Should you do a PhD?

You should do whatever is best for you! But to help you figure out if that’s the case, consider the questions below.

Do your career goals require this specific PhD?

There are few careers that will require a PhD, and in many fields the only job specifically head-hunting for your PhD is academia. A PhD can be very fun and fulfilling work, but it’s also 3-10+ years of your life. While many of your peers are establishing themselves in careers, settling down, putting money into savings, and possibly starting families, you will be stalled. The job you get immediately out of your PhD may be quite low-paid given your extra years of study, perhaps no more than what you could have earned with your Bachelors degree alone. You may lose potential earnings for 3-10+ years, and that isn’t insignificant.

You should be very careful not to take on a PhD merely as a way to extend “school” or to avoid “the real world”. A PhD is very unlike an undergraduate degree and so may not be enjoyable if that’s your goal.

Are you prepared for a PhD?

Depending on the country you apply to and the country where you did your undergraduate degree, you may not have had many opportunities to do undergraduate research. You may not have done an undergraduate thesis. You may be looking to change fields between undergraduate and PhD. You may not have performed as well during your undergraduate degree as you’d have liked, for whatever reason.

These are all good reasons to want to delay entry into a PhD.

You may want to look into post-baccalaureate (postbacc) or Masters programs if you want to make your application stronger or if you’re unsure if research is right for you. For research experience you can also usually look for research assistant positions in your field, but the pay and availability can vary a lot.

There is another sense in which you can be unprepared to take on a PhD, and that’s where health is concerned. Many university students struggle with mental illness, and so you may have finished your degree in a less-than-ideal mental state. Burnout and chronic stress alone will take some time to subside, and the introduction of new or changing treatments is also destabilising. If your mental or physical health is currently poor/unstable, be very careful in starting a PhD. An extra 6-12 months of dedicated treatment now could save you from intermitting or dropping out of a PhD later. In all cases, you will want to carefully research the counselling and healthcare available within each university/country you’re applying to.

Can you afford it?

Note: Here I’m discussing funding. If you’re not already familiar with the way PhD projects are funded, check out the funding section

It’s often said on the internet that “you shouldn’t do a PhD unless it’s paid”. I think this is a little too reductive.

It’s true that STEM PhDs in the US are often funded, but this isn’t a universal truth across all subjects, departments, or countries. Some subjects, particularly non-STEM, don’t offer much funding to their students. Even where funding is offered, and enough given to cover tuition and basic living costs, it may not be enough for you. If you have additional costs like healthcare, high rent, moving costs, or dependents to care for, then the funding offered may fall short of what you need. Be prepared that most PhDs, if funded at all, are only given enough for a single person to live frugally.

Some people choose take out loans and/or try to work an extra job while studying. Others take a gap year (or multiple) so that they can save up money. When it comes to anything involving money, you must be very careful, particularly if you’re thinking of taking on any amount in loans. PhDs are expensive, and it will almost never be worth it to take out student loans for your tuition, especially when you already have significant debt from an earlier degree.

You also shouldn’t feel pressured to take a gap year just for having the bad luck of being poor, though. Where full funding is offered, it can be a very stable source of income in an otherwise unpredictable job market. And depending on the subject/program/country, it can also be more or less normal to pick up extra grants as you progress through the degree, so while your first year may be a small net loss, you could start earning money in your 2nd or 3rd. These are things you should discuss with your professors and any potential supervisors. It’s also something you shouldn’t jump the gun on—you can’t assess the funding packages on offer until they’re offered to you!

Next