Should you do a PhD?

In order to answer this question, I’ve surveyed six people who started PhDs – friends of mine – from the following fields: physics, biology, computer science, chemistry, economics and history.

Five emerged from their programs with a Doctorate, one turned theirs into a Masters. (Given the PhD completion rate in Australia is 60-61 per cent, this sample is biased towards survivors.) One works in academia.

PHD completion rates
PhD completion rates. (Source)

Their answers make a very interesting set. But before I let them speak for themselves, a confession: I was accused of asking leading questions. It may be true, but it’s the zeal of the convert.

As an undergrad, surrounded by lecturers with PhDs, I wanted one too. Then I got a job offer at the end of my degree. Starting that job I met plenty of public servants with doctorates. We were doing the same jobs, making the same pay. I came to see my desire for a PhD as the result of sample bias: Most powerful people in universities have PhDs, but most people with PhDs are not powerful people in universities.

With that noted, let’s hear from the experts!

BENEFITS OF A PHD?

Physics at Australian National University: I’m a researcher/lecturer, which I fundamentally couldn’t do without my PhD of course. I haven’t had any other profession since graduating. On a personal level, I really enjoyed it. I learn’t much more than just the topic of my thesis. I really learnt a lot about problem solving, logic, and life from being in close contact with world class researchers. During my PhD, I had the pleasure of interacting with four Nobel laureates at various times.

Biology at Melbourne University: I became a specialist in a very narrow field of study, possibly even an expert in said field. I also gained valuable generalist skills in experimental design, data analysis, working independently and as part of a team, critical thinking and the effective oral and written presentation of data and ideas. A PhD is also an exercise in persistence and perseverance, not necessarily intelligence, so I consider that most people who have completed aPhD are good at troubleshooting and are quite resourceful.

Computer Science, RMIT:  I (arguably) got my foot in the door of my first job in industry from my PhD, and some of the domain knowledge I acquired there was useful in my job. My written and verbal presentation skills were also improved during my PhD, and I learned to have a healthy disrespect for authority. I also had a lot of fun! I found my PhD years to be quite relaxed (despite the odd moment of stress) and it was actually quite a nice transition between undergraduate spoonfeeding and the “real world” of the workplace.

Chemistry Masters, ANU:  Benefit is a fancier CV. Without a masters I wouldn’t have gotten either my first or second job in consulting. In terms of education I am far more adept at seeing the ulterior motives and ugly manipulative side of people after working for my pitiable (but totally hatable) supervisor.

Economics, Oxford: Time to read and develop deeper / broader domain knowledge. For me, that was Chinese language, China’s economy and history, econometric techniques. Got supervision re: use of econometric analysis and thinking through data, and technical skills. I also played a lot of squash and improved my cooking. Those are the main benefits!

History, Melbourne University: For me, the three years doing it was probably the biggest benefit. I had a scholarship which is a privileged position to be in because it enables you to study something that fascinates you without having to work full time. I had a clear idea of what I needed to achieve each day, and if I got it done more quickly I gave myself the rest of the day off. More recently there have been career benefits I think, but like many people when I finished the thesis I wanted to do something totally different from research. 

graduation day
Graduation day.

DOWNSIDES?

Physics at ANU: More than once I felt like quitting. In hindsight, the pay is tiny compared to what you could be earning, but I didn’t really think about that at the time. You have no guarantee that you will finish. There are people who try as hard as they can for over 4 years and come away with nothing. 

Biology at Melbourne University: The downside is that you are very cheap labour at the bottom of a pyramid scheme. You know that chapter in Freakonomics where drug dealing is compared to a pyramid scheme? Well, I’d change the “drug dealing” to “research” and “academia” and the chapter would still be quite accurate (minus the crack cocaine and guns). Everyone’s ego is complimented when they are asked to do a PhD. What hindsight has taught me is that there is very little money in Australian research and really not enough for most senior researchers (lecturers etc) to hire employees (such as postdocs or research assistants) so there is a huge reliance on the cheap PhD labour that the federal government (or uni) pays for. 

Computer Science, RMIT: I didn’t earn that much money (although I found my stipend to be perfectly adequate) and, obviously, my entry to the workforce was delayed by a few years. In terms of climbing the career ladder it was probably not great bang for buck, but I don’t care too much about that sort of thing so don’t consider that a downside.

Chemistry Masters, ANU: Downside was three years of near-suicide misery and lost opportunity. I could have done a law or engineering degree in that time. I still feel that sense of loss – I am always years older than my peers. 

Economics, Oxford: Long distance relationship. I’m not sure Oxford was the best place for me. 3-4 years out of workforce and foregone income and job experience.

History, Melbourne University: Honestly, the main downside was the public speaking obligations and pressure to publish along the way.

academic job market
The academic job market is tight

WHO SHOULD START A DOCTORATE?

Physics at ANU: I believe that you shouldn’t do a PhD because you want a piece of paper that says “I have a PhD“. The people who I know who were trying to prove something, either to themselves or to others, always had a terrible time. If you have had a taste of research, and still feel like more, then you should consider a PhD. There’s also the question of talent. There are people who love science, yet just aren’t cut out for research. Fundamentally, if you’re not driven by curiosity, and have a hunger for discovery, specifically towards your project, you probably shouldn’t be there. 

Biology at Melbourne University: I actively discourage most people from starting a PhD. For most professions, the experience you gain in the workplace will be better. For anyone wanting to do scientific research, then permanent positions in Unis or CSIRO are few and far between (see pyramid scheme comments above). With this in mind, I know plenty of people who I did my science PhD with who now work outside of academia, in the public service, as patent attorneys, as technical sales reps, and in private biotech/pharma firms and consulting. Someone contemplating a science PhD should realise that these non-academic jobs are actually where they are most likely to end up and then determine whether a PhD is really still necessary. And realise that their PhD supervisor is always going to encourage the singular academic trajectory (ie they are much happier to be a reference for further academic appointments than anything else). 

Computer Science, RMIT: To consider doing a PhD you will need to be convinced you have the necessary skills and temperament to undertake a prolonged exercise in independent research, and at least one of the following should be true:

-You think you will enjoy doing a PhD for its own sake;
-Your chosen profession requires a PhD (e.g. academia);
-You will acquire **specific** skills that will help your career in your chosen profession.
 
These are bad reasons to do a PhD:
 
-You’re not sure what else to do after you finish your undergrad;
-You think it would be cool to get to call yourself “doctor”;
-You expect some ill-specified career advantage from having one;
-Your parents would be proud;
-It’s “prestigious”.

Chemistry Masters, ANU: The only people who should do PhDs are either saintly types who just love their subject and have no expectation of any type of employment related advantage or psychopathic sadists who will enjoy destroying promising young people. 

Economics, Oxford: Almost definitely do one: if you want to become an academic; its paid for; have world leading supervisor who has top track record of placing their students into great academic jobs; at world class research institution, great city, great classmates etc.

Never ever do one: in the opposite scenario: Unsure if academia is the path; not at top ranking place and doing a major where job placements are super tough; where PhDs take 6-7 years; or living in a shit city.

History, Melbourne University: The peers I had that struggled the most were those who set themselves additional challenges such as designing research involving lengthy ethics processes and multiple methods, including undertaking lots of complex interviews and all the responsibilities that come with that. This type of research makes a huge contribution to the evidence base but goes well beyond the three years you sign up for and requires a significant time investment in project management.

PhD?
There’s more than one way to prove you are a big shot.

WHAT PROPORTION OF SMART UNDERGRADUATES SHOULD SERIOUSLY CONSIDER IT?

Physics at ANU: Only those who tick the boxes in the above question. How many PhD grads do we need? Well, that’s a different story. In the Australian employment market, a PhD isn’t really valued. From an employment point of view, the only reason to do a phd is if you want to become a researcher. The number of permanent research positions that open up every year, divided by the number of phd graduates is bugger all squared.

Biology at Melbourne University: A large proportion of smart undergrads will contemplate it, and even be asked by lecturers to do a PhD. As above, I would suggest that only a very few should take it up. There are too many easily available PhD scholarships in this country and not enough investment in other parts of the research infrastructure, hence the pyramid scheme. If they are smart, they can get the benefits I mentioned above from plenty of other roles.

Chemistry Masters, ANU: Maybe 5 per cent of undergraduates? We need to rethink PhD candidature. There are things to be learnt, but should acknowledge that phd students teach each other and are self taught in what can be an educationally nutritious environment – it all depends on the calibre of your fellow students. With ten students to a professor this will always be the way. The idea of charging tuition for a PhD is outrageous. My only hope is this will decimate the ranks of the fools who sign up for one.

I see PhD years as a type of national service, where you accept below minimum wage for contributing to the R&D pie for the nation. We should acknowledge this and stop pretending it is training for an academic or other research career – those jobs don’t exist. Also we should acknowledge that growing the R&D pie is of national importance. Slave student labour will be cheapest.

Also I would like to see universities sued for misleading students regarding their employment prospects. Or scolded for false advertising. A PhD contract (because you sign a contract) should include a disclaimer with real graduate outcome figures. And then you should have a counselling session to determine if you’re likely to kill yourself.

Economics, Oxford: I’m not going to tell anyone they shouldn’t do it if they’re interested. I just think they should be fully aware of the academic labor market conditions and that it is in supervisor’s interests NOT to be fully candid / upfront about this. By this, I mean how tough the market is, especially in humanities, etc.

History, Melbourne University: Lots. It’s important to have a great topic and a good supervisor and that you like to work alone a lot. I worked part time doing something completely different which was a good balance for me.


I feel like we got a great range of answers there, with evangelism from both sides and plenty of middle ground. No matter your pre-existing biases, there is something to grasp onto!

This is a fascinating topic at the moment, with the Budget proposing charging fees for PhDs. If you have other thoughts please leave a comment below!

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thomasthethinkengine

Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

11 thoughts on “Should you do a PhD?”

    1. Hi sally, thanks for reading. I’m sorry I didn’t ask, but this is the perfect opportunity to rectify my omission! Let us know your views in a comment! cheers.

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  1. This was a good read. I’m an undergraduate and I really like the concept of getting a PhD because of vain reasons like title and the status surrounding those people who do PhD- Like wow, they are so smart and knowledgeable and just darn smart- because I don’t like the idea of someone taking advantage of me or thinking I’m “dumb”. And, also if a lecturer, who also happens to be in academia suggest that I should take one, this makes me naturally want to take one (probably only to end up realizing it was never for my sake). So, I am glad I got to hear a range of responses above. Right now, I think it is best to just finish my degree and get some experience. And when I’m more matured, I could always come back to get a PhD or masters. When I am matured.

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  2. Good article! My experience is a little different – I began my doctorate just before my 50th birthday and completed it in 5 years as a part-time student. It was something I had always wanted to do, just because it was there – like climbing a mountain or learning to paint. The surprising outcome for me was the tremendous sense of achievement – after a finished thesis of 120,000 words, I felt like I could write/do anything. But you have to LOVE your thesis topic or it would drive you insane.

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    1. Congrats! That’s great news that you enjoyed the experience. I guess the advantage of starting at 50 is a lot more self-knowledge about what sort of topic will hold your interest for so long.

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  3. best article ever! there should be more thoughtful discussion about the merits of PhDs.

    I have a few friends who have completed PhDs, know a few people who have dropped out, and probably less than one in ten is using any of the knowledge that they gained while ‘studying’ for their doctorates.

    i know from the experience of helping a friend submit her PhD while she was overseas that not all PhDs are created equal. through a confusion born of a naming convention, i submitted her PhD without its introduction.. but because her supervisor sent it to a couple of mates, one of them said it should ‘pass without correction’ which is the highest honour someone reviewing a PhD can bestow.

    i’ve personally dropped out of two PhDs so far…

    My first PhD experience mirrored many of the comments above – my supervisor was an academic who through some sort of alchemy has been able to stay ‘on trend’ in his research through his whole career, and has many wonderful results to his credit. His methods were ‘interesting’ in some areas, and his initial counsel on how to set up my research nearly prevented me from getting the MSc that i converted to when he gallivanted off overseas. His self-important self-aggrandising approach to leadership is something that I will never forget as the worst possible example of how to try to inspire people.

    increase in my employment prospects from this exercise? nil. should i have started in the first place? no. based on this experience, i would say that less than one in twenty people who start a PhD actually should, but they shouldn’t do it in australia – they should go overseas to a country that has a strong research community, and some possibility of a research career outside academia – more scope for actually getting a job.

    My second PhD attempt was brought about by the realisation that I love teaching, and am particularly good at it. through a series of unexpected turns and a large dose of serendipity I became a junior chemistry academic for three years, and was advised that I needed to have a PhD in order to continue to teach at a tertiary level. After twisting myself into a pretzel for two and a half years taking care of the largest effective student load in the school and trying to herd cats to get other people to do what i needed them to, I had done a total of about 10 hours of lab work, and gave it all up as a bad joke.

    PhD as slave labour? yes, i would agree with that. =)

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  4. Stumbled across this blog following today’s CGT debate from the SMH and lo and behold – distracted immediately by the Should I/Shouldn’t I PhD header. I am a twice enrolled PhDer with no completed PhD. Not that there is anything wrong with that. Non completes appear to be in the majority. Are they abject failures? Or are there more like me who used the PhD rather than letting the PhD use them? I want to add an as yet unacknowledged reason for enrolling in a PhD or PhD’s. Mine was to gain the strategic advantage of being accepted into the PhD at a prestigious University under prestigious supervisors – to gain extra kudos in the job market being capable of operating at that level intellectually – to ratchet to the max my employment benefit/halo out of it [get the job, get the salary and get the promotions especially in non University environment where it is truly a significant point of difference] BUT without needing to actually complete the work. I am terrible the earnest will say. But if I am doing it, there is likely to be others. I did not want to turn into one of those pale troll existing for years in the bowels of universities who seem perpetually enrolled in their PhD, while critical and time sensitive chunks of their life drift by in a mist of foregone opportunities.

    My first strategic PhD enrolment was when applying for highly paid government quasi-judicial role in a specialist area I had minimum exposure to. I was competing mostly with older job applicants 10-20 years more experience than me, many of whom were immersed in this specialist area for much of that time. How to even out the playing field so I had a shot? My solution? Quick enrolment in a PhD with a research topic in the specialist area being advertised. It worked. I got the job. I had to paddle like crazy to get on top of the specialist area but hey – I was in, on a great income and I was quick enough intellectually to master the technicalities of the specialised area prior to actually taking up the position. I quietly dropped that PhD a year later after completing introductory units on research methodology and thesis planning, which I enjoyed. No HECS debt on my PhD either. I did not apply for a scholarship as I had no intention of finishing and I did not want someone else to miss out on the financial support it offered. My employment was never dependant on completing the PhD and both research subjects stood me in good stead in other parts of my life. It was of course also quite impossible to work on a PhD while working 60+ hours a week in a well paid, demanding and political sensitive job.
    My second strategic PhD was when I wanted to move into academia. I was in pre early retirement mode from being an employee. I wanted an early retirement. So I needed time and a safe income in order to create my own business that provided me with a platform to a better retirement. I would have a sellable business asset to plump out my superannuation income. This was the difference between a comfortable retirement and a great one. I wanted a job where I knew I could pull in around $100K pa for at least 3 years and be on great super, but only work 3 long days per week and not be required to be constantly in the office during eg StuVac and semester breaks. Technology arrived just at the right time. I could call forward calls to my home or business, post consulting times on my door for face to face with online book ins and redirect emails. Communication ticked over nicely as a result. I was in fact far more motivated to deal with student issues and effectively resolve them compared to colleagues who almost set up permanent camp in their uni offices. I needed an effective and responsive system to avoid a trail of disgruntled students seeking out the Head or admin staff to complain they never saw me outside of lecturers, tutes and formal in session consultation times! My Lecturers position was I admit at a lower status Australian University but fortunately for me was within easy drive from my home and fledgling business. It fit the bill. I wasn’t being sniffy about status when I was being paid 24% super in a defined benefit scheme and it was not forever. It was a bridge. So one again, in the pre-job application weeks, I enrolled in a PhD at a top ranked Australian University with top rated supervisor but on a new topic sculpted to fit neatly into the focus of the advertised position. I was selected and given 3 years to work on the PhD as per the then academic award in place. I had zero interest in establishing a genuine research profile, but genuinely enjoyed the students and the teaching. I won a student selected teaching award in my first year and an institution sponsored one in year two. Year three- my business became financially viable [thanks to the time and income I was able to devote to it] and as planned, I resigned from academia in year three, so my lovely colleagues were not discomforted or wasted their work time reviewing me for confirmation for a permanent appointment. I assessed the situation. I knew my excellent teaching and rapport with students meant I would secure an additional few years grace to complete the PhD, but my carefully tended business was now so robust, it was unnecessary to even bother trying to eke out another year.

    I leveraged huge advantages out of being enrolled in a PhD without ever needing to cough up the finished thesis.

    Yes, there was initial work in selecting and sculpting the thesis topic to meet my non PhD goal/s, such as creating a highly credible thesis proposal so it would be accepted by quality institution and name supervisors but in the scheme of things, a few weeks intense work over 25 years of work life benefits and defined benefit superannuation. Worth it a million times over.

    Any regrets? None. I was the first person in my family to attend university, I did complete two Masters unrelated to my PhD thesis proposals. As I had no inherited wealth, I had to create it for myself. This meant identifying and creating my own opportunities. Looking calmly at what was available and working out how to make it work for me and my goals. I met many dozens of other PhD students who were being chewed up and spat out by the PhD machine – financially much poorer, with less employment options and having foregone many years of income. Many also had mental health, physical health and other problems bought on or worsened by the PhD. I was determined not to be one of them.

    There is a third PhD topic I have a personal interest in with no strategic advantage behind it. I have just sold my business after 14 years so I am 100% retired at age 60. I could re-enrol if I felt the urge but frankly, choosing interesting overseas trips or grown up ocean cruises with fascinating expert speakers on obscure topics is far more appealing. I get the intellectual stimulation with a cocktail, congenial surroundings and beautiful historic sites to explore. I give it 5-10 years, and if I tire of it or I am no longer physically up to it – I may enrol in a a PhD with the intention of completing in my 70’s – if I am alive and if synapses still firing.

    Long story short – one can enjoy enormous benefits of operating at PhD level without actually doing the hard part of producing the thesis if you decide you are going to use it and not the other way round. And of course the ego needs to be able to cope with the appellation “Doctor.”

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    1. This is fascinating! I had never considered that simply being enrolled could be such a good status marker. Filing that idea away!

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  5. I did a Masters at Sydney Uni back in the early 90s and our cohort segued into EdDs while I segued interstate. Every Christmas for a number of years, they sent me a Christmas card signed by our supervising professor and the group who progressively added EdD to their names (subtle stuff). I started an EdD mid noughties but my supervisor ditched me. Then I became another casualty of Ed Qld and scrapped the whole idea. Now I teach coding and those extra letters don’t rate whatsoever.

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  6. TRADES
    If you have 10 thumbs the boss tells you Day 1.
    The goal-post doesn’t shift while you’re training (‘to get a good job you really need honours, no wait masters, no wait a PhD, no wait a double degree…’).
    Standards are not dropping (eg ATAR scam), so your qualification is not undercut.
    No honourary tradeships (I say ban Hon Doctorates; make it Hon Professorship only).
    Your political bent is irrelevant.
    Demand for trades does not have to be manufactured (eg gender studies).
    No affirmative action.
    Pay is comparable and no $100K debt.
    Work is GDP positive.
    Trade skills = self sufficiency.

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