Advice: Should you get your PhD?

“An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” -Benjamin Franklin

Recently, a number of people — of widely different ages and levels of education — have contacted me for advice on whether or not pursuing a PhD in astrophysics/physics/science-in-general is right for them. Of course, I can’t tell you whether a path is the right one for you or not, but there are certain questions I think everyone should ask themselves if this is, in fact, something you’re considering. I’m going to be speaking mostly from my own experiences, both from what I’ve lived and from my peers, mentors and students, but I think this might be of interest to a broad audience as well.

Image credit: Oslo University Hospital, 2008.

Image credit: Oslo University Hospital, 2008.

First off, there are many, many bad reasons that people think of when it comes to getting a PhD. Here are some of the most common that I’ve run across:

  1. Do not get a PhD in science because you think it will make you smarter. A degree — a piece of paper — never made anyone smarter, and you are not the exception.
  2. Do not get a PhD because you think being a professor would be a great career choice. Getting a PhD is no guarantee that you will get a professorship, and even if it were, the promise of this future reward is not enough incentive on its own.
  3. Do not go after a PhD because you have dreams of money or glory or respect. Any of these accolades are rare for PhDs, and those that get them almost universally were recipients of a tremendous amount of luck in addition to their talents and merits.
  4. Definitely do not pursue a PhD because you majored in something in college, you don’t know what to do next, and graduate school seems like the next logical step.

It may seem obvious to you that these are bad ideas, but let me elaborate a little further. A PhD is not evidence that you are a genius. In fact, the vast majority of people with PhDs are not of any extraordinary intelligence, but merely people who did the hard work necessary to earn a PhD. There are plenty of brilliant people who get them, of course, but there are also plenty of people of average or even below-average intelligence who get them. All a PhD signifies, at the end of the day, is that you did the work necessary to earn a PhD. There are many people who have PhDs who will dispute this, of course. There are plenty of people who are insecure about their lives, too, and base their entire sense of self-worth on their academic achievements and accolades. You probably have met a few of them: they are called jerks.

You'll *wish* this guy was your teacher. Image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures.

You’ll *wish* this guy was your teacher. Image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures.

Being a professor is a great job in many ways. It’s certainly one of the most competitive jobs out there: the last time I was on a hiring committee, we had over 200 applications — from qualified, job-hunting PhDs — for a single opening. Jon Katz is very pessimistic about your chances at landing a permanent professorship, and he’s not wrong. But the hope of a job some ten years down-the-road is a horrible reason to embark on an endeavor of this magnitude. I’m also one of the rarest breeds out there: someone who was a professor, was offered a tenure-track position, and turned it down. You get just one life, and there are no do-overs. If you get to the end and you haven’t lived it the way you want… whose fault is that?

There are a few PhD scientists who have become rich, powerful, and famous. But if you’re pursuing a PhD in science because you want to be rich, aren’t there about a bajillion careers out there that are more lucrative? If you want to be powerful, do you really think a PhD will help with that? If you want to be famous, can you name even five famous living scientists? (And if you name me, you automatically lose.) If you want to be the next Nobel-prizewinning physicist, the next Carl Sagan or Neil de Grasse Tyson, or the next Albert Einstein, you’re more than welcome to try. While a PhD might be a de facto requirement to achieve those things, it certainly isn’t any sort of guarantee to get you there.

And this last one — the “I don’t know what to do next so I guess I’ll try grad school” — is the most common cause of grad-school-burnout I’ve ever seen. This isn’t to say that there aren’t some people who enter grad school with this mindset and wind up doing very well for themselves; I’ve known a few who’ve graduated with their PhDs and went on to some substantial amount of success. But there’s no better recipe for getting a graduate student to quit graduate school than putting someone who doesn’t have the right motives in that situation in the first place.

Image credit: Matt Groening, Life In Hell.

Image credit: Matt Groening, Life In Hell.

Now, in every scientific field, graduate school requires a tremendous amount of hard work to get your PhD. Mine — in theoretical astrophysics/cosmology — came through a physics department. This pretty much requires:

  • Acceptance into physics graduate school, which in itself requires:
    • Either a bachelor’s in physics or the equivalent coursework, which is a year of introductory physics, at least two semesters of quantum mechanics, two semesters of advanced E&M, two semesters of advanced classical mechanics, two semesters of advanced laboratory courses, a smattering of advanced special-topics courses (thermo, astro, nuclear/particle), and math up through Fourier series and complex analysis. [Note: many smaller colleges do not even offer these courses; you will likely have to spend a semester-to-a-year remediating yourself in grad school if you're deficient in any of these!]
    • Research experience isn’t normally a stated requirement, but at least a few summers/semesters’ worth is highly preferred.
    • A good score on both the Physics GRE and the general GRE.
    • Three solid letters of recommendation.
  • Success in the first-year “core” courses, which is a year of graduate E&M, a year of graduate Quantum Mechanics, and a half-year each of Statistical Mechanics and graduate Classical Mechanics.
  • Success finding an advisor who’s a good match for you. That means someone who you not only enjoy working with and who works well with you, but someone who is interested in the same sub-specialty of your discipline as you.
  • Success in the advanced coursework and in advanced research, both directed and independent. This likely includes a substantial amount of computer programming; if you haven’t learned it by now, you’re going to have to, and fast.
  • Success in writing your own scientific research papers, and getting them published.

So, what determines whether you’ll achieve this success or not? The biggest determiner of success that I’ve found is this: how big is your internal motivation to learn the thing you’re studying?

Image credit: http://imustdothis.com/

Image credit: http://imustdothis.com/.

Because even though some expectations are absurd, you are going to have to work extremely hard to become proficient at thinking about some aspects of the world in an entirely different way. You’re going to have to put in years of studying, reading, research, problem-solving, meticulous, detail-oriented work, and the only person you’ll be accountable to is yourself. If you can’t find that motivation to learn this inside of you, if you can’t find the motivation to work this hard for, on average, five-to-seven years in graduate school, then a PhD is not for you.

That’s the number one question you should be asking yourself, in my opinion, if you’re thinking about getting a PhD in a scientific field:

  • Is there something that I need to learn so bad that my life will be incomplete if I don’t go and learn it for myself?

That was my experience. There is another option, too, that I’ve heard from a few people, including my advisor:

  • Is there something that I enjoy doing so much that I can’t imagine doing anything else as long as I can keep doing this?

If you answered yes to either of these two questions, then it will likely be worth it to you, and you should go for it! It will be hard, it will be a lot of work, you will not be guaranteed a job, wealth, success, a professorship, a Nobel Prize, self-confidence, true love, or any other false idols.

Image credit: Jess Laccetti from Edmonton, Canada. Via http://www.jesslaccetti.co.uk/.

Image credit: Jess Laccetti from Edmonton, Canada. Via http://www.jesslaccetti.co.uk/.

But you will have learned something that you’ll always carry with you the rest of your life, and that no one can take away from you. You will have invested in your own knowledge, and you’ll have the rest of your life to enjoy the fruits of that tree. I’ve known people get their PhDs in their 20s, I’ve known people get them in their 50s. If you can dream it, you can be it, so what are you waiting for?!

Further reading: Jonathan Katz’s Don’t Become A Scientist!
Katie Mack’s Advice for Aspiring Astrophysicists
My Advice for Aspiring Young Scientists
What my readers Wish They Knew When They Started College
Your First Year In Physics Graduate School
and What You Shouldn’t Put Up With In Grad School

Comments

  1. #1 Michael Webster
    Canada
    March 28, 2013

    No, most of this just wrong – well intentioned but wrong.

    Nobody decides to get a PhD – it is a path they follow.

    As the author correctly points out, few who get a PhD become professors.

    So, the real & important question is: having followed this path and then not being a professional academic, for reasons that have only to do with numbers, how do you go on to be an the intellectual you always were?

  2. #2 Dennis Eckmeier
    March 28, 2013

    There are many ways. It does not have to be the one and only burning question you want to solve for yourself.

    I met one of the most innovative researchers of his field (cancer research). What drives him simply is the love for finding new ways to figure out stuff. The reason why he works in his specific field is, because he felt obligued to give something back to society and because he thought research in that field was stuck and he knew what to do about it. But he might as well have ended up anywhere else and succeeded.

    The act of research itself should be fullfilling to you, because if all you want is to achieve a specific goal you will end up very frustrated.

    And there is also nothing wrong with leaving academia at any point before or after earning the PhD.

  3. #3 luna
    Kuala Lumpur
    March 29, 2013

    That was very motivating, I enjoyed reading it. Thank you.

  4. #4 Semmel
    March 29, 2013

    I dont know about all of you.. but I find my way of doing a phd (not finished as of yet) incredibly fun and interesting. I dont know if anyone can do a phd out of strategic thinking. I certainly cant. And the most recurring and mind twisting question that I constantly asked my self: why do I do this.. _really_? I dont fall for the ‘career’ part, because I dont want to be a professor, I hate the job they do. Organizing, telling other people what to do.. thats not what I like. Also I dont care much about the riches and I dont care at all about fame. So the question: “why” is valid. But the answer (at least for me) is quite simple and elaborate. Because its so much fun! I love doing science, its like a big box of unsorted Lego blocks that want to be assembled. Its like playing hide and seek with the universe. What better game is there? I just love learning things. And I love doing things. And I love the challenge of doing a phd.

    So after all.. it simply comes down to: because doing a phd is fun. As Allan Watts once said: life is not about getting anywhere. Life is a musical thing. And we are supposed to dance along while the music is being plaid. Of course, thats only my personal, subjective solution to the problem “why”. I dont want to judge anyone who has a different opinion on that. Allan Watts: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ERbvKrH-GC4

    Cheers,
    Semmel

  5. #5 Skywalker
    Switzerland
    March 29, 2013

    We are under the same sky, but the Horizons are different.
    If somebody like to widen their Horizon . . . Do the PhD !
    Thank you Ethan and HAPPY EASTER (I love the Easter Bunny)

  6. #6 Donovan
    March 29, 2013

    “Is there something that I enjoy doing so much that I can’t imagine doing anything else as long as I can keep doing this?”

    This was my reason. With my BS, I could go back to doing what I was doing before college – crying myself to sleep and wondering where I went wrong – for more money. No amount of money was going to help, and I knew that. I actually made good money before school.

    But ecology? I read papers for, well, not ‘fun’ exactly, but enjoyment. I volunteered in undergrad for anything dealing with biology. I want my funeral to take place at a stream study so I don’t have to stop doing this until the last moment.

    The question I asked myself wasn’t, “What am I willing to do to be wealthy?” but rather, “What can I do to make being poor a minor concern?”

  7. #7 andie
    Canada
    March 29, 2013

    I’m having a great time in grad school. I’m doing the research I want to do, on MY day-to-day schedule, with very supportive advisors. Any tips on how to not graduate? I don’t think it gets any better than this. (Professors have too many responsibilities).

  8. #8 uncleMonty
    March 29, 2013

    Another reason *not* to do a PhD in science (in the USA): because you think that your work, even if it doesn’t make you rich and famous, will be appreciated and supported by society. I just finished reading this article by the Editor-in-chief of Science: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/339/6125/1252.full . It paints a pretty grim picture of support for research in this country.

  9. #9 Colin
    March 29, 2013

    This is the most succinct answer I have found to the question of graduate education. Good post! Inspiring!

  10. #10 ToSeek
    March 29, 2013

    Some years ago I had a coworker with a PhD in physics who begged off a meeting with me due to an emergency – a friend of his was considering going for his PhD, and he needed to talk him out of it.

  11. #11 postdoc
    California
    March 29, 2013

    This is a fantastic piece of advice for any young graduate and I wish I had it myself 5 years ago. After finishing my PhD I find myself where all my friends were 5 years earlier…unsure of what to do, worried about paying the rent and on top of it too old for any junior positions in other career paths. Although I am lucky to be employed, it is in a career I do not enjoy in a competetive world of others who really love it.

    Be careful about your choice and by no means do a PhD for any other reason than you really want to research something in particular and you would ideally you love it so much you would happily do it for no money. Those are the sot of characters you will be competing (and socialising) with.

  12. #12 SG
    March 29, 2013

    Great blog post!
    In regards to Michael’s comment – as someone currently making the decision to change my life and apply to PhD programmes, it is indeed a decision. Applications, research proposals, and life and environment changes just don’t happen. It is a decision, one not to be taken lightly.

  13. #13 Joffemannen
    Malmö Sweden
    March 31, 2013

    My supervisor left just after I started so it was a rough trip with an advisor who didnt care about my subject. Still have some regrets that I turned down a postdoc in Sydney… Life in industry isnt all that either

  14. #14 copernicus34
    March 31, 2013

    Great Post Ethan. I know many people who would read your post and be rather butt-hurt about what was said. Many many of the smartest people I know, unfortunately are also the dumbest people I know.

  15. #15 Barry
    April 1, 2013

    This is sort of a whine, but all of the pictures just distracted from the message. They break the flow of the text.

  16. #16 Werner
    April 3, 2013

    Being a prolific writer gives you the competitive edge when studying science. You are not only encouraged to contribute to the information overload, it is also expected of you. My plagiarism checker scores (Tnuriitn et al.) have always supported the notion that I have of myself of being original. In conclusion, I must surely be a scientist.

  17. [...] Sequestration: inadvertently killing biomedical research to score political points Intellectual Property Drier climate will spread diarrhoea Africa’s Weird Fairy Circles are Termite-Built Water Traps Advice: Should you get your PhD? [...]

  18. #18 Aisha Al-Qahtani
    Qatar
    June 2, 2013

    this was so motivational! thank you for sharing this!
    I have a question, Do you think getting a Master’s Degree in another field that I absolutely love is worth-full?

  19. #19 lachlan
    IDK
    June 4, 2013

    lol pitcher up the top

  20. #20 Eulah Sussex
    June 25, 2013

    You made a few nice points there. I did a search on the issue and found the majority of people will have the same opinion with your blog.

  21. [...] year or two there has been a deluge of articles (e.g., this, this, and this) and blog posts (e.g., this and this) written about the so-called “PhD Problem.” The essence of the problem is that [...]

  22. #22 PhD computer vision
    August 2, 2013

    I wish I read about this 6 years ago.

    I earned a PhD in Computer Vision. It’s The most useless PhD ever. Where you can work with this useless degree ?

    Computer Vision is the most overrated and hyped field of Computer Science, people are obsessed about this since “Minority Report” movie, but in reality who needs a Computer Vision guy ??

    I am lucky to land a job as an entry level software developer, but you don’t need a PhD to get an entry level softdev job and all my colleagues are 6 years younger. My manager, an MBA is younger than me.

    I wasted 6 years of my life where it should be used to climb a career in corporate ladder or started a tech startup.

    Hell an MBA or MS Finance from mediocre institution is much more valuable than most PhD!

  23. #23 Bill W
    Denton Texas
    September 1, 2013

    Interesting read, article and comments, as I decide on whether or not to pursue my DBA. I have my MBA already which opened many previously closed doors, and was necessary at this stage of my career for advancement in a bad economy. If I choose to go for the DBA, it will be purely for self satisfaction of attaining that level of education. An expensive pat on my own back…? However, as a consultant, it does lend to credibility of ideas.

  24. #24 Former Computer Vision Intern
    New Jersey
    September 3, 2013

    I’m not sure why the Computer Vision PhD thinks it’s useless. I just worked at an internship on Computer Vision research and there were several Computer Vision PhD students, and lots of full time Computer Science PhD’s doing Vision research. Maybe you’re just not looking in the right places?

  25. #26 PhD computer vision
    September 7, 2013

    Hi Former Computer Vision Intern…

    So where you can get a job related to CV other than in research lab? in industry ? may be only Amazon, Google or Microsoft are currently doing research in this area. The competition are too intense. If you are not from MIT, Stanford, Berkeley, Oxbridge with publications from CVPR, ICCV, JMIV, IJCV you will have zero chance to land a permanent position there except if you are really lucky…

    You just did your intern. Wait until you go out to the real world and let’s see what you can do with your Computer Vision degree.

    IMO more useful CS PhD topics are related with Embedded systems, Software Engineering, High Performance Computing or Machine Learning . At least you can find work closely to your research topic..

    The most useful PhD topics are related with Economics, Investment and Finance. You will likely get a (lucrative) job in private or government sector, and if you have a people skill, you may attain higher management position.

    But in general, PhD are wasting your time. MBA or MS in Finance is the best investment for a young engineering/CS/Science graduate.

    I WISH someone TOLD ME that 10 years ago.

  26. #28 John
    Malta
    November 26, 2013

    An inspiring and thought-provoking article.

    I would however like to point out that in some areas one can in fact have a perfectly normal career whilst reading for a PhD on the side. Yes it takes longer but it does have the advantage of letting you have a normal career path and earning money while you study. Also your employer might sponsor you. There is always a way if you want something badly enough.
    For me personally it is not the money or the effort that I find daunting but rather identifying that particular topic that I love so much that I would be willing to spend so many years obsessively reading up about it. That’s a tough one, to be sure.

  27. #29 ali
    iran
    December 6, 2013

    Thanks god. He saved me at the moment i was falling into trouble.
    You know i have taken a GRE and got a good score on it. but unfortunately or fortunately my toefl has been cancelled by ets. and because of that i reconsidered my decision to apply to virginia tech. after some research i found that I’m the guy lookin for money not science. because wealth brings freedom and respect. If someone goes to a supermarket and tells the sales person “I’m a nobel laurate. please give me a pack of cigaretes for free.” do you think the sales person give him the pack of cigarete?
    thats my point. we are living in a jungle where money tells the final word not science. and thanks for honest comments from PhD computer vision.

  28. #30 Unnamed
    December 10, 2013

    @ali except that most nobel laureates are pretty rich and get at least $10k for every speech not to mention their $400k salary and many have companies. David Baltimore and another professor at CalTech for instance sold a company for $150 million

  29. #31 Ka buts
    Namibia
    December 25, 2013

    U cld do other things like, researching, consulting, teaching in higher ed, or do business! A Ph.D. May not be useless . The owner of the PhD should make an effort to present, represent the credentials obtained. Just be at the right place at the right time.

  30. #32 Dr Funfrock
    New Mexico
    January 20, 2014

    Simply asking “should I get a PhD” is often a sign that one should NOT get a PhD. However, there is an endless supply of “should I become a / get a x?” wherein “x” is any career or related academic qualification. A cursory view of the answers can easily lead to discouragement, as most people are unhappy that the world did not devote itself to making them happy.
    I ,for one, can gleefully say that graduate school / science research / academic hoopla — sure beats the heck out of working in the *real* world. There are far worse ways that a person can spend their life.

  31. #33 Igor Polk
    San Francisco
    March 30, 2014

    I want to be a scientist. Actually, I AM a scientist. I have published 2 books and writing a third one. But I want to be a PAID scientist in this country. I am 52. I came here 24 years ago from Soviet Union. I HAD ABSOLUTELLY NO PROBLEM TO GET HIRED THERE AS A SCIENTIST!!! I have worked in several laboratories. Here, in US, I only struggle for money. I still have no idea how to become an official scientist. Everything looks so difficult, full with bureaucracies. Can someone help me please? I do not want PhD. I want to do research and to publish articles. I want the real staff.

  32. #34 amanda frances
    United States
    May 14, 2014

    after a year, i decided to drop out of my phd program.
    i have a masters and for what i do, there was no real benefit to getting one.
    i DON’T want to spend my life in academia.
    i did a little video with my reasons why. http://amandafrances.com/phd

  33. #36 Gabriel Lewis
    June 17, 2014

    Education is way over valued relative to the return you get for it! Unless you specifically focus on a vocational career in nursing, computers and other hands on type of job, good to you! Of course the govt. both at the Fed, State, and County level and Union is the best place for future workers who have job protection from the whimsical economy because of the Govt. and Wall street’s relationship. Computers have eliminated many jobs that were formerly done by so called white collar workers at all levels of middle management. no raises, benefits. retirements to be reckoned with. Way too many college graduates for the low level jobs being created in todays economy.

  34. […] It may seem obvious to you that these are bad ideas, but let me elaborate a little further. A PhD is not evidence that you are a genius. In fact, the vast majority of people with PhDs are not of any extraordinary intelligence, but merely people who did the hard work necessary to earn a PhD. There are plenty of brilliant people who get them, of course, but there are also plenty of people of average or even below-average intelligence who get them. All a PhD signifies, at the end of the day, is that you did the work necessary to earn a PhD. more….. […]