Was a PhD worth it? Weighing the pros and cons

As I was wrapping up my PhD work, I found myself having many conversations with peers (some who had already defended, others who were hoping to get it done in the next year): Would you do it all over again? What have you gained in the process? What has disappointed you?

Not surprisingly, different people (even those at the same university, and even within a single department) have very different responses to those questions. Every PhD experience is so different, thanks to the mingling of research area, advisor relationship, and internal goals and values. But I’ve also noticed some recurring themes and insights that I’ll share here.

One way of assessing whether you’re happy with your grad school experience is to do a cost-benefit analysis. Some of the costs and benefits are black-and-white (like 5 years of your life or learning how to program in Python), but many others are implicit. Have you taken more from the experience than it took from you?

Benefits

One friend told me a benefit he’s especially grateful for is sharper analytical thinking skills. Before he came to grad school, he noticed that PhD scientists seemed to think a few steps ahead and approached problems from many angles, and he thinks he’s closer to that point than when he started.

Another friend came to grad school in San Diego to try to find some direction for his career while living in a new place. He, like most of us, loves San Diego, so the city has not disappointed. That friend also feels that he found direction for his career, though not from working on a primary research project for the past 4 years. Instead, he thinks a lot of his progress in figuring out what he wants to do has resulted from being around brilliant and interesting people and having time and space to explore new intellectual topics.

I agree with both of these friends’ assessments. For me, the sense of direction I gained was the realization that I don’t want to be a professor. That realization came from a mix of doing my own academic research and observing faculty members work on and communicate about theirs.

Luckily, I also gained a better sense of what I do want to do, a better understanding of my personal and professional priorities and values. For this direction, I credit many of the non-research aspects of my grad career, like my deep involvement in ComSciCon.

And I also gained skills that I hope will help me not only in my career, but throughout the rest of my life too. For example, I became a better listener, better at extracting meaning from complex ideas as well as intuiting what people actually mean when they say something (or don’t say something). I also became a better communicator, in academic and non-academic writing, as well as in conversations. This includes advocating for myself and for my work, which has been especially challenging to improve. I gained exposure to new ideas and people, and my 4 years in grad school have provided a wonderful environment for developing as a person during my early twenties. I’ve had my world views challenged and have learned to accept myself, and even though those didn’t directly result from grad school activities, the PhD environment set the stage for these changes.

Costs

To be sure, there are costs to doing a PhD. Luckily in the sciences we are paid stipends as grad students and do not pay tuitions, so the financial costs are actually somewhat low. The reason there are financial costs is because PhD students spend 4-7 years making much less with a grad student stipend than their salary would likely otherwise be. And although PhDs probably end up earning more after their degree, so that their time in grad school becomes an investment towards a higher salary later, in general I don’t think this is true to the extent that it is for medical doctors or lawyers, for example.

Beyond money, there’s an undeniable time cost. One of my friends who did feel there were benefits also added that he was unconfident that the benefits outweighed the cost of requiring 5 years of his young adult life to reap them. There’s always some other way you can be spending your time.

But maybe most importantly, doing a PhD has emotional costs. It’s an intellectually trying process filled with potential risks to mental health, like geographic distance from family, failed experiments (which are inevitable and numerous), uncertainty about the present and future, and often challenging academic relationships to navigate.

My Verdict

For me, the benefits of doing a PhD are invaluable, and they easily outweigh the costs. This assessment results in part from the profound benefits I detailed above, but also because the costs were relatively low for me — since I was happy most of the time, I didn’t really feel like doing a PhD cost me time I’d rather be spending in other ways. I’m also somewhat doubtful that I would have been making lots more money doing something else over the past 4 years (and somewhat indifferent about it anyway), so the monetary cost felt negligible.

The emotional costs were probably the ones that had the greatest impact on me, but I was fortunate to have a stellar support system to lean on. In the long run, the emotional challenges have actually become benefits, for example by helping me learn to prioritize my mental and physical health and advocating for myself.

I’m incredibly grateful that for me, doing a PhD was full of benefits that outweighed costs. But I also know that my situation is not always the case. I think it’s helpful for people to try to estimate the costs and benefits before starting a PhD, but also consistently throughout. Doing so may help us realize when we need to make changes in some aspect of our personal or professional life to reset the scale in our favor.

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