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.
Updated June 23, 2016 and originally published July 24, 2012.