Ask sciencewomen: If I'm happy with an MS, should I get a PhD?

i-9dc84d4d9156dccb30d5f62466b4219a-swblocks.jpgFrom the mailbag:

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.

So on to the concrete questions:

What doors does a PhD open up aside from running a lab and teaching?

What can I do without a PhD?

How does one generally go about choosing a PhD project (assuming I do decide to get one)? The answer I generally get for this last one is to read about the research that other labs are doing and that I will "know it when I see it." But given the large number of labs at even a modest sized university, this is a very daunting task.

Dear _____,

Wow. Great questions. I think the first paragraph really contains the meat of the matter: if you are happy where you are, should you get a PhD just to prove you can?


You sound happy. I have friends with MS degrees with jobs like the one you describe, and they are happy 8+ years on. As you say, you've found a sweet gig where you can see yourself staying. Why put yourself through the economic and academic hardship of a PhD, just to prove to a nebulous someone that you can do it? The scientific culture is also about macho masochism and no matter what you do, there will always be someone who is doing more...better...faster than you. So if you are happy, stay put.


You are asking. Which means you are thinking about it. Maybe you are happy where you are...but you are the one who really wants something more than your current sweet gig for the next 30 years. We are conditioned through school to always be climbing upward and I think it can be disconcerting to find yourself in a job where there aren't obvious opportunities for advancement.


I'd spend some real time reflecting on what you really want from your life and career and exploring the various options you have with an MS if you decide to move on from your current position. I'm a geoscientist, not a bio-med type, so I really can't help you with specifics. (That's my duck around your question on "What can I do without a PhD?")


you do decide to pursue a PhD, make sure that you and your advisor are clear about your non-academic career plans and that he or she is supportive of you. One place to start with searching out alternative careers is with books like "A PhD Is Not Enough" and with "The Alternative Scientist" blog and those of its contributors. Katie at Minor Revisions writes a wonderful candid and metaphor-filled look at life in a bio-related industry job.


Your friends are right. Read, ask around, attend conferences until you find the specific field that really, really excites you. You are going to need that excitement to get through ~5 years of the most frustrating and thrilling work you've ever done. But, maybe your friends didn't tell you need to find an advisor whose mentoring style works for you. Is she hands-on or hard to track down? Does she expect 80 hour weeks 52 weeks per year? Are her students happy? Are her graduates successful in getting the sort of jobs you want to get when you are done?

Readers, what say you?

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I can sympathize with this person's question. I have a master's plus 7 years experience, 5 of which are in a great job that could very well be a life-long career if I want. I spent the other 2 years trying for a Ph.D. and ended up getting burned out. It's hard to make yourself care about academia long enough to get the Ph.D. if you don't want an Ivory Tower career.

Having said that, not a day goes by that I don't think about how I'll finish the doctorate because with it comes greater respect of peers and opportunities for advancement. My advice is that the earlier you get the Ph.D. the better because the rest of life (marriage, kids, etc.) won't get in the way. However, start too early (like right out of college), and you'll be too green to know what you really want.

What we need is a Ph.D. that is more determinate in scope and length more like professional degrees (JD, MD, etc.) so that people know if they put in the time and effort they'll earn the degree. As it stands now, each person's experience is highly variable and very dependent on the advisor/department/program/university. If you don't make the right choices in the beginning of a PhD program, all the hard work in the world might not be enough to guarantee success. Good luck!

I have a job where a PhD is required, and I don't expect that to change any time soon. That much said, if I had not had a burning drive to be in the field I'm in, that requirement alone would not have helped me stay motivated in the six years it took to go from bachelors to PhD. What's more, had I known the job opportunities in my field that ARE available to masters-level folks (mostly operational work, and at lower pay, but with job security and some research opportunities), I might have made a different choice in life.

I also discovered very quickly after graduation that my PhD only got my foot in the door, and that my career wasn't going to go anywhere without some serious work on my part. So unless you think the PhD is going to open a door that you just can't wedge open any other way...I'm not sure it's the right path for you.

What we need is a Ph.D. that is more determinate in scope and length more like professional degrees (JD, MD, etc.) so that people know if they put in the time and effort they'll earn the degree.


To answer the original question, if you are happy being a lab manager/tech, and don't feel a burning desire to independently pursue your own research program, then there is absolutely no reason to get a PhD.

A Ph.D. degree does not open a lot of doors, but not having one closes a lot of them in scientific fields. This is especially true in research.
One choice may be to stay in lab management, get all the certifications, and maybe get a MBA rather than a higher science degree.

By RogerTheGeek (not verified) on 12 Nov 2009 #permalink

I (engineering rather than science, non-academic job) am currently resisting the "typical" types of training in my field as I don't want to be pushed up to manager level once I get them. I'd be wary of getting it (for whatever reason) and then being pushed into an area of work that you don't like. However I don't know what doors will close without a PhD.

By Katherine (not verified) on 12 Nov 2009 #permalink

I have been asked this question more than once. I have a PhD in Math and have many friends with great educations short of a PhD. My answer is usually; "If you want to do original research and do not already feel capable doing it, get a PhD." At least in my field a Masters is enough for anything short of research and if you can already do research it doesn't matter what you have. Hope this helps.

Respect comes from within. It doesn't come from getting a higher degree. Do not get a PhD just because you think that more people will respect you or that the prevailing academic (or whatever) culture seems to think it's what you should do. I can't tell you how many times it's the really sharp technician with the experience and skill--not the PhD with the mediocre brain--who is truly valued in the laboratory. A PhD is no indicator of intelligence or character or even fortitude. Come to think of it, I'm not sure what it indicates, and I have one. It is a credential, opening up some teaching and some research positions at least in biology, but it also closes a few doors because many folks see the PhD as "over qualified". In and of itself the PhD does not make you a good scientist or a good professor. It also doesn't seem to come with any pay grade increases either, by the way. I got mine because I wanted to teach at a liberal arts college, and I knew it was a credential I would need. The PhD was necessary but not sufficient; my passion and skill as a teacher was absolutely essential as well. If you have a passion for a career in which the PhD is a required or highly valued credential, get one. If not, don't.

By Bravo the Cat (not verified) on 12 Nov 2009 #permalink

Just my two cents, based on my own experience:

I earned a life sciences masters through a BS/MS and worked for two years as a technician before going back for a PhD. I mainly did it because I wanted more potential for career advancement. I'm still not set on a final career path (I'm in my second year of the PhD... average time to completion in my program is 5.5 years, so I have a while), but I do know that graduates from my program have gone on to work in law (consulting for firms that do patent/IP for biotech and pharmaceutical companies), journal editing/publishing, non-journal science writing (popular press, medical writing), public policy, and higher ed administration, in addition to the more 'traditional' careers in academic or industry research. There are career seminars for graduate students at my university where people who work in a variety of fields come in to talk about their jobs and explain what they do and how they got there. I find them very interesting, although, I still am not really sure what I want to do when I get out of here...

As for choosing a PhD project, most life science PhD programs require several lab rotations before one chooses an adviser. I had no idea what I wanted to do when I started, beyond a general interest in cellular and molecular neuroscience. I worked in three different labs for a couple of months each, learning about the research and getting to know the lab members, before making up my mind about which lab I wanted to join. My now-adviser talked to me about several potential projects that the lab could support, and I expressed interest in one topic that will be the focus of my dissertation research. I think as long as you can find an institution that seems to be doing lots of potentially interesting things, you'll have options. I went with the lab that felt like a good match for both my scientific interests and my personality, and I'm happy there.

My friends in industry say that an MS opens up a fair number of possibilities to conduct independent research and earn decent pay, so a PhD is not strictly necessary in that sphere. In general, the sort of depressing trend seems to be that because there are lots of life science PhDs floating around, employers can just demand a PhD for any position, even one that doesn't actually make use of one's PhD training. It sucks. If you are an outstanding candidate and make a great impression, it's possible to get hired without meeting those arbitrary criteria, but I do think the extra degree can make it easier to get your foot in the door. Whether that nebulous future benefit is worth the extra aggravation for five years is up to you.

Given the stated parameters, I wouldn't get a Ph.D. If you are doing research and getting your name on papers, then pretty much any job except professor is open to you. Your lab management skills will ALWAYS be valuable.

If you find yourself really driven to explore a certain question in way more depth, maybe you would consider getting your Ph. D. But it doesn't sound like that is what is driving your right now. Grad school is long, long, long, and you need to be passionate about it when you are starting out.

i have a PhD from a top university and a postdoc from an excellent institution and have been unable to find a job for years. i am nearly always "the second choice" for academic positions and i am "overqualified" for everything else. so i struggle to stay alive by working as a pet care provider. it is humiliating beyond description to have a PhD and the passion to give up everything i've ever had to land an academic position only to find myself working nonstop doing something i did as an 8-year-old. to add injury to insult, i am attempting to deal with huge financial debts (medical bills, rent, utilities, food) due to my inability to earn enough to support myself.

i understand about seeking to "improve" oneself, but my advice is to "improve" yourself by doing something else altogether (conservation law, business, working at big pharma, etc).

academics will destroy your life and your dreams.

Here in the UK we have the option of a PhD earned in the course of your job. Eg if you have made major contributions to several papers, you could submit them with a intro and some text to make it all hang together and earn a PhD. Alternatively you can start new work in your job and write that up as you go along. Does this option not exist in the US?

Also, here in the UK, you start a PhD and you know that you will be finished in 4 years, max. If it takes you more than 4 years, you fail. I think this is a far superior system to that in the US which seems to go on forever...

An MS plus extensive lab experience, as you have, will qualify you for many jobs, including much of what Laura mentioned (science journalism, patent law). So the only reason to get a PhD is if you're looking for a job that specifically requires one, like a PI or PUI teacher--which as you say you have no interest in. Unless you can point to a specific career goal that requires a PhD, don't do it.

If said possible Doctorate holder is a female, I say stop. Check out the data here at the NSF (most notably Table H16 and beyond). If you're happy with your job, stay with it. You'll be better off long term.

(All this coming from someone who left a PhD program with a masters and then went to another PhD program, so yeah...)

Don't do it. If you already have research projects you like, you are doing the most enjoyable bit of a doctorate and missing out on all the dross - nitpickery, backstabbery and deadline-stress. I wish I had your job.

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.

There are often loopholes around the paycut if you plan on doing your PhD at the same institution where you are a super-tech. I have known several individuals who were super-techs for years at R1 institutions who then did a PhD in the same lab or a closely aligned lab, but made 3,4, or 5 times what their PhD "classmates" made, and were excellent and productive graduate students developing their own research interests. After their PhD (3-5 years), some of them stayed in the their originating lab as senior scientists who were developing their own projects, while others went on to do 'traditional' post-docs at other institutions.

Some may say that doing is PhD in your originating lab gives you a lower quality of training, and doesn't do you a service in the long term.

OTOH, get yours. Starting a PhD from scratch a new institution won't give you the option of a $60k stipend instead of the $26K the other students are getting.

By microfool (not verified) on 13 Nov 2009 #permalink

A PhD is useful, but not necessary, for doing research. For example, in geosciences one of the top 20 most cited active researchers never finished his. He just got sidetracked writing (hundreds of) papers.

So I would agree with number 6.


A Ph.D. is an academic educational experience, not a career experience. Use the masters and move laterally within industry. There are lots of niches for people with science backgrounds to work in marketing, business, management, quality assurance, regulatory affairs -- none of which absolutely require a Ph.D. The skills you get in industry will be effectively more valuable than the academic skills you'll acquire with a Ph.D. Sure there are Ph.D.'s in industry, but there's a limited use for the skills they bring.

Once you have your Ph.D. everyone scrutinizes why you aren't seeking a faculty position, you become "overqualified" for many positions, and doubts your sincerity for wanting to get off the academic track. You'll have problems getting your foot in the door to a more stable job.

There are lots of things a Ph.D. can do aside from running a lab and teaching. For a starter, check out

However, A Ph.D. will not help with improving your self-esteem if you can't see beyond the three letters after your name. You have to ask whether you enjoy doing what a Ph.D. trains you to do. Otherwise, after you get your Ph.D., you will realize that there are other people who get more even respect, M.D., J.D., President of the US, your plumber, etc.

Besides being miserable, you won't be a good Ph.D. anyway if you don't truly love what it is. If money is what you are after, Ph.D. is definitely the wrong thing to get.

Do not bother getting a PhD; they are next to useless and you won't recoup salary for the years spent laboring for your doctorate and post-doc.

The enormous influx of foreign faculty, grad students and post-docs from abroad have ensured oversupply of advance-degreed applicants for almost all jobs. Employers will readily employ a newly degreed, green-carded foreign male who will work cheaply over a woman who *may* take a break to have children or relocate for a spouse.

If you think the job market is tight at the lower echelons of advanced education, wait until you have a PhD paper in hand, then try to find a suitable job.

By PassTensed (not verified) on 13 Nov 2009 #permalink

Without a PhD, you are going to hit a definite glass ceiling if you want to be doing your own research, have your own projects, etc. There are jobs, no matter how much experience you have, that you won't be considered for without a PhD. I have known cases where a candidate was being specifically and actively recruited for a job (because of their experience, publications, etc) and later dropped because they didn't have a PhD. The candidates weren't hiding anything, it was once the committee/hiring manager got a copy of the cv, it was "Oh, no PhD. We need to find someone else." I've seen this happen in academia, insustry and at least one research foundation.

One of the most-respected scientists I ever met did not have a PhD.

That didn't stop Trudy Elion from winning the Nobel Prize.

There's also Marty St. Clair, who did ground-breaking work on AZT resistance with "no more" than a bachelor's degree (and a whole lot of bright, and a farm-full of llamas).

If in my limited circle of acquaintance, I can find two highly accomplished women who did not need a PhD to succeed, I think that qualifies as evidence that such a thing is not required.

You should want to get the degree for the knowledge/expertise you'll gain, not for the alleged financial rewards. Cuz, truth be told, those might not be worth the effort.

My spouse faced this question 25 years ago and choose to stick with a MS. He was lobbied heavily to complete the PhD - the number of terminal degrees an institution gives out influences their fundraising abilities - but felt that pushing ahead would overqualify him for the jobs he loves: fieldwork and technical support, interspersed with data analysis.

This has turned out to be a wise decision, with one caveat. He has been able to continue in research, while maintaining a good family life and pursuing other interests. OTOH, some of his colleagues struggled for quite a while to find suitable positions, and ended up with workloads that forced them to focus exclusively on their careers.

The caveat is that as we approach 50, he sees that his position will not last more than five more years, so we are now contemplating what the next move might be. It's a little scary to think of starting a new career path at 55, but who knows what will happen.

Also, here in the UK, you start a PhD and you know that you will be finished in 4 years, max. If it takes you more than 4 years, you fail. I think this is a far superior system to that in the US which seems to go on forever...

OTOH, you run the very real risk of spending 4 years in the program only to come out with no degree (just the experience). The impression I get from American colleagues who have done PhDs in the UK is that programs like this give you much less feedback along the way about how you're doing. Generally US programs will tell you much earlier in the process if they think you're on the road to failure, so you will have spent only a couple of years in the program before leaving, rather than getting to the bitter end and only then finding out that you didn't make it.

Both systems work for some people, but you have to know what you're getting into.

I am working on my own project without having a PhD. and thatâs OK, but I cannot go any further and I have to put other peopleâs names forward who do have PhDâs on any grant applications I write.
If you want the PhD, go early, the longer you put it off the harder it gets to justify in economic and career terms.
It becomes a case of damned if you do, damned if you don't.
If you do not have a PhD your career options are definitely limited. If you quit and go do a PhD you will likely never recover the loss of income, unless you are very good or very lucky.
One other option, many of my smarter friends have done, is to move into a different field like medicine or patent law were the rewards are much more assured.

To add another argument AGAINST getting a PhD... having a PhD may close as many doors as it opens. I finished my PhD just as the economy tanked, and despite 10 years of lab tech experience, both in and out of grad school, I cannot get a job as a lab tech. Why pay a PhD to do what a MS can do? Entry-level positions in careers that are alternatives to the academic track are also closed to me.

I would say, if you have job stability and satisfaction, DON'T LEAVE YOUR CURRENT JOB IN THIS ECONOMIC ENVIRONMENT. If you get canned due to lack of funding, then going back to school is a great option to unemployment.

"GrrlScientist" #10 Perhaps a quick brush up on grammar and writing skills might help with the job hunt :)

With regards to 'is a PhD worth it' - For me, a PhD was well worth the extra two years. But the key is to get the right research topic, one that you won't be 'piped at the post' on. Also make sure its one that is fun (or at least of interest to you)!

Try and stick to the minimum time scale requirements, anything else is a waste!

I spent the other 2 years trying for a Ph.D. and ended up getting burned out.

Same here, except it took a little longer for me to burn out, and I never ever got a decent salary - I went directly from Ms to PhD.

I was really passionate about what I was doing. I spent all my time working on it, talking about it, thinking about it. Then, quite gradually, after seeing many of my collegues who were research professionals get fired after the decrease in funding, I lost all interest in my field - I can't even bother to read organic chemistry papers anymore. I am at a point where I never want to work in chemistry ever again, or in anything related, be it close or far. Actually, for a long time, nothing at all interested me.

My family and friends don't really understand what happened to me : my mother presses me to get a job I don't want, one of my friends thinks she can bring back my interest in research, not understanding my need to get out of a situation where I most probably will have to work low-paid jobs just to survive, my advisor probably thinks I'm just having one of those girly mood swings. Actually, I don't think that somebody who's never had a burn-out/depression can really understand what happened to me.

Basically, I feel like I've been ripped off : it's all work and no reward. Nobody is there to give you a break - your advisor just has to hire fresh meat (lots of foreign grad students are there to work for almost nothing day and night and week-ends too) if you burn out. So he pushes and pushes until the end, or until you crack.

When my avisor stopped paying me, that was the last straw. I had to work two minimum-wage jobs. I got angry and bitter, which at least got me out of depression.

Now I'm learning computer science, so I can at least, you know, get paid for my work.

So no, don't get involved in a PhD (it's a trap !!! ;), especially if you already have a career you like and a decent pay.

I have a PhD. Do not think about getting it. It opens no doors. Go for a professional degree like JD or Computer science or Pharmacy.

Only get a PhD if you want it.

Then, you must go to a top school. Ask to visit before you apply, and talk to some students. I applied to a school because of a certain professor, and when I visited he looked really sick (he was) and I didn't want to be stranded if anything happened to him, so I went elsewhere. (Later, he recovered and I post-doc'd with him.)

You need to find a professor who has been tenured for at least 5 years and still has several post-docs, in addition to students. With your background and MS, you should be able to get the degree in 3 years; but it will still take a long time to recover financially.

As a US academic (not a US or UK citizen, with US schooling and a UK BS and PhD), I truly prefer the UK system. I believe it requires the student to take much more responsibility for their learning and to plan things out (with the support of the adviser) so that work gets accomplished in a timely fashion. Yes, research is unpredictable, as is life, and the 4th year of what should be a 3-year PhD allows the flexibility necessary. At my UK institution, there was a well-defined feedback point after one year where the student could say "It's been real, but this research thing just isn't for me" or the adviser could say "you're not cutting it and you seem completely disinterested in actual research". Student and advisor could part ways. The system seemed to work. The advantage I see in the US system is that you have more time to publish if you're doing 5+ years. I started publishing rapidly just as all my work came together near the end of my PhD. Had I not hung around as a postdoc for a short period, I would not have yielded as many publications as my US counterparts who had more time as students. But I never would have even started a PhD if I was looking at 5 years...

By Anonymous (not verified) on 19 Nov 2009 #permalink

PhD is not a degree you get after an MA or MS, it's a completely different kind of commitment. It's a research degree. In the sciences and quantitative social sciences, you can go years beyond your PhD, still in training as a postdoc. It's not for everyone and there is utterly nothing wrong with not putting yourself through a hard and often grueling process. Really good programs are also extremely competitive.

It's helpful to remember that academia comes out of the monastic tradition, and it certainly is feudal. Who your mentors and teachers are matter a great deal in where you end up. Academic life looks easier that it is; it's hard on people and it's particularly hard on women and minorities.

The only reason to pursue a PhD is because you want to. It won't go away. If you are going to do it, go to the best program you can.

By femalePhD (not verified) on 19 Nov 2009 #permalink

DO NOT GET IT. You sound like the poster child for the person who should not get a Ph.D:

1. Currently you have a "sweet gig" in a super-down economy, one that you want to continue with.

2. feels the need to get one mostly just to show that I can. Worst. Reason. Ever.

3. I have no desire to run my own lab, and have little desire to teach. Final nail in the coffin. You might just as well get your electrician's licensure, it will be similarly helpful for your future interests.

Don't you dare think about it. It's the Ultimate Economic Sideliner in this country, taking you out commission for minimum 5 years, but really more like 7. You'll be older and much bitterer when you get out, and significantly poorer than you would have been had you not done it.

What doors does a PhD open up aside from running a lab and teaching?

A foaming can of years-long existential angst.

What can I do without a PhD?

You do realize that like 99% of the U.S. workforce doesn't have a Ph.D. and yet 90% of them are working anyway, right? With your masters and experience you could transition into working for a pharm company, a science start-up, medical writing, maybe consulting. You could start your own business. You could change interests and focus.

Just don't take yourself out of the real career action with The Curse of The Three Letters.

It's true that some jobs require a phd, but there are as many or more jobs that a phd holder could not get. Lab manager is one of them. Far more tech jobs get advertised than faculty jobs! And crossover fields like law or science writing or education or whatever typically do not require a Phd, a ms + 7 yrs experience is more than enough. The phd will only be worthwhile if you are passionate about doing your own research. Barring that, I think you have a greater diversity of opportunities as a MS holder. Also, if you ever want to go back tp school for some other field, it's easier to justify with a ms than with a phd, I think most admissions committees would be suspicious of an applicant who already has a terminal degree.