Are the MA/MS/PhD Degrees Right for You?

The PhD is an ambitious undertaking and should be pursued only if you harbor passion for a subject. The rewards for the considered and consistent effort to earn a doctorate may be phenomenal: you could become a university professor and a well-paid part-time consultant, especially if your publications are excellent. Of course, some PhD's consult full-time. In either case, you'll have more control over your time than most.

Research shows that with a PhD you are likely to make more money than people without one. However, the promise of a bigger paycheck is insufficient to see you through challenging, lengthy doctoral studies. Such investment of time, energy and money requires that you are focused and prepared for the day-to-day demands of the process. If you are gunning for an academic position, at least one terminal degree is required: options include the PhD, DFA, PsyD, JD, MD, DMA, DMUS, DSci and MFA. 

Perhaps you are considering a doctorate because you have a job in a field that you love and want to study it further. For instance, one of our clients with a chemistry BA landed work as a technician supporting research of a PhD chemist. She found it intriguing and decided to pursue a doctorate. We advised her to carefully consider which doctoral programs offered opportunities to focus on the topic that interested her.

That's because different departments have varying foci and different cultures. Thus, two students working for PhD’s in the same field but at different schools may have divergent experiences.

For instance, in the astrophysics PhD program at Princeton students pursue research as well as coursework from the program’s onset. It is expected that students will publish – alone or as co-authors – in the second year. Some students publish in their first year. Alternatively, most doctoral students at Tufts University work as teaching assistants and usually begin research in their third year, after they have completed required coursework and passed qualifying exams. If you wish to teach at a small liberal arts college where the student-faculty classroom interaction is prized, the Tufts program might be better suited to you. On the other hand, if you are set on a vigorous research career, the demanding Princeton regime may be your cup of tea.

For students who love learning and intellectual exploration, time spent earning a PhD can be a period of deep satisfaction and enormous fulfillment. But upon completing it, students ask themselves, 'What next?’

If you are a trust-fund beneficiary, the answer is “whatever I wish.” You might want to toy around with independent research or start a company. If not, you’ll need to find employment. Ideally, you should land a job that will inspire and motivate you to go to work every day.

It is not uncommon for people to work in areas indirectly related to their degree fields ⎯ and happily so. You will find mathematics PhD’s turned investment bankers, philosophy PhD’s at publishing firms, or architecture MFA’s teaching art in secondary schools! The intellectual rigor of graduate studies provides a depth of knowledge and a skill set that gives PhD's remarkable flexibility in the job market.

[Words of advice: If you secure employment outside of your field, it will be difficult to return to it years down the line. We know of a brilliant physicist who plunged right into investment banking after his post-doctoral work. While the money was good, his true love was physics. He attempted to return to it, only to find that in the few years away, many advances had been realized in his sub-field and he had forgotten some of his physics. Re-entry would have been blisteringly painful. He decided against making a comeback and moved into technical consulting instead.]

It is a good idea to find out what people in your field do after completing their doctorates. Some departments may produce a small number of PhD’s who are snapped up by top research laboratories and world-class educational institutions. Others may have deep ties to industry and place many of their graduates in firms around the world. It behooves you to know not only what will happen during the PhD program, but what is likely to occur afterwards too. Armed with such data ⎯ you can make informed choices and circumvent a string of regrets.