Should You Get a Ph.D.?

Over at Sciencewomen, a reader, who is considering a Ph.D. program, asks:

I have a Masters in Biology (from a 5 year BS/MS program) and for the past 4 years I’ve been working as a lab manager/technician. I have my own research project(s) in addition to keeping track of ordering/equipment maintenance/mouse breeding/etc. All-in-all it’s a sweet gig and I could see myself doing this or something similar for most of my career. The problem is that there seems to be this culture in biology that one has to get a PhD, and my competitive side kind of feels the need to get one mostly just to show that I can. My practical side can’t figure out why it would be worth taking a pay cut for 5+ years of extra stress just to continue doing what I’m already doing. I have no desire to run my own lab, and have little desire to teach.

My very short answer: no.

If you are considering keeping your professional options open, then perhaps consider getting another master’s degree, either in a technical speciality, such as computational biology or statistics, or an MBA, which has some ‘credentialing’ value*.
The Ph.D. is not for that. As the reader correctly notes, a Ph.D. will be at least five years of more work and stress for less pay than a qualified lab tech. Actually, it will be more closer to ten years, and you might need to relocate a couple of times. It doesn’t sound like that’s what the reader wants to do.
To get a Ph.D. (in biology anyway), I think it requires four things:

1) A passion for biology. It has to go beyond ‘somewhat interesting.’
2) A willingness to spend a lot of time wanting to solve a particular problem.
3) A desire to live the ‘life of the mind’–you have to be really intellectually curious, and that curiosity has to be your lodestar.
4) This is the most important: you have to be willing to prioritize #1-3 above many other things, such as where you live, job stability, setting aside retirement income, and so on**. Worse, to capitalize on the Ph.D., at least in academia, you will have to keep prioritizing those things until you get tenure (business and non-profits can be a different matter).

I would also add that I’ve seen too many Ph.D.s who, upon graduating, are little more than glorified lab technicians. They haven’t been rigorously trained in any intellectual sense (they are supposed to be doctors of philosophy). Since the reader is already doing that (and enjoying it), why suffer through the Ph.D.? It definitely should not be the new B.Sc. or M.S.
*When it comes to the worth of an MBA (besides the networking, learning some basic lingo, and gaining a credential), I’m inclined to agree with Matthew Shaw’s argument in The Management Myth: an MBA is really just a poor philosophy degree (both the education and the philosophy are poor). If the world were organized according to the Mad Biologist, I would hire mathematically and statistically knowledgeable philosophy PhDs and MAs, not MBAs.
**To a considerable extent, a Ph.D. and post-doc retard one’s ability to become a ‘normal’ adult. Many parts of your life revolve around moving to the next stage, as opposed to actually living one’s life. There is little job stability, the pay sucks, you don’t know when you might move up, and you have to geographically relocate often. You really better love what you do, or find something else to do.

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19 Responses to Should You Get a Ph.D.?

  1. Mary says:

    I agree with you on all counts. For me, it was without question that I needed a PhD for the autonomy and intellectual freedom that I craved. And it paid off for me later in taking some chances that I wouldn’t have been “credentialed” to do otherwise. But I know a lot of people aren’t up for those risks (for good life reasons and just a personality difference) and it is not right for everyone.
    I also have a friend who used those other things you describe (more business skills) to go very far in pharma with his BS. So I think the other skills carry great niche opportunities as well.
    One time someone told me the best thing you can do is get real skills in 2 areas. Then you can be the person that bridges those area, which can be a rare combination. Or you have 2 paths you can use at different times in your life.

  2. D. C. Sessions says:

    FWIW the options are a bit broader in some of the fields with industry potential. The semiconductor industry hires a lot of PhDs who then do research with awesome toy budgets. They publish plenty, too, although sometimes the lag thanks to trade secrecy can be an obstacle.
    On the other hand, for someone who is where she wants to be? Tell me again what the upside would be?

  3. Ninad Gujar says:

    I agree with everything said above. Just to provide another alternative Phd by Publication is always an option.
    Many universities in UK and Australia offer it and as long as you command authorship over some good publication you stand a good chance to complete this quickly. (between 1-3 years)

  4. arcticwolfw says:

    I also completely agree.
    As somebody who has found out only afterwards that the Ph.D. might not have been my best career choice, I strongly urge against going for it. Try to get a lab manager position being an ‘over-qualified’ Ph.D. And as a Ph.D. there is less work in the lab and more supervising, up to the point where your students chase you out of the lab being thoroughly fed up with somebody watching their every move. My wake-up call was the question of a colleague: “You still do all this yourself in the lab?”. Don’t let it come to that.

  5. Todd O. says:

    I have a Ph.D. in social sciences and am now a professor. I agree with everything you’ve said here, although I don’t really know how this works in the biological sciences. I love being a professor and am happy with my career, but I have made huge financial sacrifices, and my life is 10 years behind all my friends of the same age. You nailed it with your four points. And even though it worked for me in many respects, it’s only a partial success: I have a job that’s a very bad fit for me intellectually, financially, and geographically but am stuck in it for the foreseeable future unless I chose to leave academia altogether.

  6. minimalist says:

    Nice post, Mike. My own history (Ph.D. and postdoc) has been pretty rocky, and I often wondered if it was really worth it.
    I think it’s worth pointing out a reason #5, that a Ph.D. entails wearing a lot of hats, at least in academia: you’re going to have to teach, mentor, direct activities in your lab, and write grant applications. Oh god, are you going to have to write grant applications.
    Worst, for me, is the knowledge that there will be people in my lab, sometimes with young families, who are depending on my ability to get funding. It took five years for my postdoctoral research to really take off (a year and a half of that was just trying to please reviewers and get my major paper into publication). I don’t want to have to tell a postdoc he/she will have to disrupt their lives, find another position, and move — possibly without getting a publication out of it — just because I was too hapless to get continued funding.
    I think I absolutely could have my own lab — my project has completely taken off, and I’m uniquely positioned to work in an almost entirely unexplored subfield — but I just can’t handle that sort of anxiety, don’t want the responsibility, and I just want to do the labwork.
    For me, I’d be perfectly happy continuing to work with my current boss on a permanent basis, and in fact that was an option we discussed. He’s not dependent on grants (being at the NIH), but other funding issues crept in, unfortunately.

  7. I had a similar situation when I went back to get my Ph.D., which I have now had for awhile. I had a good job. The thing is, the process is an intellectually liberating one, which is not only about career, it is also about a different, almost impractical type of discipline to something very specific. It also can change your perspective on the career. I had no idea I would ever be an academic, or even want to be. Now I am a Professor, and find it a wonderful career, and life. This is not to say that a Ph.D is for everyone, but it I do think it is an amazing life experience.

  8. Jim Thomerson says:

    In the mid 50’s I was not doing well as a sophomore aeronautical engineer. My other passion was fishes, so I talked with Zoology PhD grad student I knew. He told me I would have to get a PhD to do what I would want to do, and the field would be very competitive. This discouraged me, and I pursued other disciplines through the MS with not much happiness. Finally managed to get a PhD in zoology. I became a Professor, studied fishes, and have had a good life. Even so, I think the advice given above is good. If you can be discouraged in a course of action, maybe that is not the right one for you.

  9. DJ says:

    This is a subject I’ve tackled as well. I’m not that far along in my academic career, but I knew after the second semester of my undergrad that I wanted to have a phd. I’ve thought I should do it because all the ecology jobs for bs. grads are seasonal tech jobs, because quality of life for professors seems secure and enjoyable, because no one in my family has ever had much education, and on and on…
    Eventually I discovered that I really want to get a phd because I love academics, I love studying about science, I love doing research in the field traipsing around in the rain and snow getting dirty and finding out how communities work, I love that feeling I get when I know I’ve grappled with a difficult concept and come away with some understanding, I even love looking at slides of my subject of study despite the eventual headache I get (never could master the setup of a microscope to avoid eye strain).
    Sure there are sacrifices; money lost, time lost, career opportunities missed, and relocation. Or you can see it another way; money is common and not that valuable, time spent doing something you enjoy is valuable, career opportunities ahead may be more suitable than those you pass up, and relocation can be enjoyable if you take the time to indulge in the new surroundings.
    If you love where you are with a master’s, then there is no reason to go further. If you love the process and want a phd., then go for it.

  10. DJ says:

    I don’t yet know if I love the administrative aspects of getting a phd.. I don’t have one yet. I’ll discover just how I feel about writing grants very soon though. I have to submit my first proposal in a couple of weeks. I think I will enjoy teaching, but I know its a rough ride for a while.
    eh, we’ll see.
    Some good advice in this comment thread though.

  11. drmabu7 says:

    Kicking in the heads of atheists one at a time…
    PZ, I thought the Morris Police Department was going to save you from the wrath of God…

  12. Gene Doctor says:

    You have listed some excellent reasons not to go for a PhD, such lack of money, a big time investment, and poor job security in academics (grant writing definitely sucks) – all are true. You definitely need intellectual curiosity and a drive to discover the truth through repetitive experimentation.
    I did one postdoc after graduating with my PhD and then went into the biotechnology industry rather than academics (to avoid having to write more grants, and to make some money). I did some cutting edge research and really enjoyed the lab work, however there isn’t much job security in industry either as I’ve been laid off 3 times and have had to relocate across the country 4 times. I am now out of the lab (it does get old after 14 years) but have put my PhD to good use in the Medical Communications field, which would have been difficult had I not made the initial sacrifice up front right after undergrad school to get my PhD. Just my 2 cents.

  13. cm says:

    Threadjacking in progress. I’ll comment on the original post.

  14. GJ says:

    Here’s a twist to think about. Twenty five years ago I was on my way to a career in academia when a newly arriving baby derailed my best made plans. Having just a B.S. in molecular biology and a minor in physics I was qualified to work for the federal government which was far from my first choice of careers. But this was the mid 1980’s and jobs were very hard to come by. Since that time I have taken some graduate classes with the idea of completing my education but each time I quickly realized that I was making a much better salary with benefits and job security than those post docs teaching the courses I was taking.
    For most of my career I have been in charge of my own laboratory, headed up international studies, presented papers at major conferences, and published several papers in major journals. During this time I have sustained my intellectual curiosity through self education in the fields of study I find most stimulating (even if they were outside my field of work). I am still relatively young, intellectually curious, and eligable for retirement in two years. All this with just a B.S. degree, a little good fortune, and a lot of hard work. Once I retire (which I will) I plan on completing my education with financial independence already in my pocket so to speak.
    Just something for you to think about.

  15. IBY says:

    What kind of things does one do with a PhD that one with a Masters can’t?

  16. Anonymous says:

    To GJ, how do you go about obtaining a job with the federal government? I too was derailed by a baby, but I fell into a lucky grant with which I will have a masters in Biology in one year. I am debating on either getting my pHd after that, trying to get into med school, or beginning my career now, but I don’t know what all is out there for a masters in Biology. I guess I would like to know the answer to the question above mine…”What kind of things does one do with a PhD that one with a Masters can’t?”…thanks!

  17. resimler says:

    As somebody who has found out only afterwards that the Ph.D. might not have been my best career choice, I strongly urge against going for it.

  18. firmalar says:

    FWIW the options are a bit broader in some of the fields with industry potential. The semiconductor industry hires a lot of PhDs who then do research with awesome toy budgets. They publish plenty, too, although sometimes the lag thanks to trade secrecy can be an obstacle.

  19. vpills says:

    Threadjacking in progress. I’ll comment on the original post.

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