Explore the Pros and Cons of Earning a PhD or Doctoral Degree

There are advantages and disadvantages to seeking a doctorate - and they are not always what you think they will be

By Neil Johnson
Posted 2013

Pros and Cons of Doctoral Degrees & PhD's
Pros and Cons of Doctoral Degrees & PhD's

In 2011, the latest year statistics are available, 624,000 students applied for doctoral programs in the United States, according to the Council of Graduate Schools. Of those, 133,000 or 21% were accepted.

Applications for PhD programs increased 2.1% in 2010-11, the council’s website said, as opposed to the trend in applications for master’s degree programs which fell by 1.8%.

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There is little dispute that times can be tough for graduates with a PhD, which is among the arguments against investing the years, money and energy for a PhD that were raised in a CBSNews.com article outlining reasons not to pursue a PhD.

No Guarentees Despite the Time, Effort and Expense of Earning a Doctorate Degree

An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education published on its website in 2012 showed a PhD was no bulwark against financial hardship as the number of people with the degree who needed public assistance more than tripled from 9,776 to 33,655 during the depth of the recession in 2007-2010.

And the degree is no longer a paved career highway to cozy tenured positions that are becoming scarce at colleges where more than half the faculty holds part-time positions, according to the American Association of University Professors. And 68% of faculty appointments are not on track for tenure.

The trend likely won’t change soon if university professors get their way. The CBSNews.com article said less than one in four favors having a majority of the faculty working full-time with tenure.

The article also points out the average student spends more than eight years getting a doctorate and winds up with an average debt of $37,000 in addition to any accumulated debt in getting a bachelor’s degree. There also is a more than even chance you’ll invest years and thousands of dollars and still not finish, even in 10 years, the article said.

The Long Term Advantages of the PhD

Still, there are some arguments in favor of spending the eight years, $37,000 and being taken advantage of by professors who heap their grunt work on grad students.

One of those is money - or about $900,000 - which is what the U.S. Census Bureau said is the lifetime earning difference between a master’s degree and a PhD. At $3.4 million a PhD can be worth $1.3 million more than a bachelor’s degree over a career.

In addition, someone with a PhD is more likely to be employed than a worker with a lower degree, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Unemployment among those with a doctorate was 2.5% compared to 3.6% for those with a master’s and 4.9% for employees with a bachelor’s degree, the BLS said in March of 2012.

And despite the gloom over university jobs, the BLS expects the need for college instructors to grow by 17% and the demand for college administrators to go up 19%.

Bragging Rights and Other Benefits of Completing a Doctoral Degree Program 

Other benefits of a PhD, though, could be less tangible but still provide an advantage. Though an article on eFinancialCareers.com looks at benefits of a PhD when seeking jobs in finance, they can apply to other fields.

Surviving the demands of a PhD program proves you can do independent research and finish a major task with little supervision. Employers highly prize those qualities.

The degree also can command respect. Obtaining a doctorate is proof someone is smart and can meet the challenges obtaining the degree demands.

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Pursuing a PhD can also have a highly personal reward. Many people are in PhD programs because they love learning for its own sake and find academic work and research fun, said an article on The Princeton Review’s website.

“Most PhD students think researchers and academics have it made because they get paid to tackle intellectual problems and explore new areas of knowledge. If this sounds like you, then it's absolutely the right choice to pursue a PhD,” the article said.

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