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Is a PhD Worth it?

Written by Mark Bennett

Whether a PhD is worth it or not entirely depends on what you want to get out of it. If you want to enter academia, then you'll likely need a PhD. However, those who don't need the degree for their career still find that doctoral study helps them gain and refine useful skills benefitial to industry.

This page will help you to define the value of a PhD degree and understand how much a PhD is worth (and to who).

PhD careers and employment prospects

One of the first ways you might decide if a PhD is worth it is by working out whether it will improve your career prospects. So, how employable are PhD graduates – and what jobs do they actually do?

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

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.

As you can see from the table below, a PhD can make a difference to your employment prospects when compared with a taught Masters qualification.


PhD employment statistics
Taught Masters PhD degree
Full-time employment 66% 74%
Part-time employment 9% 10%
Employment and further study 8% 7%
Further study 6% 1%
Other 4% 5%
* Information in this table is based on data derived from the 2020-21 Graduate Outcomes survey, conducted by HESA. It reveals the destinations of UK university graduates after 15 months.

For more information and statistics on this, check out our guide to PhD employability.

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.

Assessing the value of a PhD to you

Whether a PhD is worth it very much depends on your individual aspirations and plans.

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.

Our Pulse survey shows that there’s almost an even split between those of you interested in doing a PhD because you want a career in academia, and those of you that aren’t interested in going down the academic route. We dug a little deeper into the survey and around 5% more of those interested in going into academia are interested in Arts and Humanities academic roles. There’s also around a 10% difference between those interested in studying STEM and those interested in AHSS when it comes to subject interest, with STEM being more motivated to study due to subject interest.

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.

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’s prudent to understand the profession you’re preparing for – and to keep your options open.

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 doctoral loans.

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.

Are you committed enough to see the project through?

You may decide that a PhD is definitely worth the cost, but will it be worth the hard work?

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 worth 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.

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.

Ready to do a PhD?

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Last Updated: 27 February 2023