17 at 9:01
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I should note that this answer is going to focus on the research-based Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree and ScD equivalent This answer does not apply similar degrees in other fields (e.g., EdD, DBA, DrPH, etc.) since the motivation for those is much more field dependent.

First, lets start with the obvious, you get a PhD because you want to teach at the college level. Barring the Professor of Practice which requires significant industry experience, the PhD is the minimum requirement to get a tenure-track position. There used to be some fields such as nursing that were the exception to this, but they are now converging on PhD requirements. Despite the general oversupply of PhDs as well, some fields are actually facing shortfalls.

Another reason to purse a PhD is because you are hoping to purse a career where it is advantages to have one. Consulting is a good example of this, most Chief Science Officers also hold a PhD as well. There is increasingly a perception that PhD is required to work in policy in Washington, D.C. Furthermore, despite the ongoing perception that a PhD isn't valued by industry, private-sector R&D labs are staffed by PhDs and industry investment in R&D is growing.

Of course, these lead to a very salient argument against getting a PhD due to the time investment leading to monetary loss in the long term. Generally this is irrelevant if someone is dead set on a job in academia, you have to get the "union card." There is more risk involved if you are planning on going into industry since in theory a Masters should be enough. This does lead to some PhD applicants who intend on dropping out once they get their Masters. These are generally rare though. Thus, some, likely most, people get a PhD because they want a career in X and the PhD will make them competitive for that career.

There is a common perception that people do a PhD because it is "next." Although a survey of UK students indirectly supports this for applicants without an employment history, it does not for those with one. Generally the most common theme seems to be "intellectual curiosity and interest," even more so among older applicants. In fact, I would argue that the admissions committee should filter out people that are just doing it because it is "next." PhD programs are not easy and have attrition rates that exceed 50%. Things may not be easy for those that leave (e.g., one, two). Intellectual curiosity and interest in what you are going to spend a couple years of your life is important. For funded PhD students (don't get a PhD without funding), getting into a program means someone is going to pay you to do a very deep dive and learn something that wasn't know before. Factor in the fact that the odds are very low that you can do this once you enter industry or government and for those with the intellectual curiosity and interest it doesn't take much to at least apply for the PhD.

Finally, a note on financial compensation. In the United States the average salary of a new assistant professor (tenure track) is $65,372. The starting pay for STEM is highly dependent upon your field but the range seems to be $55,087 to $64,891 for a Bachelors and $72,080 to $73,871 for a Masters. So on the face of it the professor isn't as highly paid; however, that's just raw compensation for 9 months work. Soft money or consulting can result in higher pay during the summer and the costs associated with attending conferences usually isn't factored into the compensation as well. So doing a direct net compensation comparison can be quite difficult. Also, putting a financial value on surviving the PhD and spending the time pursing intellectual curiosity and interest may be impossible.

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    Thank you very much for your fact-based and very referenced answer. I can imagine that a good amount of time must have been spent on it. – MxNx Jul 23 '17 at 17:45
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You are asking why people might choose a doctoral candidacy over a better-paying job in the industry. The straightforward answer is that - at least to the respective people - other factors are given more weight than achieving a maximum in payment alone. These other factors can include:

  • freedom in choice of tasks
  • flexibility in working style
  • ownership of what you work on
  • autonomy in collaboration with internal and external partners
  • authority to draw further people in to your tasks
  • your colleagues are probably there because they're enthusiastic about what they're doing, not just because they want some job with an acceptable salary
  • your organisation probably covers a wide range of topics, and any acquisition of knowledge within (or sometimes even outsode of) your organisation can be reasonably counted as working time

Evidently, various of these aspects depend a bit on the concrete situation a doctoraĺ candidacy takes place in.

Lastly, even a payment angle can play into it: I consider it a significant advantage that during the time of my doctoral candidacy (this being a government-funded job), I used to be paid based upon a salary table with automatic raises rather than having to negotiate for any amount of money.

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    The last two points "autonomy in collaboration" and "authorty to draw further people" are not specific to PhDs. The same policy applies to certain industrial positions: if you have luck with it and are allowed to do that by your contract, feel free. – Leon Meier Jul 23 '17 at 11:01
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    @LeonMeier: That applies to almost all of the points, but it rather requires rising to a certain position in industry first. – O. R. Mapper Jul 23 '17 at 13:31
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    @sgf My experience that a PhD is autonomous, but nobody from the industry will speak to you unless you can really offer them something they need - which has a high chance of forcing you into an NDA. Yes, and you have an authority of drawing people into your task, but why should anyone care about your task? – Leon Meier Jul 23 '17 at 14:01
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    It is seldom the case that "colleagues are ... enthusiastic about what they're doing". My experience is that they are saying "unless you do my stuff, we won't work together". It is the case that "your organisation probably covers a wide range of topics" only for large departments with over 20 chairs, but in general this is way too seldom. – Leon Meier Jul 23 '17 at 14:04
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    @LeonMeier: "nobody from the industry will speak to you unless you can really offer them something they need" - of course you have to have something of interest to them. The point is that you're allowed to contact them on your own in the first place. "which has a high chance of forcing you into an NDA" - not every external body you contact will require you to sign an NDA, and in any case, it's still your choice whether you agree with what they offer. "why should anyone care about your task?" - because they (BSc/MSc students) are looking for a project/thesis topic that you can offer, ... – O. R. Mapper Jul 23 '17 at 21:26
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Too long for a comment. Replying to various other answer which (I believe) are misleading, and sometimes just incorrect.

Various of the answers seem to be rather negative, and unfortunately I think this is the wide perception -- however, that doesn't mean it is true. To the answer saying "students don't know what to do so stay at university", I would reply this. While that may be true for some people, in my department I haven't come across a single person who gives this impression. The same holds regarding peer pressure.

For me personally, and for the people I know, we're doing a PhD because we love our subject. I really enjoy doing maths research: I find it incredibly interesting! Moreover, I love that I can contribute to open-source knowledge, not have my work kept hidden by an employer. I do pure maths, although vaguely applicable (eg to computer science) -- it's not that it's applied maths which would be directly used, but I'm developing techniques, etc.

While this isn't a reason for everyone, it certainly is the case for a lot of us. In fact, I did have a job offer, that I was genuinely interested in, and would've paid twice as much as I'm getting in my PhD (~£28/29k instead of ~£14k). However, I turned it down in favour of a PhD. Some of us just really enjoy research and contributing to society! :)

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    Agreed. PhD is not for anyone and certainly not for people that they do not know what to do. You need to like the particulars of a PhD in order to pursue it. – PsySp Jul 23 '17 at 15:12
  • Well, I can say I know many PhD students who still don't know what they want to do. And I know many undergrads who've applied to grad school not sure what the want to do (though possibly more for master's applications). Maybe this is a more common thing to do in the US, where the system is rather different. (I guess you are in the UK.) – Kimball Jul 24 '17 at 1:18
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    That's why I did... love of the subject, to become a monk! The OP clearly believes that everyone goes to college to get a job. But, as I later found out, my Ph. D. did get me a some jobs. – Pete Jul 24 '17 at 3:43
  • @Kimball -- yes, I certainly agree. I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do for a career when I started my PhD (and still don't), and I know a lot of PhD students don't know what they want to do. However, signing up for 4 years of (often pretty lonely) research if you're not fully is certainly not a good idea! It's poorly paid and hard work. I could've just taken a job not being sure it's what I wanted to do (I had a job offer for twice the money I'm getting currently, and I'd be working less than I do at my PhD), seen how it went, then maybe changed 2yrs in. I'd have been paid [cont...] – Sam T Jul 24 '17 at 17:02
  • [... cont] much better than I am now, would've got experience in a work environment, which is well-known to be desired by employers. People who do PhDs aren't stupid: they know they could've gone for a job instead. Not being 100% sure of what you want to do doesn't mean that if you do a PhD then you're doing so because you don't know what else to do. – Sam T Jul 24 '17 at 17:02
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Most PhD students are fresh graduates from university and thus have no working experience. They don't know what to do in their life, so they choose to stay in university.

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    Honestly, I have seen this quite a few times. – MxNx Jul 23 '17 at 10:57
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    -1 Citation needed. – anonymous Jul 23 '17 at 14:52
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    @SmallChess Should be easy to find citations then. ;) – anonymous Jul 23 '17 at 15:04
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    -1 Lots of "common knowledge" is absolute rubbish (eg bulls being aggravated by red or fish having a very short memory). What you've said does happen, but it's very infrequent -- 3yrs of research is a long time! This answer gives the "common knowledge" among bitter people: some people like to bring down others (often subconsciously): by doing this to people who have worked hard for their PhD, they feel it puts everyone on the same level. (Of course, someone with a PhD isn't inherently a better person -- but we have a culture of fear of others being better.) – Sam T Jul 23 '17 at 18:00
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    Upvoted. Because even though this is not the only reason, this reason is a significant contributor. This reason can be generalized to 'a fear of industry's practices is an important contributor for people pursuing PhD, thereby causing competition'. – displayName Jul 23 '17 at 22:28
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First of all, a large percentage of PhD applicants at the US universities are foreigners who may have completely different reasons to apply than the domestic applicants. Often it's the only way to enter the US and get a job legally. Also, they may be expected to come back to their country and hold a high position within government. For a domestic applicant, a PhD from a reputable school opens new opportunities for work in industry and government. It's becoming almost a requirement for certain positions. For instance, in Financial industry having a PhD in Math or related field can be more desirable than an MBA. The reason for this is the fact that today American high tech workers have to compete for their jobs with workers from all over the world. Having not the best in the world STEM high school and college education makes them less competitive. HR departments are aware of this. Having a PhD from a reputable university is an attestation of a quality education and a person's ability to conduct research and close the deal (defend the thesis). On a lighter note, it also shows that the person is willing to work long hours for little praise.

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You are perfectly right. PhDs are underpaid and most of them don't get a tenure after graduating. Moreover, the "Dr." title doesn't count as much today as it was the case in the past. Speaking freely about your research is a value, but not if only 10 people on earth would understand you. You may not own your work (the government of the country may), but even if you do own your work, you most often cannot generate profit from it. Working style is "flexible": you may distribute your 16*7 out of 24*7 a week hours flexibly.

Earlier, PhD had an ideal touch. (Probably, that's the reason for so high application numbers.) Today, it's no more the case. Most of PhDs in STEM are simply doing engineering of various kinds, which they call applied science to maintain that touch and get more funding from the government. And the ones who do pure science undertake really heroic efforts or are geniuses. In addition, the PhDs do teaching and projects with the industry to get third-party money to finance themselves.

In short, nowadays, there is no sense in pursuing a PhD unless you really know what you are doing.

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    That answer seems very field specific and very regional specific. I accept that this is what you have observed, but it does not generalize to my experiences and observations. Maybe you can add your field and country? – Maarten Buis Jul 23 '17 at 11:03
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    @MaartenBuis in STEM. – Leon Meier Jul 23 '17 at 11:04
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    It corresponds to a large extend with ORMapper – Maarten Buis Jul 23 '17 at 11:07
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    @DavidKetcheson The answer is probably "ideal touch". Answer adapted. – Leon Meier Jul 23 '17 at 11:57
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    I don't understand what "ideal touch" means. Can you expand on that? – Faheem Mitha Jul 24 '17 at 4:03

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