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Is Pursuing a PhD or Professional Doctorate Worthwhile?

This article was written by in Education. 13 comments.


I’m at a point in my life right now where I have some flexibility with my personal choices. Thanks to growing a business, I’m able to look at a wide array of options in front of me — things to to do that will keep me busy, intellectually stimulated, and financially self-supporting, in addition to writing for Consumerism Commentary and the ancillary activities that support blogging, like operating the Plutus Awards. I’ve been in discussions with friends about new businesses. I’ve been speaking with advisers and brokers about business opportunities, working with someone who could use the skills I’ve developed over the past decade or so. And I’ve been seeking advice from those more experienced in life than I am.

One thought keeps coming back to me: perhaps I should obtain a PhD. I’ll come back to my situation at the end of this article, but overall, are PhD degrees and professional doctorates worthwhile?

In some cases, a professional doctorate is needed to get the job you want. Lawyers need to achieve their JD before passing bar exams. Doctors of medicine need their MD or an equivalent degree in psychology before practicing. A PhD, on the other hand, is not universally required for obtaining a good career in someone’s field. If your destination is academia, becoming a full professor, PhDs are sometimes required — those without the degree will have fewer career options to choose from.

There’s a tendency to look at the world through filtered glasses, focusing only on the financial aspect of any endeavor. There’s more to life than money despite the daily focus on financial issues here at Consumerism Commentary.

There’s good news for people considering PhDs. In most fields of study, the costs of education are reduced by grants and work opportunities. Professional degree-seekers are less fortunate. In either situation, though, seeking a degree in the most efficient way possible requires a full-time dedication to study, research, and possibly teaching undergraduate classes. Even with financial assistance or work opportunities, to spend four to ten or more years of your life without a full-time income is financial suicide.

If you’re independently wealthy, you have an excuse for forgoing years of solid income. If you’re even considering a professional degree you probably have the capability of earning a decent salary, so this would be a significant sacrifice for anyone who wasn’t already in a comfortable financial position. With a higher up-front cost, professional doctorates often present opportunities for higher incomes down the road when compared to the jobs one might get in the field without a professional degree. For example, if you want to work in law, spend the money for your law degree. An entry level corporate attorney in New York City earns an average of $99,000 according to Salary.com, but with a few years of experience, that salary jumps to $200,000. A career in corporate law would pay for its education. An entry level paralegal — to work in the field of law without a degree — starts at $47,000 but maxes out at $72,000.

Even with a law degree, salary depends on the industry. An attorney working in the environmental industry might earn below the averages listed above, while an attorney in the financial sector might earn more.

With PhDs, the contrast in salaries might not be as stark.

The money is only part of the discussion. The only way to determine whether a doctorate degree (and, perhaps, the choice of a career) is worthwhile is to consider goals and desires first. If your goal is to leverage an advanced education into a high-paying career, perhaps you only need to look at the finances above, study your industry’s salary capabilities, and consider the cost of your doctorate degree. This isn’t why most people pursue doctorate degrees, however.

Occasionally, it comes down to family pressure. I’ve been doing personal genealogical and family history research recently, and I’ve been spending some time talking with relatives. Some branches of my family tree are clustered with lawyers, doctors, and professors. It’s not surprising in families where education is seen as a strong core value that these types of careers are common and people feel a certain pressure to be no less educated than the most successful close relative. It’s hard to break free of expectations when surrounded by people who have a consistent approach to life; your immediate family is what you know of the world. If your family puts a heavy importance on education and pursuing advanced degrees is common and even expected, those are generally the values you’ll carry on in your own life, you’ll meet people who follow the same rules for life, and the pattern will continue through the generations. In that respect, education can be similar to poverty, but I digress…

Having a few extra letters before or after your name — Dr. Luke Landes, for example — has a certain ring that attracts people seeking personal cachet, but that in itself might be considered a superficial reason for seeking education. That raises the question: Is there any reason for education that can be considered anything but superficial or selfish?

The pursuit of education as a value in itself is appreciated mostly by the people whose families have had a similar approach. The rejection of education for the sake of learning is the approach favored by people whose values lie strictly in return on investment or who have been disappointed with their own experiences with advanced education. That’s why it’s important to consider goals before beginning a path of intense research and study accompanied by the lack of a solid income for several years.

If your goal is to contribute to a field by performing meaningful and long-lasting research, the environment in which you would earn a PhD makes that life attainable. Keep in mind that the vast majority of PhD candidates will never have their research make a lasting impression on an industry, much less the world; some will perform research for their entire life and produce very little of interest, if anything.

If your goal is to have a meaningful career, decide whether you can draw as much meaning from the same career without a PhD or professional doctorate. If you can, perhaps it would be best to put aside thoughts of the PhD. If you are set on becoming a full professor at an Ivy League university, and there isn’t much of anything else that would make you happy, get to work on your PhD. Keep in mind that attaining your goal doesn’t ensure happiness; happiness and satisfaction are choices you make, every day.

My goals aren’t clearly defined. Some people choose a path to stick to the rest of their life when they are a teenager; I’m thirty-six and I still have a world of choices in front of me. My pursuit of a PhD would be an interesting idea, though it would be challenging. With a master’s degree in business, and my non-interest in a doctorate in a business-related field, I would probably need to spend more time to complete the degree. I don’t fancy being in a classroom setting until I’m forty years old. I like the idea of being a college professor somewhat — part-time, in addition to what I may be doing elsewhere — and that doesn’t require a PhD.

After I completed my MBA, I briefly thought about moving onto law school, going as far as taking and passing the law school entrance exams. But the life of a lawyer didn’t really appeal to me, and I wasn’t sure what type of law I’d be most interested in, so I didn’t pursue any opportunities. This was also at the time Consumerism Commentary was in the midst of significant growth, and I’m glad I didn’t put that aside.

For readers currently seeking a PhD or professional doctorate degree, how did you decide to pursue this advanced education? How are you hoping the degree will benefit you? People who have attained their degrees and have had the benefit of hindsight are free to share their thoughts as well, as are potential students who chose not to pursue the advanced degree.

Photo: UC Davis College of Engineering
See also: Is an MBA worthwhile? | Is a graduate degree worthwhile? | Is college worthwhile?

Published or updated July 24, 2012. If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to the RSS feed or receive daily emails. Follow @ConsumerismComm on Twitter and visit our Facebook page for more updates.

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About the author

Luke Landes, also known as Flexo, is the founder of Consumerism Commentary. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about him and follow Luke Landes on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Kevin @ Thousandaire.com

The last thing I’d personally want to do is spend years and a bunch of money getting a PhD when I could spend that time building businesses, learning Spanish, snowboarding, learning survival skills in a national park, teaching myself to build smartphone apps, etc. etc. etc.

Having letters after my name means absolutely nothing to me. On the other hand, learning stuff means a lot to me.

That’s just me. If you want the PhD and want to parlay that into a teaching career, go for it.

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avatar Luke Landes ♦127,386 (Platinum)

Life is short, and you’ve got to enjoy what you’re doing. Anyone who feels their time is better spent building business or doing other things rather than researching and preparing a dissertation is going to be better off forgetting about the PhD.

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avatar Christian L.

Luke,
I’m an advocate of doing what makes you happy as long as you’re not hurting others. With that said, I realized 18 months before I earned my undergrad degree that I disliked going to school. Peers always asked me why and I said that going to class, burying my head in books and sleeping insufficiently made me unhappy. That being said, I was a great student and graduated with honors.

I’ve committed myself to never go back to school, but I admire and respect those who love it. I appreciate that people want to be lawyers and doctors because, well, we need them.

Whatever you decide, Luke, I hope it makes you happy!

-Christian L.

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avatar Jenna, Adaptu Community Manager

I’d consider getting a Masters, but don’t have any desire to get a PhD.

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avatar Luke Landes ♦127,386 (Platinum)

Why a master’s degree and not a doctorate? Is that driven by what’s common in your field?

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avatar jim

2 of my close friends have PhDs in engineering and I can’t see that its helped either of them financially at least so far, but maybe in the longrun it will help via higher potential pay. When one of them graduated he got a job making about as much as me. Plus I’d been working and saving money several years while he was going to school. So I’m ahead of him financially for sure.

Medical degree is certainly worthwhile financially.

Law degrees I consider very suspect. It depends on the student. Its definitely not a ‘safe bet’ with expensive law schools and lots of competition. While some lawyers do great, lots of new lawyers make very low wages. The average wages can be misleading on this profession.

For PhD’s in other fields it greatly depends on the goal and the career in question.

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avatar Evan

“2 of my close friends have PhDs in engineering and I can’t see that its helped either of them financially at least so far, but maybe in the longrun it will help via higher potential pay. ”

Is it possible they only got the interview b/c of the PhD?

Also, the law degree suspicion is VERY well placed. A recent article came out that said the real median salary of an attorney is somewhere in the 60ks….consider education can cost 6 figures easy may not be worth it.

*Disclaimer – J.D. here and would do it again.

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avatar ThomasC

I have a PhD in Biology. After I graduated from undergrad, I took the summer off, and then entered the PhD program that September. It took me 6.5 years to earn my PhD, which is on the high end of the average range. I could have finished a year earlier, after I published a paper, but I enjoyed my project, and wanted to tie up some loose ends before leaving.

Compared to PhDs in non science fields, the PhD in biology largely consists of conducting research in the lab. During the first two semesters in our program, we took a total of 7 classes, and chose a research lab during our second semester. Thereafter, the program was full-time lab-work, with two semesters of TA work (1 class each) concurrent with lab work. With the minimal classwork, the PhD program was largely like a full-time+ job. I spent 50-70 hours in lab per week, including weekends.

In most biology PhD programs, tuition is paid by the program, and the department pays a modest stipend. When I started the stipend was 25.5K/year, and with yearly increases reached 30K/year. Not a great wage, but I had enough to live on (in an expensive city in the northeast), and enough leftover to some money put into savings every month. Thanks to my parents/grandparents, and the funding of my PhD program, I finished 10 years of higher education with no student debt.

I chose to get a PhD, because most biotech jobs requiring just a BS degree are technician positions, with limited prospects for advancement, and with limited independence. Currently, I’m working as a post-doc in an academic lab. The pay isn’t great, but it’s much better than the pay as a graduate student. For many jobs in biotech, a post-doc is required experience.

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avatar Investor Junkie

On one hand you mention you want to start a new business, yet also want to get a PhD? While in the end it’s your money I don’t see how you would benefit with a PhD owning a new business. So while you might get something out of the courses, don’t expect a monetary one.

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avatar Lance @ Money Life and More

It all comes down to what you want out of life. I personally would never get a PhD… or at least that is what I think right now. If you aren’t sure I’d do a lot more reflecting before you seriously dive in if you decide to go that way. You don’t want to get halfway through then realize you didn’t really want to do it after all…

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avatar Jodie H.

I struggle with this decision. My ideal career would be to be a professor with time to work on my personal projects, some of which include helping small business owners and possibly starting my own business. However, the thought of spending 5 years and a lot of money (or foregoing a lot of money) is the biggest drawback and not realistic for me right now. I’ve taught as an adjunct and enjoyed it immensely but I don’t see how I can be a full professor without the PhD or really get the full experience by doing my day job and teaching on the side. While the decision seems clear, the desire just doesn’t go away…

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avatar Marcus

Small but curious clarification: Not all states require a degree to be a lawyer. I live in Pennsylvania, which happens to be a state where you only need to pass the bar to practice law. They are few and far between but they do exist. Of course, I suspect you’d have trouble getting a good job at a law firm without the degree. The people I know who go this route tend to use lawyers a lot (for real estate transactions, etc.) and simply do it to save the money they’re paying their lawyer.

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avatar Jonas

“For example, if you want to work in law, spend the money for your law degree. An entry level corporate attorney in New York City earns an average of $99,000 according to Salary.com, but with a few years of experience, that salary jumps to $200,000.”

IF you can get that type of job. Many people want to be wealthy corporate attorneys; few are. Most are lucky to make $100k, even after a decade of practicing. So are we sure that spending $150k plus on law school tuition is a good idea?

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