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Is a PhD worth it?

A PhD is a big commitment. You’ll spend at least three years as a doctoral researcher, with great demands made on your time, finances and dedication.

Which begs the question: is a PhD actually worth it?

Some of the answers are fairly obvious: you’ll do research no one has ever done before, make a unique contribution to the sum of human knowledge and come away with a prestigious qualification held by a tiny fraction of the population. You’ll also get to call yourself ‘Doctor.’

Those things probably matter to you – and they’ll play a role in defining the value of a PhD in your eyes.

But your doctorate won’t just be a vanity project. You may also want to know how much a PhD is worth – and to who.

This page will help you answer those questions.



PhD careers and employment prospects

We’ll start with the most important questions: how employable are PhD graduates – and what jobs do they actually do?

You may be surprised how diverse the answers to these questions are.

Gone are the days when a PhD lead straight into a career in academia. In fact, it’s not necessarily clear that those days existed outside the minds of slightly naïve postgraduates (and the fact that you’re here suggests you’re not one of those).

PhD employment statistics

Data suggests that PhD students are very employable, with the majority finding work or going on to further training (such as a ‘Postdoc’) after graduation.


Activity % of PhD graduates
Full-time work 77.5
Part-time work 8.2
Total employed 85.7
Data in this table is based on the Longitudinal DLHE survey, published by HESA. It gives the employment outcomes of PhD graduates in the UK, 3.5 years after graduation.

Most other graduates are involved in a combination of work and further study or are self-employed.

What's a Postdoc? A Postdoctoral Fellowship (or 'Postdoc') is often the next step in an academic career, after a PhD. Postdocs are short-term paid positions that usually focus on a specific research project. You can find out more about Postdoctoral projects and opportunities at FindAPostDoc.com

What can you do with a PhD? – typical careers

The modern PhD is a surprisingly versatile qualification that develops a wide range of transferrable skills. Universities also support students within broad doctoral programmes that focus on developing employable PhD graduates.

All of this means that the job market for PhD students is quite diverse.

Many students do go on to careers in higher education, but these include administration and leadership positions as well as academic posts.

Others take their research and teaching expertise into other professions – including secondary and further education, industry or public administration.

What else do PhD graduates do? A PhD does far more than prepare you for a career in higher education. Read our guide for more information on popular non-academic careers with a PhD - and how to get started with one.

Transferrable skills – what else does a PhD teach you?

PhDs are highly specialised qualifications. In fact, they’re the most specialised qualifications available. By its very nature every PhD is a unique project, focussing on a topic no one has researched before.

But PhDs aren’t just about specialisation. Successfully completing a three-year research project means developing many more general skills, all of which are highly transferrable.

There are relatively few non-academic careers based on the theological significance of eighteenth-century lyric poetry or the effects of altitude on arboreal biodiversity.

But there are lots of careers out there for self-motivated project managers with excellent organisational skills, experience of public speaking and event planning plus the ability to effectively analyse and communicate large amounts of complex information.

Those people are very employable. And your PhD could make you one of them.

The following are some of the core transferrable skills you’re likely to develop during a PhD.

Project management

This one is fairly obvious, but it’s probably more significant than you give it credit for.

A PhD requires you to complete an extended research project and to do so almost entirely independently. You’ll have support from your supervisor, but the day to day management of your time, resources and objectives is down to you.

You’ll need to assess the demands of specific tasks, plan ahead to ensure the availability of key materials and solve a wide range of problems (both anticipated and unforeseen).

You might also be responsible for managing expenses and keeping your project within the limits set by its own funding – or that of the research group you’re working within.

Even a self-financed PhD involves managing a budget – and potentially securing additional investment for your work.

Professional networking

Successful managing a PhD project can also mean successfully managing your relationships with other people.

You’ll need to maintain a productive relationship with your supervisor and with fellow students within your laboratory, workshop or department.

Looking further afield, you’ll need to identify and connect with researchers working on similar topics at other universities. And, if you present at conferences yourself, you’ll become experienced in sharing information within an expert network and discussing ideas with your professional peers.

It’s also highly likely that you’ll work more closely with other researchers at some point during your PhD. This could be part of a short-term project, or whilst organising a conference or other event (see below).

So don’t be misled by the image of the solitary scholar: collaboration, team-work (and team building) are also important parts of a modern PhD.

Teaching and mentoring

Academic teaching is another part of the typical PhD experience. Most universities provide at least some opportunity for postgraduate researchers to lead classes, demonstrate experiments or mentor undergraduate students.

This is important training for an academic career, but it’s not just limited to work in the university sector.

Teaching experience is obviously useful if you’re interested in working in other branches of education – such as a secondary school or sixth form college. Showing that you can communicate your specialist subject knowledge is a great way to leverage a PhD for these careers.

Academic teaching also tends to involve coursework assessment, feedback and one-to-one tutorials. These skills can transfer out of purely educational contexts as you develop experience in mentoring others and providing leadership.

Publication

Academic publication isn’t part of every PhD, but many students do have the opportunity to author journal articles or produce other records of their research.

This kind of publication is obviously different to ‘commercial’ or ‘popular’ publishing (we’re not suggesting it’s a short-step from a Nature paper to winning the Man Booker Prize). But some of the skills you’ll gain are common to all forms of publication.

Preparing, copy-editing and proofing a professional manuscript is necessary to publication in all contexts: whether you’re authoring a journal article, a novel, an industry whitepaper – or a website.

And proficiency in composing and communicating complex ideas is valuable in many careers – even the ones that don’t actually involve ‘publication.’

Public speaking

You might think it strange to think of PhD research as an opportunity to develop skills in oral communication, but the presentation and discussion of your ideas will play an important role in their development.

The majority of students speak at academic conferences at some point during their doctorates. This is an important means of making the academic community aware of your work and of receiving expert feedback.

In the process you’ll also become a capable public speaker, with the ability to select and shape material for a presentation and the confidence to deliver that presentation professionally and effectively.

And remember, the topic of a presentation isn’t important. It doesn’t matter if you’re speaking about economic history in front of an audience of academics or about market research in front of an audience of clients. Both scenarios require you to present specialist information, effectively, to other specialists.

Event management and organisation

PhD students don’t just speak at conferences: they often have the chance to organise them. This can range from running small seminar events to planning and arranging large international conferences.

The challenges involved in this – booking venues, setting up facilities, advertising, registering, taking care of delegates – aren’t unique to academia. They also crop up in a range of professions where large conferences and events are a regular occurrence – from politics to trade fairs.

Branches of some careers – such as marketing or entertainment – actually focus entirely upon events management.

Research

One of the most valuable skills you gain with a PhD could, quite simply, be the ability to do research.

The task of identifying, managing and analysing large amounts of complex information isn’t simple. Nor is it easy to digest that information and re-present your conclusions in an appropriate and useful format.

As a PhD student, you’re going to become an undisputed expert in doing all of this. Because, if nothing else, your doctorate will make you a professional researcher.

And professional researchers don’t just work in academia. All sorts of careers draw upon these skills, from public administration, government and politics to public relations management, marketing and journalism.

Assessing the value of a PhD to you

Knowing a little about the employability of PhD graduates is helpful. As is an appreciation of the many ways a PhD can enhance your CV beyond simply putting a few more letters before and after your name.

But, ultimately, your decision to commit to a PhD has to take account of its value to you.

What do you want to get out of PhD study? And are the outcomes you’re seeking worth the investment – both personal and financial – that goes into three or more years of research?

This is something you’ll need to think carefully about, but you can help by asking yourself the following questions.

Do you want to be an academic?

It’s common for students to set out on a PhD with an academic career in mind – inspired by a passion for their subject at undergraduate and Masters level.

There’s nothing wrong with this, but you should also spend a bit of time considering the higher education job market – and learning a little about what an academic career involves.

The vast majority of university researchers and lecturers in countries like the UK do have a PhD. But that doesn’t mean that the majority of PhD graduates go on to become university researchers and lecturers. In fact, many don’t.

If you are pursuing a PhD as the next step in an academic career, that’s great. Academic work is incredibly rewarding (and potentially very well paid). But it it’s prudent to understand the profession you’re preparing for – and to keep your options open.

Chat to lecturers and tutors Academic work is about more than teaching and research. If you'd like to find out more about a career working for a university, why not politely ask some of your current lecturers or tutors for tips?

Do you have another career in mind?

For some, a PhD is enough to scratch their ‘research itch’ and they decide to take their skills and experience into other careers. Others find that the academic job market is very competitive or that an academic job doesn’t appeal to them. And an increasing number have a completely different career in mind.

The modern PhD is a versatile qualification offering the transferrable skills described above as well as the chance to acquire incredibly advanced expertise.

There are plenty of careers that benefit from the kind of diverse CV a PhD develops. And, even if you want to be an academic, it’s worth thinking about a few of them before you start.

Will funding be available?

PhD fees aren’t actually that high. They’re a lot lower than undergraduate fees and usually less than those for Masters degrees.

But the full cost of a PhD needs to take into account more than just tuition fees. You’ll need to support yourself for at least three more years of study.

That’s three years in which you won’t be earning very much and during which your career development will probably be on hold. So there’s an ‘opportunity cost’ involved in PhD study – the earnings or career progress you might otherwise have made.

The simplest way to offset this is by acquiring funding for your PhD. A range of options are out there, from pre-funded projects to individual scholarships and even the prospect of student loans on the horizon.

Set aside some time to find out what kind of support might be available for the kind of project you want to complete. Researching research funding may not be exciting, but it could well be worth it.

Student loans for PhDs? Yep - eventually. Loans for doctoral students will be available in England from 2018. Other parts of the UK are considering their own plans. You can stay up to date by subscribing to our newsletter.

Are you committed enough to see the project through?

This may seem like an odd question to include here. Surely your dedication to further study and the value of the qualification you gain are two different things?

Well, not quite. For the simple reason that, whatever the value of a completed PhD, an uncompleted one is worth a lot less.

It doesn’t matter what you plan to do with your PhD or how much it ends up costing you: if you don’t finish your project you’ll have little to show for whatever time and money you have invested.

That’s not to say that failing to complete a PhD will ruin your life. Some students do exit their programmes early and go on to have productive careers. Some even submit for alternative qualifications such as the MPhil.

But failing to complete a PhD is rarely a desirable or ideal outcome. So go into the process with your eyes open and make sure you know what’s involved. Our advice on doing a PhD is a good place to start.

What's it actually like to study a PhD? A PhD is very different to a Bachelors or Masters degree. So it's important to know what to expect before you start. Our guides include specific advice on what it's like to study a PhD as well as a detailed overview of a typical 'PhD journey'.

Ultimately it’s up to you to decide if a PhD is worth it for you and hopefully this page has helped you do that.

Elsewhere on this site you can read a bit more about good (and bad) reasons to study a PhD. Or you can start looking at some real PhD opportunities and decide which sort of project might be best for you.



Last updated - 06/05/2016

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