What’s a better idea: pursuing a PhD or entering the job market after obtaining a bachelor or master degree? With all the alleged “degree inflation” going on, is a PhD how you beat the competition in the labor market? This is a question I had to answer for myself a few years ago and one I’m getting asked sometimes.
My current reading binge is focused on financial investing, so I’m going to approach this as an investment question, weighing the costs and benefits of a PhD for a career in international affairs. Just remember I have no formal qualifications in either investing or career advice.
The benefits of a PhD
I was in my late twenties when I saw an opportunity to get a PhD in a topic I find fascinating: international migration. I wrote proposals to professors from different universities and two became interested in my ideas. This surprised me and made me feel great. I pitched different topics to them and received generally positive feedback.
Then it was time to decide: did I really want to go through with this?
First, I lined up my arguments in favor of the PhD: it would look great on my resume, which would help me find a job and potentially increase my pay; it might make me more competitive with organizations that sometimes require advanced degrees (like the UN and USAID); and I would find some comfort in knowing what I’d be doing professionally for the next 4-5 years.
Next, I asked people outside of my family for their opinion. But the answers I received made me question my arguments. How would a PhD make me more competitive, they asked, when I didn’t have a specific job in mind that requires a PhD? Did I know how expensive it would be to spend so much time studying? Was I even sure that’s the field in wanted to work in?
The drawbacks of a PhD
The more I talked to knowledgeable people about the PhD idea, the more I started to doubt. The most important reason came from my boss at the time. He told me he’d much rather hire someone with a few years of topic-specific field experience than someone with a PhD. I knew he wasn’t joking because I’d assisted him in several recruitment processes.
So I rejected the idea and never regretted it. As soon as I decided not to go for a PhD I realized that the process of “almost” starting a PhD had already given me a nice confidence boost—just the fact that I came so close. It also made me feel as if doing a PhD would be a possibility for the future and indeed, I’ve since met several people who started their PhDs in their thirties and forties.
More importantly, I realized I’d gain a better position in the job market by forcing myself to stay there. I was either going to have lots of experience researching and applying in different sectors, or I was going to nail another job in international migration that would be a step up from my current job. That realization actually felt better than the idea of “hiding” in an academic program where I wouldn’t be improving my job skills for a long time to come.
When you work on a PhD you may become a substance expert, but you also limit yourself to that specific sector. You’re honing your academic skills but you’re not gaining many marketable skills. Worse, when you’re finally ready for the job market you’re older, which means more pressure to find a mid-level or senior job instead of a starter position.
From an investment perspective a PhD may be a bad investment, unless you're absolutely sure what you're going to do with it. When you start working late, you start gaining valuable experience late and, crucially, you start making a good income late. Saving and investing in stable investment funds that typically accrue the biggest profits over time is hard on a student or assistant-professor income, so chances you’ll ever make bank become smaller.
In other words, if you’re considering doing a PhD, you should carefully consider what you’re paying for it; it's not just your time for the next four years but also the opportunity to become skilled at a job, making a good living, and investing money for later. And maybe, just maybe, you have to admit to yourself that you just want to do it for the Dr. title in front of your name and because it's less scary than looking for a job.
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