Whether or not to pursue a PhD is a big decision, and it’s not unusual to invest time and effort into researching programs only to decide doctoral study isn’t right for you. But if you’ve decided against getting a PhD because of something you’ve heard on TV or from a classmate, you might be surprised to find that your reasons aren’t as good as you think.
There are a lot of misconceptions about getting a PhD, but the truth is that everyone’s experience finding and thriving in a doctoral program is fairly personal. Here are five generic reasons we hear people decide against getting a PhD, and why you should look deeper.
1. Getting a Ph.D. will cost you a lot of money.
Undergraduate degrees can be expensive, so it follows that a graduate degree — especially a PhD — should be expensive, too. If that sounds like your line of thinking, you might be surprised to learn that there are actually PhD programs that pay you.
While there are many variations across schools and even across disciplines, as a general rule, PhD programs are fully funded or the tuition is waived thanks to grants and fellowships. Even better? They often receive a stipend on top of that to cover living expenses.
You might not live in the fanciest house on the block, but a fully-funded doctoral program should give you enough financial resources that you don’t need to work while getting a PhD. You should check with any program you are considering, but it’s probably much more affordable than you think.
2. Careers after a PhD are limited to academia.
Yes, you usually need a PhD to become a college professor. However, that doesn't mean that being a professor is your only option.
Whether you want to work at a nonprofit, government entity, political organization, financial institution or practically anywhere else, non-academic jobs for PhDs are out there. Some careers that require a doctorate even come with an impressive salary if that's what you're after when all is said and done.
3. PhD programs are just like college, but harder
As an undergraduate, you learn foundational principles and knowledge that has been produced and collected through the years. In a PhD program, you are expected to add to or further that body of knowledge, and that is a very different skill set.
When you start a PhD program you need to be ready for this shift – in how you study, in how you approach problems, and in how you engage with others. You are as much a future colleague to the faculty as you are a student, once you’re in a PhD program.
4. You're not smart enough to get a PhD
Getting a PhD puts you in a pretty elite club. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, less than two percent of the country has a Ph.D., leaving the vast majority of Americans without one. But, this does not mean you have to be a genius to succeed in graduate school.
In fact, while it is important to be smart, there is a lot that goes into being a good researcher or a good academic. For example, you also need to be a hard worker, dedicated to a specific topic, have a research plan, etc. Success takes the whole package and being a genius isn’t necessary – nor is it sufficient if you don’t want to put in the effort.
5. You have to discover something earth-shattering to get a Ph.D.
When you write your dissertation, you are putting forth some new knowledge in your field. This can be the scariest thing of all – after all, who is ready to declare themselves the next Jane Goodall or Stephen Hawking? But new doesn’t have to mean that it will revolutionize the whole field.
Your research question could look at an issue through a new lens, conduct empirical research, identify and analyze a controversy, or look at applications of technology – these are just a few examples of the types of work that can become fantastic dissertations without rewriting everything heretofore known in your field. Your unique background and experiences will help you find your research niche, and before you know it you will have become THE expert on your topic.
Do your research.
Ultimately, the most important thing you can do to make a great decision about graduate education is to thoughtfully explore the possibility in advance. There are a lot of myths and misconceptions floating around about what it means to get your Ph.D. so turn to reliable sources and ask the tough questions!