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Programs Is a PhD Really Worth it?

  1. Jul 29, 2010 #1
    Hi, I'm new to these forums, and sorry if I just jumped into this board without much reputation and asking demanding questions... but this thread is really the reason I made an account, since this is the easiest way I can ask for a large number of PhDs' honest opinions.

    First some background. I'm an upcoming senior, and I plan to apply to top-tier schools and I think that I have the SAT's and other stats to get into at least some of them. My plan then was to possibly double major in physics and mathematics at that university and try to get into a good grad school. However, last night, on one of my stumbleupon excursions, I unfortunately came to this page: http://wuphys.wustl.edu/~katz/scientist.html [Broken]

    After reading that page, I was extremely discouraged. It was the analogy of someone dreaming to be in the NBA seeing how impossible it is. However, is this image accurate, exaggerated, or outdated? The reason I ask this is that over the past few years I've spent a lot of time learning mathematical and physical theory on my own, and I couldn't really see a future in which I'm happy without constantly learning more about the universe or mathematics. I believe I have the skill and determination to make a good scientist (many may thinks it's too early to tell on this board or see this as arrogance, but I honestly believe that I have what is needed.) Is this article accurate in that, no matter how hard I try, no matter how skillful I am, I will eventually end up 200k in debt with no job and no life?

    Thanks, and I really want honest answers... Not the "follow your dreams" answer my guidance counselor may give me.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
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  3. Jul 29, 2010 #2


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    I wouldn't really pay too much attention to that essay. For example a comment like

    is simple statistics: how many more people do you think he's known that have done a PhD than have done drugs? It could also be down to him leaving a sheltered existence: I know more people who have had their lives negatively affected by drugs/alcohol than have by obtaining a PhD.

    One thing you should pay attention to, though, is that it is really tough to make a career in physics (at least in academia). I won't go on about this, since I'm sure others will be around to tell you the other job opportunities with a physics PhD. Just make sure that you take every chance to develop "transferable skills", and you should be fine career-wise.
  4. Jul 29, 2010 #3
    I think that infamous text only plays the role of a "boss" on some of the lower levels of the scientific profession game. You need to read it, come to grips with the fear it has instilled in you and then you're good to go collect coins on the next level.
  5. Jul 29, 2010 #4
    Instead of looking at the reasons you shouldn't get a Ph.D, let's start with the question "why do you hope to get a Ph.D?" What were you hoping to get out of it?

    Once you answer that question, we can help you. The "worth" of a Ph.D. is hard to give an answer to without defining "worth."
  6. Jul 29, 2010 #5
    The reason I want to get a PhD is because I want to be able to contribute to human knowledge in either the fields of mathematics or physics through original research and theory. I also enjoy teaching those who are interested to learn math or physics, so having a teaching position alongside with a research position would be ideal. I don't really care much for money, as long as I'll be able to get a decent living and live relatively comfortably (not necessarily luxuriously, just comfortably.) In other words, I would work to research and learn constantly, as long as it provides me the means to keep on living happily with perhaps a small family. I can't really delve into specifics yet, since it is still a far way off, but I hope that vague description of what I want to do (learn/research for the rest of my life) can give you enough information.

    Thanks for all the responses.
  7. Jul 29, 2010 #6
    Although not directly related to the OP, I think this gentleman makes a few valid points. In particular, these two:


    I think the essay in the OP makes a valid point of what seems like a "post-doc threadmill". I noticed people who graduated in the prior to the 70s normally obtained a science Ph.D. almost "immediately"; now, I read the avg. time it takes to complete a Ph.D. in science is 5yrs. I applaud those who put themselves through a decade or more of academic preparation in the sciences but I'd rather get a BS in Physics and start solving real world problems.
  8. Jul 29, 2010 #7
    Right now, the biological and health sciences seem to be in favor. That's where the demand is and that's where a lot students are probably aiming. I'll guess that in ten years there will be an oversupply of graduate students in many areas of biology/medicine. That's the way these things are. When I entered college, there was a big demand for engineers. Later it was computer scientists. The current pessimism may lead to a shortage of grad students in physics over the next 5-10 years.

    I wanted to be a meteorologist. However, jobs in that field have always been limited: government, academic or TV (if you're good looking and have a nice smile). Fortunately, I took too much math in my freshman year and found it difficult although I passed. I switched my major to pre-med mostly to raise my GPA and succeeded. I got into medical school and found I liked it. However, I never went into private practice. I became an emergency physician and found well paying jobs easily. I never thought I'd like it, but I did. I was on the front line for 10 to 12 hour stretches, worked hard for 4 days and got the next 4 days off. I was never on call and had six nights off almost every week.

    When I got older, I went back to school for an MS in epidemiology, did a stint at NIH, then held satisfying jobs doing research in both government and industry. I never planned any of this. One thing just led to another. But I was practical about my next step when making a course change. I had to have reasonable expectations of future opportunities. Always keep that in mind. I never gave up meteorology, I just never got paid for doing it.
    Last edited: Jul 29, 2010
  9. Jul 29, 2010 #8
    Ugh that article is so discouraging but unfortunately it's also probably a worthwhile read. I'm going into my senior year of undergrad and I've been going back and forth endlessly on whether or not I should continue with Physics and go into a PhD program or if I should just give up on Physics and go into engineering or finance or something. I have a 3.9 GPA from a decent school and I'd imagine I could get into a top 20 and maybe even top 10 school for grad school but I'm not sure if I want to deal with it. I love Physics but it seems ridiculous to go to school until you're 30 just to bounce around from low paying post-doc to post-doc trying to get a permanent job as a professor which is likely to never happen. Being able to get a $50,000 a year right out of college sounds really nice to me right now but at the same time I like Physics so much and I'm not sure I want to leave. I have a lot of thinking to do in the next few months.
  10. Jul 29, 2010 #9
    This is the same advice I would give. A PhD is only worth pursuing if you want to do it. Expanding on that, what I mean is that taking a PhD position to further career or employment prospects is a terrible idea. Similarly, don't do it 'just because it's the next stage' or 'just because you can'. It needs to be something you're passionate about - you will be commiting to living as a student for a few more years, and it will be extremely stressful into the bargain.

    If you ask PhD graduates whether or not it is worth it - the ones who enjoy their subject matter will say yes. The ones who did it for reasons other than just for the love of the topic will almost always have a resounding no.

    There are almost no jobs out there where having a PhD would hurt your prospects - you'd gain many valuable skills, but at the same time - the gain isn't enough to justify using that as a reason to go for the PhD.
  11. Jul 29, 2010 #10
    See, I like that answer. It's strange, and it may be a consequence of growing up in a middle class household, but I really don't care much for money (as long as it isn't a huge obstacle to getting necessities) as long as I'm able to learn for the rest of my life. I find scientific research extremely fun, and I find new theory extremely interesting. If I am simply searching for learning, research, and occasional teaching, then, would this be a good choice? I know that I'll have to wait until the latter part of my undergrad to be sure about this passion, but as long as nothing changes in my heart, would anyone else suggest this course of action?
  12. Jul 29, 2010 #11
    Like most scientists, I care for money but care more for science. If you want to study science and find a subject you can see yourself working on for a number of years - if you have that kind of focus - then it sounds like a PhD might be for you. You should of course search for as much undergraduate research experience as you can, to help you be sure. It is obviously a big decision.
  13. Jul 29, 2010 #12
    Ok. And sorry if I ask one more question... You guys have already answered a lot for me... But here it goes. My principal worry is really just being able to get a job in academia (not high school teacher, college academics), whether it pays $40k or $100k. Will such jobs be readily available (although not a tenured position) if I were to get my Ph.D from a prestigious top-tier school?
  14. Jul 30, 2010 #13
    Note that continuously learning and exploring new scientific research areas doesn't require a PhD. Is your primary goal to do research in academia, or to just continue to grow yourself and learn new interesting things? If the latter, you can do anything you want as a day job to pay the bills, and then spend your free time researching whatever you like largely constraint free.
  15. Jul 30, 2010 #14
    Sounds like what Sal Khan(founder of Khan Academy) did. He retired early from his job as a hedge fund analyst and now he makes free educational videos which help people all over the world.
  16. Jul 30, 2010 #15
    Well, my aims are both. I would love to learn, teach what I learn, and research as a profession.
  17. Jul 30, 2010 #16
    That's fine. But there's a catch. You must publish to advance your career and too often quantity takes precedence over quality. You must also be able to fund your research by obtaining grants. You need to devote time and energy to play that game with funding agencies. I'm not trying to discourage you. I'm just suggesting that academia isn't the cozy sinecure that some people suppose. There's a lot of politics and competition in those halls of ivy.
  18. Jul 30, 2010 #17


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    I think the article by Katz is quite accurate. However, doing your PhD has the advantage, that if you are lucky you will be able to spend at least 5 years of your live doing something interesting. The shock with endless boredom in industry you'll have anyhow.
  19. Jul 30, 2010 #18
    I recommend that you prioritize the things you're looking for from a career. So far, we have:

    Tied for 1: research in academia, learn new things
    3: money

    There are a lot more aspects. Stress load, hours/week, job security, power, prestige, travel requirements, advancement opportunities, etc etc. Also, I'd recommend you break the tie for #1. Think in concrete terms.

    Scenario 1: you have an academia research position, and you're teaching the same courses over and over. You turn the crank on your research, and can pump out new papers without learning much.

    Scenario 2: You don't have an academia position. In the evenings, you can forget your day job, and are free to study/learn/research whatever you want. You learn new things daily.

    Etc. Do that exercise for all the variables you can think of, which'll help you figure out what sorts of jobs you're looking for.

    Remember that you probably won't get a job that meets everything in your list of high priority job aspects. That's why prioritization is very important, since you want a job that'll meet your highest priorities.

    For instance, if research in academia is your highest priority, than getting a PhD is clearly required.
  20. Jul 30, 2010 #19
    There's there's a lot of mentions of saying that you should go for a more lucrative degree, and in your free time, you can do your own studying/research.

    While it seems logical, wouldn't that take time out of other things you can enjoy in life. . . family and friends? Doesn't seem so practical.
  21. Jul 30, 2010 #20


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    A PhD is only worth as much value as you give it to it.
  22. Jul 30, 2010 #21
    Is it generally a good idea to become more financially secure (if you'e not already) before going for a Ph.D. program? I am considering getting a math Ph.D. but I'm worried that I might not be able to land a job in academia (which is what I'd want to do if I get a Ph.D.). Would working for a few years as, for example, an actuary just to get a more solid financial footing be a good idea? By the way, does anyone know how the job market for academics is in math?
  23. Jul 30, 2010 #22
    I hope no one is reading my posts as pro self-study and against getting a PhD. I was just trying to explain my method for prioritizing what is important from a job via constructing hypothetical scenarios where one property is there, and another isn't. I wasn't trying to push any value judgements about my own personal preferences.
  24. Jul 30, 2010 #23
    What kind of quantity though? I understand a mathematician needs to publish a lot less than a chemist would for example. What about for physicists?
  25. Jul 30, 2010 #24
    Once you leave, it is hard to come back and walk away from an actuary paycheck and health insurance for an 18to 25K per year stipend. It is good to have some savings but if you really want a PhD, just do it. If not you'll be sitting here 5 years from now telling yourself you could be done with a PhD if you hadn't taken that break.
  26. Jul 30, 2010 #25
    PhD's, depending upon the city, get paid between 16-30K. 26-30K is for ColumbiaU, NY. 22K, MIT. 22K, CMU, Pittsburgh, 16/18/22K varies intradepartment for the mid west schools. And I have absolutely no clue about pays they lure grads at on the West coast. If you win an NSF GRFP/Hertz grant, you are rich, at around 50/55K per year. You can also win industry graduate fellowships. There's the Intel and microsoft graduate fellow awards and various others. The basic idea is, if you can win a grant, life is really really good. But there's no scope for FUps. You get reviewed every year so the pressure to write is very high, but that's good in a way.

    Post docs in all universities, under federal grants, are around 40K. You don't get paid more unless you are on some post doctoral fellowship. If you work as a post doc in the industry, its about 70K, with the fed, about 55K, with Santa Fe (the omidiyyar fellowship), about 80K. NASA post doc fellowships vary between programs, again around 40K to 60K. The more post doctoral exp you have, the more the pay.
    Prof salaries are base and only for teaching. So you don't get paid like in industry, however, you have the right to charge consultant fees from your grants for your time. Some people do weird sheet with grants though. Private schools pay more, but life is harder as well.

    Oh, and all pay mentioned is before tax.

    Math PhD's get sucked up by the band aid called google. Or amazon. Or any of your favorite pick of software MNCs. Another favorite place for math grads is NY, Manhattan working for QuantAnalyst companies. Look up D E Shaw and all their requirements. Anyway, whatever you do with your math degree, remember to be able to display 'statistics' somewhere on your resume, you will never have to worry about a job.
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