Undertaking a PhD shouldn’t be a light decision. In fact, it’s one of the most challenging academic journeys you could embark on. This begs the question: Is a PhD worth it?
A PhD is the highest globally recognised postgraduate degree that higher education institutions can award. The degree, which is awarded to candidates who demonstrate original and extensive research in a particular field of study, is not only invaluable in itself, but can lead to improves job prospects, a higher salary on average, and sets you up for invaluable skills and traits. If you are a graduate student considering undertaking doctoral studies, read our guidance to help you make an informed decision.
Although a full time PhD takes on average three to five years to complete, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a long-term goal, especially with the possibilities that come with it. It’s a common misunderstanding that PhDs only open the door for educational based roles such as university lecturers and training providers. Although obtaining a PhD does lend itself to an academic career, the opportunities extend far beyond the traditional academic job. In fact, recent data from the UK’s Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) indicates only 23% of PhD graduates take a position in educational roles. This low percentage is primarily because PhD graduates have a wide range of skills that make them suitable for a broad spectrum of roles. This is being seen first hand by the increasing number of PhD graduates who are entering alternative roles such as research, writing, law and investment banking.
Percentages aside, one of the most desirable post-doctoral fields is working within independent Research and Development (R&D) labs and new emerging companies. Both industries, especially R&D labs, have dedicated groups of PhD graduates who lead research activities, design new products and take part in crucial strategic meetings. Not only is this a stimulating line of work, but the average salaries in R&D labs and emerging start-ups are incredibly lucrative. In comparison, an undergraduate with five years of experience within their given field will, on average, likely earn less than a new PhD graduate taking on an R&D position. Completing an advanced degree programme demonstrates that you have developed a knowledge base in your research area which gives you a head start over other candidates who many only have an undergraduate degree or masters degree.
PhD students are widely in demand for their wide range of skills they develop during their studies. Not only do these skills extend beyond that obtained by an undergraduate counterpart, but the transferability of the skills is what makes them stand out amongst employers.
To successfully undertake a PhD, it’s paramount to have a good working relationship with your supervisor and other students in your laboratory, workshop, or department. This relationship will also extend to undertaking short-term collaborative projects, delivering joint conferences and co-authoring research papers. The modern doctorate needs to demonstrate effective team working, collaboration and networking to be successful in their chosen field. This skill is highly sought by all employers, as open and effective communication is key to any project.
Although publishing isn’t a requirement of all PhDs, all students will have the opportunity to produce technical or informative texts, regardless of whether it’s in the form of reports or academic journal articles.
The preparation, research, writing, and editing of such texts demonstrate your ability to amalgamate information and communicate complex ideas. Regardless of an employer’s field, the ability to record and summarise essential information is a fundamental skill they look for. Demonstrating you’re capable of delivering factual documents will help set you apart from colleagues, which will help make strides in your career.
One of the most valued skills you’ll gain during your PhD is the ability to undertake original research. Not only does this demonstrate you are able to think independently, but also that you are prepared to take on responsibility and can contribute original ideas to the workplace. In undertaking a PhD, you will prove yourself as a professional expert in this area, making you a suitable candidate for research jobs.
A PhD programme, in particular a STEM PhD, is likely to involve identifying, managing and analysing large amounts of complex information. In addition to this, you could be required to assimilate this information in an appropriate and understandable format. Because of this a data driven doctorate degree is highly desirable in numerical industries such as banking and engineering.
In today’s industries, excellent oral communication skills are becoming more and more essential. Although many individuals struggle with this skill, as a PhD graduate, you’re more likely to excel in this area. This is because of the many public speaking opportunities you’ll be exposed to during your course. Through conference talks, presentations, and posters, you’ll learn to become confident and engaging when speaking to a broad audience. You’ll also showcase to future employers that you know how to present complex ideas and defend them.
Even if your career goal isn’t to become a project manager, all jobs require some project management. Fortunately, PhDs are a project management exercise. To complete your thesis, you must design a project, establish a realistic timetable, manage stakeholders and overcome failures. While attempting to achieve the long-term goal set out by the PhD, you must also set, manage, and achieve short-term goals to make progress.
This scenario accurately represents any modern workplace. You’ll be given the autonomy to manage your projects and workload and be expected to do so at a competent level. With this in mind, PhD holders can show they are more than capable of managing a team, and in doing so broaden their career options.
Every doctoral student will gain unparalleled skills in exercising critical thinking. This is due to having been trained to address problems, identify connections and analyse information to come to sensible conclusions. A critical thinker is exceptionally beneficial for any industry.
Nearly all careers place a strong emphasis on team working and interpersonal skills. Although producing a PhD thesis is an individual task, to complete your doctoral degree you’ll need to collaborate with others, whether it be to conduct experiments, collect data, operate as part of a larger research group or co-write manuscripts. To complete these tasks, you must know how to divide the task, share with others, communicate effectively, and resolve conflicts. All these skills carry over to any workplace, not just those in an academic position. By demonstrating that you can work as part of a team, you’ll significantly increase your desirability for any role.
Many prospective PhD students see a future in academia. Strong communication skills are essential in this line of work as in addition to giving lectures you may be involved in the supervision of graduate students during their final year projects.
As a graduate student you will have spent the last few years in university and likely have some student debt. A doctorate programme is a further large financial commitment, in particular if you self-fund your studies which can take 3-5 years to complete as a full time PhD student. Even if you secure a funded PhD, the available living stipend will comparatively be less than you would potentially earn if you had gone into employment instead.
In analysing the career prospects and transferable skills gained in undertaking a PhD degree, it is clear that pursuing a PhD is an extremely worthwhile venture.
You will develop deep knowledge in your research area which gives you an advantage when applying to academic jobs (for example a professor or research advisor/PostDoc). During your doctoral years you’ll also gain many skills valued in any career path, from problem solving, to managing tasks and communicating complex ideas. These skills, combined with the new roles that open up for doctorate holders, such as working within innovative Research and Development teams, presents an exciting and prosperous future.