The Value of a Ph.D. in Your Career Field

Choosing to pursue a doctorate is a decision that can't be taken lightly. Not only does earning one require a significant, and obvious, investment of time and energy, but the true value of the degree may not be realized for years to come. In order to avoid any unwelcome surprises as a doctoral candidate, it is important every student understand the implications of earning a doctorate before applying.

This guide will provide you with the resources you need to decide whether or not the value of a Ph.D. holds up in your chosen field.

When is a Ph.D. Required?

While a Ph.D. is not necessarily required to in any field, there are several specific positions which require a doctorate. Remember that many fields offer degrees that are equivalent to a Ph.D., such as the medical field, which requires practicing physicians earn a professional doctorate (M.D., or Doctor of Medicine) in the United States. Medical Doctors can also earn a Ph.D. in Medicine, but this usually indicates their career focus will be on medical research and instruction.

At most colleges and universities throughout the country, professors are required to hold doctorates in the field they instruct. By holding a doctorate, professors are able to prove to university administration and the student body that they are capable of providing high-level instruction in their field of expertise. Also, the time spent earning their doctorate gives them the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the ins-and-outs of academic life (and politics) before taking on the role.

There are also several roles in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) that require, or strongly encourage, candidates to hold specialized doctorates. Similar to academia, STEM roles that are mostly research-based tend to require hired specialists to hold a doctorate. Examples of this can be found in Astronomy and Astrophysics. The same is also true for chief scientists, who are required to lead and manage large scale research and development projects for businesses in the private sector, or even the government.

In the world of business, a master’s degree (ex. Master’s in Business Administration or MBA) is usually all that’s required to enter the highest professional levels. There are several business-related roles, however, that require or at least suggest candidates hold a doctorate. Business economists, for example, are often required to conduct intricate numbers-based research and advise a business to take action based upon this research. The depth of knowledge and expertise offered by a Ph.D.-level economist or statistician is indispensable to the companies that hire these candidates.

Careers with Major Salary Increases for Ph.D.s

While most people tend to believe there is a proportional relationship between the level of one’s education and the salary they deserve, it doesn't always work that way. Often, graduate students pursue their doctorates before carefully determining whether or not earning one was really the right for them. But there are, of course, several career paths where holding a Ph.D. can significantly boost your earning power in today’s job market.

According to an informative guidebook published by Georgetown University, doctoral degrees still lag somewhat behind professional degrees when it comes to median lifetime earnings. This is particularly the case in health-related professions. The fields where doctorate recipients beat out other degree holders in terms of lifetime earnings are STEM, education and community service and the arts. Interestingly, Ph.D. holders also tend to receive larger lifetime earnings in managerial and professional occupations.

On average, a doctoral degree holder will make $3.3 million over their lifetime. This figure is roughly $600,000 more than the lifetime earnings for master’s degree holders. Achieving the most lifetime earnings with a Ph.D. often limits occupational choices to highly lucrative fields, such as business and healthcare. On the other hand, occupations with the lowest earnings potential for Ph.D. holders are administrative assistants, salespersons, clergy, counselors and retail supervisors.

Career Paths That Don't Require a Ph.D.

Before deciding to pursue a Ph.D., it's important to confirm whether or not your chosen career path actually requires one. In the guides linked to above, several of the occupations offer lackluster salaries for doctorate recipients rarely require job candidates to hold a degree much higher than a bachelor’s or high school diploma.

The humanities is a broad field where holding a doctorate may not make much sense, unless it is your goal to teach at a university. Even then, the supply of current doctorate holders in the humanities largely outweighs the demand for humanities professors in academia. This unfortunate realization has led many Ph.D. recipients in the humanities to settle for low-paying postdoctoral positions, or worse, beginning a low-paying entry level career in a completely different field or line of business.

There are several other fields where committing the time and expense to pursuing a Ph.D. may not make much sense. According to this article hosted by Yahoo! Education, accountants, computer programmers, art directors, registered nurses and personal financial advisors are high paying occupations that do not require a doctorate, or even a graduate degree. Anyone who aspires to take on any one of these occupations should realize that earning a Ph.D. will most likely not improve their competitive standing.

Career Paths with Insignificant Salary Increases for Individuals with a Ph.D.

If earning a sizable salary is a major motivating factor behind your decision to earn a doctorate, there are certain career paths that may present no benefit at all in terms of pay. This could end up being a rude awakening for many who have chosen to pursue a Ph.D. in the Fine Arts, only to find out too late they are left with only a few career options with less-than desirable salaries. Even those doctorate holders who have their heart set on becoming a tenured professor at a university (should they be so lucky) may scoff at the salaries currently offered.

The looming spectres of funding and budget cuts continue to haunt academic institutions throughout the United States. As a result, pay increases for professors and other full-time faculty have been rising at a snail’s pace, if at all. According to The Chronicle of Education, the average salary increase for full-time faculty members over 2009-2010 was an abysmal 1.2 percent. This represented the lowest year-to-year increase recorded by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) in 50 years.

In addition to their inability to provide substantial pay increases, many academic institutions have decided to cut faculty pay across the board, as well as other benefits, such as retirement contributions. The article linked to above by The Chronicle of Education shows an astounding 32 percent of all academic institutions surveyed by the AAUP ended up, on average, decreasing the pay of all faculty members. Moreover, about 14 percent of the academic institutions surveyed needed to reduce their contributions to employee retirement funds in order to comply with crippling austerity measures.

The Value of a Ph.D. is What You Make of It

In the end, earning a Ph.D. represents the pinnacle of academic achievement in many fields. Accomplishing this is something to be proud of and could also end up improving the quality of your career. That said, it is important to do your homework before deciding to pursue a doctorate, especially if earning the highest salary after graduation is a major career goal.

In all cases, earning the most money should never trump the dedication one has for their field as a Ph.D. candidate. Before you start seriously preparing to pursue a doctorate, be sure to ask yourself this question: If I never find the perfect job or even earn the highest salary with my doctoral degree, will I regret the time and resources I spent toward earning it? If the answer is no, then earning a Ph.D. may be a great decision for you in the long run.