Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Should You Get a Ph.D.?

I am occasionally asked by students whether they should go to grad school to get a Ph.D.  So much has already been written on this subject that I hadn't felt it necessary to put my opinion in writing, nor did I have any concrete advice.  But reading Duncan Watts's excellent recent article on the subject crystalized my thoughts.

So here, succinctly, is my advice:
Enroll in a Ph.D. program only if you think you'll enjoy graduate school.  Don't enroll just because you think a Ph.D. will help you in your future career.  In other words, don't go to graduate school as a means to an end.
Note: my advice is meant for US students seeking a Ph.D. in the sciences.  It probably applies more broadly.

Yale's computer science building, Arthur K. Watson Hall, where I spent a lot of time in grad school.  Image from here.

My advice may seem obvious, but it's not.  For instance, this would be bad advice for students considering an M.D. -- almost nobody enjoys medical school, but I think few graduates regret having gone.

But there are three main reasons why this is the right advice for grad school.
  1. In Ph.D. programs, unlike in many of the professional schools, you're supposed to be doing pretty much what your professors do -- research.  Sure you have to take some classes and get paid less, but chances are if you don't enjoy grad school, you won't enjoy a research career either.  (Going to grad school to pursue a finance career or something unrelated later is doing it the hard way.)
  2. Jobs in research, and especially in academia, are scarce, and going to grad school just because you might like a research job later is a very unsafe bet.  So, going to grad school only makes sense if you'd enjoy the research career, and also if you'd enjoy the experience anyway if a research career doesn't work out.  Four to six years of your life is a long time to be miserable.
  3. Grad school, unlike professional school, has no end-date.  You finish when you've done enough.  And it's hard to do enough if you're not enjoying the work.  Forcing yourself to sit through anatomy is one thing; forcing yourself to be creative is quite another.
Also, notice that my advice is an "only if."  So even if you might enjoy grad school, you should explore other possibilities.  Research is incredibly rewarding, but also has downsides which need to be considered.

That being said, I don't mean to be negative.  I'm very happy I went to grad school -- I had a great time there and am lucky to keep on getting to do research.  So, if you want to get a Ph.D., go for it.  Just remember to enjoy the journey.


  1. Anonymous8:25 AM

    Would this sound right to you: go for PhD if you feel that you CANNOT not go... Otherwise - don't.

  2. That's a reasonable viewpoint, but too conservative for my taste. Getting a Ph.D. is a risk, but if you enjoy the experience, it very much lessens the opportunity cost even if a research career doesn't work out. And if a research career does work out, it's much more stable/lucrative than being an artist or an actor (for whom the "go only if you CANNOT not go" advice seems more appropriate).