The Practical Ph.D.: Can a Doctorate Help You Find a Job?

Over the past few years, the value of a college degree has been questioned, though perhaps not quite so harshly as the Ph.D. While criticisms of doctoral study have not been entirely unfounded (Ph.D.s are struggling a bit more in the current job market than they have in years past) the reality is that earning a doctorate in most fields can be a solid career move that offers potential for advancement and can potentially open up entirely new career avenues.

Still, the time and money poured into a Ph.D. can make many prospective students (and current ones, too) wonder if getting a Ph.D. is really all it's cracked up to be. While there's no simple answer to that question (it can differ quite a bit based on individual goals and the field of study), a Ph.D. does offer some career advantages that other programs, whether master's or professional, simply can't match. With so many resources out there telling you not to pursue a Ph.D., it's important to also look at the reasons a Ph.D. can be good for you and to explore some of the practical skills a Ph.D. will teach you that will make you a desirable commodity on the job market.

What Will a Ph.D. Do for You?

When doctoral degrees were first created in 19th century Germany, they were designed as a method of generating new knowledge, not to be vocational or career-related. But, like nearly every college program, the Ph.D. has changed a bit since then. Today, a Ph.D. is not only a way to generate new knowledge but also is a potential pathway to prestigious careers, research positions, and management.

It's important to note, however, that while many Ph.D.s make very good salaries, getting a doctoral degree is rarely a way to earn huge amounts of money. That's in part because they take so long to earn. The six or more years spent earning a Ph.D. is usually time spent away from the job market, earning considerably less than someone else who went directly into a career. For that reason, pursuing a Ph.D. for purely financial reasons isn't usually the best investment. That isn't to say that getting a Ph.D. can't earn you more than many other jobs within the same field (especially those which don't have a lot of corporate appeal), but that salary shouldn't be the sole reason behind pursuing one, no matter what financially focused pundits might say. Students also need to be passionate about the subject matter and be looking to utilize the skills produced by getting the degree, not simply hoping for a sizable paycheck.

While most people assume that those getting a Ph.D. are planning to go into academic life, that isn't actually where most end up. A significant portion of those who graduate from Ph.D. programs go on to work outside of academia. In fact, a recent study showed that only about half of students in science-related Ph.D. programs plan to work in academia after graduation. This move away is partly because academic jobs are limited in number, but it's also because those earning Ph.D.s are learning more than just how to work in their own fields; they're also learning critical thinking, problem solving, and technical skills that can be applied to a wide range of industries and professions, many of them outside academia.

As you work through your Ph.D. program, you'll garner skills that are highly valued by employers and open up doors to careers that can only be accessed by those with a doctoral degree. In that way, spending the time, effort, and money to get a Ph.D. can actually be a smart, savvy way to prepare for a long and successful career in just about any field.

The Skills

While many have complained that Ph.D. programs aren't preparing students for the realities of the working world, there are actually a lot of skills to be gained from taking on a degree program at this level that will not only appeal to academic institutions but to a range of other employers, as well. It does come with a serious investment, though. A Ph.D. can take anywhere from six to 10 years (or more) to earn, on top of the four or more years students will have already spent in college earning a bachelor's degree. In contrast, a master's degree usually only takes about two years to complete, making it a much faster way to gain some educational traction while getting back into the job market relatively quickly. So why go after the Ph.D. when you can get a master's degree? In short, it's because getting a Ph.D. teaches you things that a master's program simply doesn't.

Students in Ph.D. and master's degree programs will generally take the same number and types of courses, so there is little difference in the actual in-class preparation that goes into each degree. The key difference happens once students get beyond those initial courses. While master's students can expect to write a thesis or to create a research project, these projects don't even come close to approaching the amount of time, effort, and sheer brainpower that goes into crafting a dissertation for a doctoral degree. It is precisely this experience of working on a dissertation that often makes those with Ph.D.s so valuable on the job market.

While opportunities for advancement based on doctoral degrees will certainly exist in a student's own field of study, the research skills honed during the four or more years spent toiling over a dissertation also make grads appealing to employers in a much wider scope of professions. For example, a Ph.D. student in mathematics or computer science may have the skills and expertise that top investment firms need to develop complex algorithms and computer programs used in the financial industry. A study of four leading colleges, including Duke, UNC Chapel Hill, UC Santa Barbara, and The Ohio State University, showed that 27% of Ph.D. grads weren't working in academia at all. So what do they do? Ph.D. s are commonly found in higher education administration, publishing and editing, museums, in the military, within government agencies, consulting and research firms, and even running small businesses.

So just what skills do employers prize in Ph.D. students that make them so appealing outside of academia? Here are a few to consider:

  • The ability to identify an unsolved problem. In the academic world, this means pointing to gaps in knowledge or exploration in your field. Outside of academia, this skill can help companies address areas for expansion, where they might be losing money or customers, or simply push forward new ideas for products.
  • The ability to solve a problem by teaching yourself the necessary skills and information. There is a certain amount of self-motivation that's required to complete a dissertation, and it's a skill that translates well into any field that values problem solving, innovative thinking, and independent work.
  • The ability to persevere. Getting a Ph.D. is a lot of hard work, and there are countless roadblocks and difficulties along the way, the chief among them being able to defend your work in front of a panel of experts. Being able to accomplish something of this scope shows employers you have what it takes to stick with a project and make it successful, a skill that isn't always easy to find or for employees to demonstrate.
  • The ability write and teach. During the course of your doctoral program, you'll have to do a lot of writing and probably a fair amount of teaching. Both of these can be appealing to employers who want workers who are skilled at communication and can easily convey information to others.

In a piece forThe Chronicle of Higher Education in late 2012, history Ph.D. grad L. Maren Wood explains that few of her classmates actually ended up working directly in the field of history. That didn't mean that their degree wasn't a source of value, however. She states, “While many alternative career paths do not actually require you have a doctorate, Ph.D.s are often hired because of the skills and knowledge gained through their graduate training. You don't need a doctorate to become an insurance consultant, for example, but the language skills, theoretical background, research and writing abilities, comfort with public speaking, success at grant writing, and ability to learn and master new subject matter that you gain from graduate school are assets.”

Aside from the skills that a Ph.D. can offer, there is a certain cachet that comes along with the degree, too. Employers often want experts and the most qualified individuals they can get, something they see a Ph.D. as designating.

Dr. Peter Glassman, a retired anesthesiologist and addictionologist, had an MD (a degree he describes as being academically equivalent to a master's) before heading back to get his Ph.D., and he believes it was a great career asset. He says, “Most corporate (human resource departments) are directed to hire the Ph.D. holder when there is equal experience among for those applying for a job, as I found out (to my benefit) when I was hired by Behring Ingenious Pharmaceuticals. So I think a Ph.D. is good to have in today's competitive environment.” In general, he believes that the combination of his degrees made him much more marketable to employers in the corporate world but also opened up opportunities for work within universities, who are often much more likely to hire those with Ph.D.s.

A Key to New Careers

While a Ph.D. might be an asset in certain career fields, in others it's a requirement. There are some careers where not having a Ph.D. will make it so individuals simply can't qualify for positions, or at least not ones with potential for advancement. Without that critical degree, the best jobs are simply out of reach, even for those with loads of other qualifications and even master's degrees in the subject.

This need for a Ph.D. isn't the same across the board. In some fields, like nursing, engineering, or secondary education, a master's degree is more than enough, and most people, even highly qualified professionals, will not have a degree above this. In other fields, however, a Ph.D. is needed to even get in the door. Most of these careers are in highly technical or scientific fields, though even something like economics doesn't become viable career-wise without a Ph.D. (in fact, terminal master's programs in economics aren't especially common).

A good example of a career that requires a Ph.D. is medical science. While non-Ph.D.s can get jobs working as laboratory techs, to create and lead research teams requires a Ph.D., with very few exceptions save for perhaps exceptionally gifted M.D.s, though that is incredibly uncommon. To be a medical scientist, there is no other career path other than to pursue a doctoral degree. Many other fields in the sciences and technical fields have similar requirements, with few jobs available to those who don't hold Ph.D.-level qualifications. Examples include biochemistry, biophysics, astronomy, and physics. In these cases, a Ph.D. isn't just a smart career move, it's the only career move.

The value of a Ph.D. isn't always such an extreme either-or, however. For other career paths, Ph.D.s might not be required to get in the door, but they can be a big asset to making it to management positions or into certain areas of professional practice. For example, in psychology, students can find a wide range of jobs that only require a master's degree, including work as school psychologists, industrial-organizational psychologists, or even as assistants in clinical, counseling or research settings. But without a Ph.D. or a Psy.D., those working in this field cannot work independently as a clinical psychologist or counselor and may find options for research and patient interaction limited. Additional education at the doctoral level can be the key to unlocking access to these types of careers and providing greater career advancement, mobility, and opportunity over the course of a lifetime.

Keep in mind, however, that the value of a Ph.D. isn't the same across the board. Some fields are enjoying stronger growth in the labor market than others, and in those fields jobs both within academia and outside of it will be much easier to find. Two examples include computer science and health, which have both seen a huge growth in the number of jobs for newly minted Ph.D.s.

The Academic Option

While academia isn't the only career path for those getting a Ph.D., it's hard to ignore. There are few fields within academia where those with only a master's degree are considered for professorial positions, though these are usually fields where a master's degree is the highest terminal degree offered (such as in the fine arts). Unlike in many careers outside of academia, Ph.D.s are not just a must-have for those in the sciences and highly technical fields. Their unemployment rate is much lower than the national average: just 1.4%. While problems with adjunct positions, poor pay, and difficultly finding work after getting a Ph.D. do exist, the reality is that those with doctoral degrees are often much better off than those with fewer academic qualifications and there are many practical, positive benefits to taking on the arduous process of earning a degree.