Should I get a PhD?

The road to a doctorate is long, arduous, and paved with abandoned scholarship. Don't start the PhD process before you consider all the obstacles (and rewards). Here's what you need to reflect on before making the leap.

1. What is your motive for getting a PhD?

Examine your true motivation for wanting to earn a PhD and how the degree makes sense within your larger plan. Despite the obstacles, people stay in doctorate programs because they enjoy learning for learning's sake. They relish the opportunity to tackle intellectual problems and explore new areas of knowledge. For some there is the added appeal of taking time out from the traditional job market as you pursue what you love. But if it's your ambition to become a professor you should be aware that the PhD track is no guarantee of a life in academia.

2. Have you thought realistically about your job prospects?

Many PhD students hope to find a tenure-track position at a good college or research university after graduating (although others do pursue satisfying careers outside of academia). The reality is that academic positions are increasingly difficult to come by. Many PhDs have to settle for temporary or non tenure-track teaching positions, which can be just as demanding as full-time work but without the salary. Be prepared to follow jobs to colleges on the other side of the country or to adjust your career expectations.

3. Can you live frugally?

Getting a doctorate is intellectually rewarding. Unfortunately, it doesn't tend to be financially rewarding, at least not in the short term. Most PhD students live on their earnings from teaching and research assistantships or other low-paying employment. So, your starving student days may not be behind you.

4. Are you ready for the workload?

Graduate courses are far more rigorous than those you took as an undergrad, and first-year PhD students usually take around three classes. Many grad students also serve as teaching assistants (TAs) and must learn how to juggle their needs along with their students. And of course, in the final three years of the PhD program, you'll mainly focus on writing the dissertation and preparing for oral exams.

5. How do you handle pressure?

Each year, some PhD candidates do not meet the requirements of their graduate programs and are asked to leave. Others choose to leave because they are burnt out, or their interests have changed. Some students who don't complete the PhD leave with a master's degree; others leave with no degree at all. You should be prepared for these scenarios by making a back-up plan.

Successful PhD students thrive in a highly intellectual environment, are willing to work very hard with only a possible payoff, love their field of study, and don't mind forgoing impressive paychecks. If this sounds like you, forge ahead!

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