Cross-posted from the High Impact Engineers Blog. You can view the most up-to-date version on the High Impact Engineers website.
Would taking on a PhD allow me to have more impact in my career? This is one of the questions we’re most often asked in career conversations.
With research-related work being emphasised in both our advice and in other guides to having more impact, a PhD might be a good way to build skills and credentials in this area. But taking on a PhD has some significant downsides and there are other ways of getting involved in research.
Here are some general advantages and disadvantages to taking on a PhD:
Reasons to Do a PhD
The Research can be Impactful
The theories and innovations that have shaped the modern world all originated from researchers, and doing well-targeted, excellent research can save lives and positively shape the future.
However, even if your PhD thesis won’t change the world by itself, work from University research groups can be extremely impactful. Pursuing a PhD provides access to these groups, to academics who are usually very knowledgeable, and sometimes to equipment or facilities that would be difficult to find elsewhere.
Sharpening Research Skills
Doing a PhD builds skills in research and in domain-specific knowledge, which is often an effective path to impact. This experience gives you the ability to lead advanced projects in specific technical dimensions.
Sharpening Transferable Skills
PhDs sharpen skills for specific topics but also provide some generally useful and transferable skills, which are mostly communication-oriented. Through doing a PhD, a lot of time will be spent on knowledge-centric tasks and building up knowledge-centric communication skills, which are usually quite useful.
Landing a Technical Career
For a future career using skills such as in-depth thinking, strategic thinking, using a data-driven and evidence-based approach, or doing knowledge-based work, having a PhD is useful. If you are aiming for knowledge/R&D/abstract/technology-driven profiles, having a PhD has a high value.
Landing a High-Paid Career
Jobs available after receiving a PhD are usually highly paid relative to Masters degree holders, which helps with long-term financial security and for effective giving. PhD holders also generally have high job satisfaction.
A PhD is a widely recognised credential that adds to legitimacy in many contexts, including academic research and policy work.
A university or research institute affiliation is required to present at many conferences and to submit to many journals. These are both excellent ways to disseminate your research and add credibility to your work. Conferences also have the added advantage of exposing you to cutting-edge research in your field and building your network. Peer-reviewed publication is seen as the gold standard for legitimacy, so for your research to be taken seriously by those outside of your field it can be extremely helpful.
Freedom to Direct and Structure Your Work
The self-driven nature of the work suits self-motivated people who don’t enjoy overly structured working environments.
Many PhDs offer the candidate a lot of agency in choosing their PhD topic. For many people this will be the only time in their life where they can work full time on a largely unconstrained self-selected topic.
Working in the University Environment
Completing a PhD is the main path to pursue teaching at third level.
Universities are often quite comfortable places to work and are often based in more wealthy areas with good local services.
Reasons not to do a PhD
PhDs typically take 3 to 5 years, depending on local academic practices. For example, PhDs in the EU take 3.5 to 4.5 years while in the US this can be considerably longer, often 5 years or more. Even within regions the lengths of PhDs can also vary significantly, with some students spending a year or two longer than they expected on their PhD.
This is a lot of time that could be spent pursuing other career paths. As a result, we do not recommend doing a PhD if you have no idea what to do (i.e. a “panic PhD” is not a good idea!) – instead, taking some time out, working for a bit, and exploring your options could be better to figure out if research is something you actually want to do. Doing a research Master’s is a lower opportunity cost for understanding if research is something you want to do.
PhDs are typically paid much less than jobs in industry and NGO sectors that require similar credentials. This constrains personal finances and limits the ability to effectively donate. This is negated somewhat by the expected increase in earnings after finishing the PhD, but some research demonstrates that PhDs can also find themselves overqualified relative to their wages.
Unnecessary for Career Path
A PhD simply isn’t required for many of the impactful engineering roles out there. Employers will only demand a PhD for work that is research related or very specific types of technical work. If you are doing operational work, or want to work at a large corporation, a PhD may scare away potential employers (as they need to pay you more!)
Depending on your personal background, similar skill and credential building could be done outside of academia. Many non-profits and think tanks no longer demand PhDs for research roles. PhDs can be a good signal for potential employers that you are able to produce high-quality research, but often a Masters is a more compact way of moving between specialisations or gaining academic credentials.
Lack of Structure and Effect on Mental Health
A PhD lifestyle can be a bad fit for those that struggle with self-motivation or require a lot of organisation and structure in their work. PhDs have come under scrutiny for their effect on mental health and high rates of anxiety and depression.
Non-linear Signalling Benefits over Time
A lot of PhDs will feel under pressure to finish their PhD, as leaving early can be seen by themselves or others as a failure. While this is often overstated, the PhD is unusual in that a large chunk of the advantages in terms of perceived experience only comes at the end rather than continuously as you work. The size of this effect is difficult to find good data on. This is a disadvantage, as it creates a lot of inertia for those that should probably leave their PhDs sooner rather than later and lost perceived experience for those that do.
Less Job Stability in Academia
Compared to permanent contract roles, PhD funding is generally on a limited time scale, which results in less job stability and can have various negative effects. Post-docs often lament the limited opportunities and being forced to travel, although the pay improves significantly at this point. Those that take on teaching or research roles outside of academia generally have stable and well-paid work.
There are also other personal factors that should influence your decision to take on a PhD:
Is there another path available for me to do impactful work?
It’s always best to consider all options when making a large career decision like this. For many people that have recently finished a Bachelors or Master’s degree or are working in a University, starting a PhD may seem like the most obvious and straightforward next step. It’s important to think laterally and see what opportunities for impact are available to you. A role in industry, a non-profit organisation or the government, for example, could yield higher impact and may not carry the same downsides.
Will the money offered by a PhD be enough to sustain you?
If you have to support a family or if you have sizable debts, it might be best to hold off on a PhD until you are more financially secure. There are many paths to impact you can take that can be more lucrative in the short term and you can return to graduate school after if that turns out to be the best move for your career.
Is there a good enough University, project and supervisor willing to take you on right now?
It may be the case that you can’t find a PhD that has a better path to impact than your current role or career path. Fortunately good PhD opportunities do appear, so playing the waiting game can pay off. In my own experience, often better research roles can be found through building a network in academia or just cold emailing relevant researchers expressing enthusiasm than on sites like findaphd.com.
It’s often said that a supervisor can make or break a PhD. A good supervisor will guide the student’s research, facilitate their practical needs and help with their career post-PhD. A bad supervisor will impede the student with other duties and prioritise their research or career goals over their student’s.
Two often underrated traits of a supervisor are their disposition and how busy they are. Even a very highly esteemed supervisor with access to lots of funding and equipment will be very difficult to work with if they are unpleasant to students and don’t have enough time to discuss your project.
Can you get into the right PhD with your background?
If your academic or research credentials aren’t well regarded by PhD supervisors, you may struggle to get into the right PhD to pursue your chosen path to impact. This would call for spending some time building other credentials. This isn’t intended to dissuade those without an academic background though, as PhD programs are often easier to get into than those outside academia may suspect.
Is entrepreneurship something you want to do, and will doing a PhD can set you up well for this path?
A PhD often gives you extra credibility with potential investors, customers, and partners. The networking element when doing a PhD is important – it allows you to build up a network of people in a specific field that is evolving quickly. This allows you to level up faster than if you were working in industry. People are also more willing to be part of academic studies rather than pure market research for a potential product. Especially in English-speaking Western countries, a PhD allows you to get in contact with influential and interesting people (but this reason alone is probably not good enough to do a PhD!) If entrepreneurship is your end goal, you need to choose the right place and culture to do a PhD. It’s best to find a project and research group that respects you and will position you well for impactful entrepreneurship.
Doing a PhD is probably the optimal path to impact for a minority of people. The low pay, lack of structured work and lost opportunities in the meantime are prohibitive for many people. For those that have chosen to pursue research, enjoy unstructured working environments and can stomach the financial situation, a PhD is an excellent way to build skills and credentials. Also for what it’s worth a lot of people really enjoy their PhD, myself included!
For a more in-depth case study on one person’s decision to pursue a PhD to maximise their impact, consider reading this article by Jess Whittlestone.
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