The Only Reason You Should Ever Get a PhD

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Thu, Apr 12 - 9:00 pm EDT | 11 years ago by
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In my last two posts, I’ve been discussing the possibility of going back to grad school as well as some of the reasons for not doing so. In this post, I’m going to tell you why it’s a good idea. In my opinion, there’s only one good reason why anyone should ever go through the effort of getting an advanced degree.

I should qualify this post by saying that I’m talking here about getting an advanced degree in the sciences. There are professions, like being a doctor, where getting an advanced degree is a requirement. I’m not talking about those. For some people contemplating a career in science, the time after getting a bachelor’s degree becomes a period of decision about whether to continue on with your education or stop there and get a job.

I faced that decision after getting my B.A. in physics. I struggled with my priorities and finally decided that I would not continue with my education, rather I would get take a technical support job in astronomy.

I never regretted that decision. It turned out to be the correct one for me as I was able to not only make satisfying contributions to solar research, I made a respectable salary along the way.

Now, I’m at another decision point. I have begun to reach the top of my particular career ladder and I am considering returning to university for that PhD. Since I’m a blogger, I’m kind of going through this decision process online with the hope that others can help me by offering insights or maybe just by reading this, someone else can benefit.

I think many people start out thinking that an advanced degree is necessary to become an important contributor to science; they may also feel like it’s the only way to get a decent paying job or to make a lasting difference in a career.

I’ve learned that nothing could be further from the truth. As I’ve already mentioned in my last post, there are plenty of PhD’s who don’t have a lot to offer science. There are also many examples of people with no advanced degree who’ve made quite significant contributions. A PhD by itself doesn’t make you remarkable.

So, what is it? Why should a person get a PhD? When I asked my friends and mentors this question, the responses were all the same.

“Don’t get a PhD for money, recognition, prestige, or a job”, I was repeatedly told. “There’s only one reason ANYONE should go through the trouble of getting a PhD.”
“What is it?”, I asked.
“Get a PhD because you want one.”

I couldn’t agree more. The journey towards a PhD should be what matters most. Learning what you need to know to become a good discoverer-of-things should be it’s own reward.

You should do it because you love learning, because you MUST know more about the universe. You should get a PhD because you want to satisfy a longing to find out the nature of things and tell others what you found.

There’s plenty of ways of getting money, fame and power – not all of them (or even most of them) require any PhD.

I’ve already achieved many of the goals people set for themselves: decent income, good job, interesting work, and I did it without an advanced degree. Now, I’m asking myself if I want to go further.

Do I want a PhD?

I’ll let you know…

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  • http://none Joseph “Jake” Bannon

    I am a fan of your videos. On some of them I did notice you making it quite clear that I should let you know if there was anything in particular I would like to see. Well there is. I view your videos via youtube and would like very much if you posted a 10-12 minute video on the oceans of other planets. Include any Images of these planetary oceans and fully explain the substances of which they are composed. If no oceans have yet been found speak of possibilities while still using the astronomy images.

  • julie

    Dr. Tony…paging Dr. Darnell…

    I totally support the idea of you getting a Phd.

    You’d sure look great in a labcoat, uh-huh. You churning out some research and maybe writing a book…yeah, that’s what I’m talkin’ bout. HOT. hey, how you doin’ hot stuff? ;)

  • Beau

    Tony – After reading this post, my immediate feeling was that you really do want the Phd. You have obviously put a lot of thought into it, which to me, is an indicator that you want to do it. There is something else floating around in your head that is giving you second thoughts though. Whether you know exactly what that thing is or not, I don’t know…but it is the important thing here. If it wasn’t you would be enrolled in classes. Figure out what is giving you pause, and you’ll have your answer.
    Just my take on the situation – take it or leave it

  • carlos

    Ran into this article today, and I think I went through something similar. After graduating from College I went after a Masters as a stepping stone towards my Phd. While there I realized that I did not need a Phd to accomplish my goals in life.

    As a side note, a couple of friends followed me and got their Masters and eventually got the Phds.

  • Gary


    I happened upon your three posts regarding the merits of pursuing a Ph.D. later in life. I was doing a Google search on the key words “graduate education in 40s”.

    I’m in a similar situation as you except that I am about to finish my B.S. in my early 40s. I returned to school to finish the B.S. because I decided I wanted a Ph.D. I went through much of the decision process that you have gone through and find myself in a very similar set of circumstances. But the reason is the same… I want it.

    Follow your heart. If you do nothing with the Ph.D., so what. Education is one of the few things that can never be taken away.


  • Hsien Lei

    Whatever you decide to do, Tony. I’m sure you’ll be a star. ;) :)

  • Corey

    This is what I knew to be the answer in my gut a couple of years ago. I was walking across campus at 32 years of age, having just started out on my bachelor degree, and I was so happy to be learning and doing well… I just knew I didn’t want it to end when I had my B.Sc.

    Two years further in, all the advanced Math done, gearing up for the advanced Physics, and I still know it down in my gut. It isn’t the PhD per se, it’s the studying to GET the PhD that I crave. I want to learn more. I want to show mastery over a specialty that excites me. I can think of a half-dozen Physics specialties off the top of my head that I would like to spend 10 years working on.

    But… I have no interest whatsoever in teaching. I keep reading “tenure-track” and frankly I usually skip anything after that point. I want to work. I want to build things. I want to invent things. I want to be part of a start-up that makes a billion dollars. I want to start my own companies. I’m about as far from tenure-track as you can get without being a bum.

    So I am slightly worried that the time I spend on a PhD in Physics may not be the most effective thing I could do. But I know I *want* to spend the time and learn the stuff and achieve that goal. So screw the opportunity costs. I’m doing it.

    • Shaswar

      Hey Corey?
      I have literally pronounced these words about 1000 times “But… I have no interest whatsoever in teaching. I keep reading “tenure-track” and frankly I usually skip anything after that point. I want to work. I want to build things. I want to invent things. I want to be part of a start-up that makes a billion dollars. I want to start my own companies. I’m about as far from tenure-track as you can get without being a bum.” ….

      Please tell what you did .. how is the PhD going? was it worth it?

  • Pauline

    “The journey towards a PhD should be what matters most.”

    Couldn’t agree more! Even if means in the end, you don’t end up obtaining that PhD, it’s the discovery that matters. For some people, it’s the discovery of new knowledge in the subject, for some (like me) it’s the discovery of my own self!

    It’s the learning of how far you can push yourself, a measure of your own intellectual limit(I like learning) and motivation… If I don’t get it, fair play, I’ve tried. If I end up with being a Doc, then, that’s the icing on the cake.

    I do think many people should realise that no-one should ever embark on the PhD journey for fame and fortune reasons. It is a recognition of your contribution to knowledge and practice. Not a ticket for being a millionaire!

    Through out my PhD-to-be-years, I’ve done things that I’ve never thought I’d do, teach, presented in front of many-many people, travelled, meeting amazing people. I doubt if I will succeed in obtaining the highest qualification. But in my mind, I haven’t failed. Every single day until I finish the course, has been a success in itself. I am getting something out of this, even though the end is near, whatever the ending will be.

    Good luck to all…! :)

  • Vic

    Sounds like a typical mid-life crisis issue to me…. Maybe just get a cognitive psychologist for a chat. After all, that’s what they are for.

  • Andrea

    My husband is getting his PhD and it is the hardest thing we have ever done! The ONLY reason we are doing this is because he loves it! I think that someone (especially if they are married) HAS TO think about making a lot of money afterward because it will put you into a LOT of debt! We have avoided credit card debt in the 3 years that we have done this, but our student loans are great! But, he will be making between $90,000 and $120,000 to start as a psychomatrician (a statistician who creates tests). If it weren’t for this I would not have done this. It is SOOOOOO hard! We live off of $26,000 a year, I do not have health insurance and our two kids must have Medicaid. I only spend money on food and gas to drive the car. I do not get hair cuts but twice a year, we rely on hand me downs and we literally go to the park for fun on the weekends. If it weren’t for the library and parks I would go insane! We live in a townhome and my husband takes the bus to school (for free because he is a student). My car is 10 years old, is rusting, but drives! We make it, but boy is it hard. We are in our forth year and sometimes I think we will never see the light at the end of the tunnel. I thought I knew how to trust in God, but really I mostly have just ha d to trust myself all my life. Now, I am really being put to the test. Our marriage, everything. I hope it is all worth it.

  • David

    Don’t do it. PhDs ruin lives. Going for a PhD was the worst decision I ever made, not only will it not give you an advantage, it will actually give you a disadvantage. PhD programs are snake oil, they only want to use you as cheap slave labor to do the work they don’t want to, and then discard you into a job market that is impossible. Unless you want to waste 5-7 years of your life doing b**ch work for someone else and then get a big middle finger from the world afterward for your trouble, don’t do it.

  • Michael

    I say do it and love it. Do it because you want it. I found this site because I was looking for this exact discussion on “why get a PhD in Physics” in order to get ideas for the question I have to answer for my application. Here at 47 years old I want to go back to collect my PhD. I graduate with a BS in Physics in 95 and immediately started working in the sciences (acoustics and vibration). Then after about a month felt so challenged that I went back for a Masters. Both working and going to school was turned out to be the best time in my life. I didn’t complete my Masters Thesis but the credentials put me into positions like solid state physics, mems, and avionics. I’m now writing software and make well over 80K. I’m permanent on my job, it’s not hard and I know that now is the time for me to get back in and study again. Just like my Masters, weather I complete it or not…it’s the journey towards it that counts. I will get the PhD thought! Good luck

  • Queru

    For most people getting a PhD will multiply their opportunities and develop their potential. If it did not happened is because they did not do the PhD correctly.

  • Queru

    Also, the reasoning used by the Tony is used by many people to argue that you do not need to go to college or even high school. Again, I think that the more degrees you get, the more opportunities you have and the more developed your potential is.

  • http://none Jaime

    I say go for it. If you truly decide not to do it, it is always possible to drop out. You will still have learned something and gained that unique experience.

  • Gloria

    Do NOT get a PhD! You will feel bitter, disappointed, and heart-broken when you’ve spent all of these years acquiring information and are not able to get a decent, or even permanent job! Just don’t do it! Go to law, medicine, or business school instead!

  • Mimi

    I recently decided i am going to go back to school for my phd. i realized i spent 23 years trying to get to this thing referred to as “the real world” and now that i have been here a few years i dont understand at all why i was trying to get here. “the real world” sucks- it is boring and monotonous. being in school is always new. why wouldnt i want to be there? exactly.

  • Andile

    I’m 53 years old and a musician from South Africa. In 1998 I studied popular music for the first time in Belfast. Now in 2009 I am a MA graduate in music(community music). I want to do a PhD because I want to do it so that I achieve my ambitions fully. That is my reason for doing PhD. One day I want to contribute to South African music by the way of research as this was done by other people of a different race-I am black!

  • Bill

    I’m a 29 year old PhD candidate, and personally don’t care much about obtaining a piece of paper to prove to myself that I can learn. This is your portrayal of what a PhD should mean. I worked 6 years before entering a PhD program and have not found any difference in the amount I was learning, mostly just the difference in pay. A PhD degree won’t necessarily bring you money, this is true. However, this depends on what you’re getting the PhD in (a lot of science PhD’s pay on average a million more over the course of your life time versus a B.S.). In some fields, this can distinguish you in addition to obtaining a MBA for management positions. In my field, getting a masters degree will most defiantly prevent you from top management positions. As for doing something else, why is it that most people are not rich? Simply there are not many good paying jobs. You make it seem like I could just pick up a new trade, and be on my merry way to a better life, and forgo this PhD. However, you rarely get to pick what you are good at, and sometimes, what your good at isn’t what you like to do. Time is not on your side, you have to pick a career and stick with it or you might find yourself to old and to much a liability to be hired. It is grate that you think you can find a profession that you are truly passionate about, but I believe like most people in the world, we do what we need to put food on the table and provide for a family. If you looking for entry level jobs, a PhD will not help and might actually be a hindrance, but for future growth it will most definitely be a plus. I’m not arguing that your point of view is wrong, but I think that this conversation is lacking from my perspective.

    For those who are entering a PhD program, you have to decide what the advantage is for spending a large amount of time. Does your field require that level of education? Where are you in your career? Do you have other commitments, such as a family? PhD can be compared to slave labor, however, you can use it to your advantage if you are learning different things. In industry, you rarely get an opportunity to fully follow up or even learning things outside of your job description. Even if you go back to the same job after a PhD, you will defiantly have more experience, and therefore will quickly progress. My advice to all the young people that might be reading this, do some research during undergrad and get some work experience before you make such a decision. Only you can give yourself the best advice. This is not a matter of what you can achieve; this is a matter of your desire to.

  • Gloria

    U.S. Science PhD programs are for those who are afraid to look for a real job, for those who did not have the aptitude for medical school, or for foreigners who want to escape their country. The smart, sensible people always opt for professional programs instead. Pursuing a PhD is only a reasonable investment if you are in a joined doctoral program (MD-PhD, PharmD-PhD, DVM-PhD, etc). These individuals get the top pick of research jobs. Lone PhDs end up getting knocked out of the running for these jobs, and spend their lives scrounging for post-docs which pay only $35K annually.

    • Stephen

      “U.S. Science PhD programs are for those who are afraid to look for a real job, for those who did not have the aptitude for medical school, or for foreigners who want to escape their country. The smart, sensible people always opt for professional programs instead. ”

      This is a years-old thread, but I just thought I’d add a word-to-the-wise: this is an extremely ignorant portrayal of PhD programs and the students that populate them, though it is one I heard often from the more naive (and arrogant) medical students I’ve met.

      MD/PhD programs may seem like a great deal, but keep in mind that they can take as long as a decade to complete. I have known many successful and bright MD/PhDs, but I have known just as many who quit because they couldn’t handle the PhD portion. Thinking creatively and coming up with new ideas is NOT the same as regurgitating information, which is essentially the most important requirement for getting into medical school.

  • Gloria

    PhD programs to definitely stay away from: PHYSICS (horrible job prospects afterwards), anything in the biological sciences, humanities

  • JAM

    Can I just say that this was a great blog post? I started out in the sciences but have begun to build my career in higher education. After completing my Master’s degree last week, people have already begun to speculate when I am going to get a Ph.D. The answer is I don’t know, but I know that I am going to get it because I want it and not for any other reason. Glad someone else thinks this is an appropriate way of approaching the topic of getting a terminal degree. Good luck on your decision!

  • Jason

    I will be entering undergraduate this fall for the first time at thirty (just turned a few days ago) I will be studying Physics with a minor in math. I agree with the earlier post that you cannot choose what you are good at and what you are good at may not bring you riches beyond your wildest dreams. But spending a VERY long time in the Army, I have learned that it’s not monitary riches that will fullfill me. My mind needs to be challenged. I need a new piece of information to kick me in the face everyday and challenge my way of thought. Here is my plan, all comments are wlecome:

    I will pursue my B.S in Physics. I am considering adding the additional load to double major in Math. I will then take an additional 30 semester hours to be certified to teach physics and math at the High School level. I have a passion for education and educating and lets face it, a boys gotta eat! My next step will be one of two options. Achiving my Masters in Physics with an emphasis on Engineering (though I am in love with Astro-Physics) or achieveing my Masters in Avionics.
    As far as the PhD is concerned….if it turns out that there are opportunities avaialble to me that will expand my intellectual opportunities, then I’m all in! I’ll never make 150K a year as a teacher or scientist and I’m ok with that. I am ok driving my chevy and having my sensible loft in the city. I don’t need much more. I would also consider putting in the time for a Physics PhD in order to instruct at the Collegiate level. Bachelors by 33, Masters by 35, PhD by 45. At 45, I can still be an asset at the Collegiate level and put in 20 good years before retiring on a teacher’s pension (note to self….INVEST)

  • Bill

    Just to follow up on the “Real Job” comment. You really have to do the reaserch. If you don’t know anything about salaries, it is easy to say go to med school or get your JD. I’m partial to your side of things. It is not only about knowing stuff, it is about getting paid to know stuff. There are a lot of Phd degrees that won’t be financially rewarding. However, from relatives that have acquired Phd’s from physics to biology it is fesabile to make substantially over 100k. So the world isn’t so black and white. You just have to make sure that what you are studying is not only interesting to you, but something that can be quite valuable. For instance I design drugs; there aren’t many people that can actually do synthesis. It requires many years to learn, and you don’t get the satisfaction of directly seeing the results in patients that you help to cure. However, as you know, pharmaceutical companies will pay top dollar for good chemists, that must have Phd’s. All I have to say is just make sure you know what you are getting yourself into, and don’t always trust professors cause there in it also to make a buck. Of course they want you to do their work and be interested in it, it is valuable to them. You have to ask yourself if you are getting as much back in return.

    P.S. If you don’t know, MD’s don’t design or know for the most part what drugs do, they follow protocals and clinical trials. Phd’s design drugs.

  • jack

    I am now in 2rd year engineering PhD and I am sick of seeing the weirdest human being and losers around me.. most PhD students are stupid human being who lack social skills, obsessive, physicially unfit, geeky, never get laid and poor.

    I think PhD is only for a really really crazy person. It’s definitely more insane than join for French Foreign Legion or become Hollywood stuntmant.

    Only crazy people do something stupid for 3-7 years that offers NOTHING IN RETURN.

    Except for PhD in Finance/Computational Finance, PhD in Science/Humanity is totally useless and many people now look at PhD student with a pity. THERE IS NO PRESTIGE OR FINANCIAL BENEFIT WHATSOEVER in the PhD!

    Believe me it’s more beneficial to spend 5 years getting slapped by drunk French NCO in French Foreign Legion. At least you get a prestige (you join an exclusive MALE ONLY club), you get ADVENTURE and after finish your contract, you can join PMC and get 150k-200k annually.

    If you want prestige and career you join US Navy/USMC then try enter SEALS/Marine Recon then finish your contract as officer and go to Harvard MBA. THAT’s an EXCLUSIVE CLUB (Special Force + Ivy League MBA).

    If you really really want to have super prestige then get engineering bachelor/masters, join Air Force as Jet fighter Pilot, then go to Harvard MBA. Now that’s a super prestige.

    I regret my choice. Now I am just a loser nerd.

  • jack

    if you want to get a PhD, try to take it part time while doing your job. Therefore you only lose time (and money) but you don’t sacrifice your career and the most productive age in your life.

    But again, with the same amount of time and effort spent, it is actually more beneficial to take 2 or 3 specialized masters part time or profesionnal certification.

    Other wise choice is to do PhD after you retired. After you get PhD, with all your real world experience and academic credential, you can teach and write a book. It’s a good life for a retired person.

  • Tom Laxey

    A lot of these comments are people telling you what to do, based on their experience, rather than suggesting how you should think about your situation. How is that helpful?

    I think you should do a PhD because you want to do one, or you need it for a career. In UK, the only careers that need a PhD are in Universities. I chose to work after getting a Masters, and build professional experience in Industry, and that’s been good so far. The job I’m doing now, the company says they want PhDs, but that is simply for kudos sake – anyone with a grasp of engineering fundamentals could do the job. Although there are clever people with PhDs, all to often in engineering, outside of Universities or certain high-end research roles, a PhD is a bull$hitters qualification.

    My main gripe is that it is difficult to do high-end work (equivalent to masters or PhD) in industry these days. Industry and government are very risk-averse and simply want to ‘ship product’ rather than innovate, and analyse in-depth. Where they do need to research, they contract into Universities, and have 22-yr old students work the projects, simply as vehicles for their careers, whereas those in Industry would bring their industrial focus and energy.

  • Gary M. Grobman

    I found this site by searching on the name of my new book, “Just Don’t Do It!” that has the subtitle “A Fractured and Irreverent Look at the Ph.D. Culture.” I got my Ph.D. in 2002 from Penn State in Public Administration, and was totally traumatized by this experience. Eventually, I realized almost everyone has a bad experience, whether they are successful in getting their degree or not.
    Jack has the right idea–denigrate and belittle everything about it with some HUMOR! My book has 13 original cartoons (one can be seen on the site), and a sample chapter is provided on the Web site at: I am planning on creating an online community on this site to help others share experiences and perhaps lead a movement to bring some needed reform. The abuse has got to end. I teach in a Ph.D. program occasionally in the PA State System of Higher Education, and am trying to make my students more sensitive to confronting a culture that is in need of a top to bottom reengineering effort. I welcome your participation in changing the Ph.D. culture.

  • jon

    BA in Physics
    Bachelor of Arts degree in physics never understood that

  • Pam

    Lucky for you that you’re contemplating a PhD in Science and not grammar and spelling. Else you’d need to go back to school and learn how to conjugate verbs and use the apostrophe. Maybe you should be contemplating whether your English teacher will give you a refund – and not whether or not to get a PhD.

    • Mitch

      Completely agree! It’s not rocket science to get these things right. I suggest he does a course in writing before starting his PhD (if he does one). I’ve reviewed many students’ work and it really gives me a bad impression if they cannot get small things like this right. Please – do a writing course before you start! You’ll save yourself a lot of rework and from poor impressions.

  • JB

    Lucky you. No one told me that. I got a full-time job and wanted to drop out of the PhD because I never wanted it. I only wanted a job. But everyone told me to finish it. We must live on different planets.

    • JB


  • Jack

    Hi I am Jack, the engineering PhD that commented 5 years ago.


    I obtained my PhD.

    Looking back….

    My view for PhD has not changed a bit. PhD is for a loser. My PhD colleagues are all become losers. Most of them now are in “postdoc trap” cycle.

    I managed to survive after the PhD. Thank god.

    I learned to code elegantly during my PhD. I developed several Apps for iOS, Android and connected them with the systems I created for my PhD research. I also learned important soft skills during my PhD such as communication, team leading, negotiation and sales. I took courses and read a lot of books.

    I knew I won’t get a job with my PhD, but after showing my programming portfolios, people skill and project management skills, I secured a job as a Senior Engineer.

    To make a long story short, now I am a Senior Manager in a Tech company.
    I survived PhD. I got married and get a good job with a very good future. I have a decent salary and a happy life.

    I never put a PhD in my business card or anywhere.

    My PhD colleagues are still struggling. Most of them are still single, trapped in Postdoc cycles or any temp research job with no future, have no insurance, living with parents, income lower than bus driver….

    I feel no pity for them. Life is about choice.

    • You’re a Dbag

      You are an idiot and you contributed nothing to this post. Congratulations on clearly being superior to all the “losers” in PhD must just be the man and we can only hope to be so self-absorbed one day.

  • Ryan


    You could not be anymore misinformed. Your example really only applies (if at all which I’m not sure it does since I know MANY successful PhD biologists) to biological sciences. MDs know next to nothing about real physics (or math for that matter, it’s a shame our society associates the people who make the most with the smartest people since this is most often NOT the case, particularly when it comes to MDs), so I’m not sure how you can even make this claim. Also, if you only care about the money then yes, you shouldn’t get a PhD (which the blogger has already covered btw).

    It’s ignorant posts like yours that just send me off. You really couldn’t be further from the truth. I can’t speak for the humanities at all.

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