25 Fundamental Facts Students Should Know About PhD Programs

by Linda on November 14, 2011

Why are you thinking about obtaining a PhD degree? How will you fund this goal? How will you make it through your PhD program? What will you do when you graduate? All these questions have been answered from different perspectives below. The following list contains pros and cons to obtaining a doctoral degree, and a few answers to the questions listed above are satirical or downright bitter. It seems certain — that if you want to pursue this highest form of education, then you must love what you’re doing and consider your doctorate a piece of your life’s work.

Why Get a PhD?

Biomedical Lab

  1. Degree of Difficulty: A Doctor of Philosophy degree, abbreviated PhD, is the highest academic degree anyone can earn. Because earning a PhD requires extended study and intense intellectual effort, less than one percent of the population attains the degree.
  2. But, No Requirement for Geniuses: It is not possible that all PhD graduates are ‘geniuses.’ In completing a PhD, you follow a fairly systematic procedure applied to many different people and the quality of PhDs varies across the board.
  3. What’s It Mean? The term “philosophy” in Doctor of Philosophy does not refer solely to the modern field of philosophy, but is used in a broader sense in accordance with its original Greek meaning, which is “love of wisdom.”
  4. PhD Needs to Change: “Most PhD programs emphasize the in-depth study, emphasize the exhaustive study of a highly-focused topic in a tightly-defined field. This needs to change. Most of the great leaps in technology have involved the integration of several disciplines. The future will be no different.” [Mark Wilkinson (BS & MS, Utah State)]
  5. Avoiding the “Real World” (satire): Heading out into the real world can be delayed for up to five more years if you start a PhD now, and if you do well, you may be able to delay it indefinitely [PDF] by becoming an academic.

The Financial Aspect

  1. How Much is it Worth? According to “Sustaining Scholarship in Business Schools,” a 2003 report of the Doctoral Faculty Commission to AACSB International’s Board of Directors, the average U.S. academic year (nine-month) salary for new doctorates in 2001 was $85,900.
  2. Even Worth More…Full-time doctoral students often don’t pay any tuition and are further supported by stipends and assistantships that in some cases equal or exceed what a baccalaureate holder can earn. It is difficult to get a free ride through medical or law school, but “PhD students can be paid to earn their degrees.”
  3. Again, the cost: The costs of obtaining the PhD degree in almost all, if not all, cases is borne in large part by federal and state governments.
  4. Get a European PhD Degree? By and large U.S. PhDs are worth less than European ones and are easier to get. In Europe, PhDs from older universities are worth more than those from newer ones (this is also true to a lesser degree elsewhere), except in technical fields.
  5. Swamp Marsh

  6. Living Frugally: Getting a doctorate is intellectually rewarding. Unfortunately, it doesn’t tend to be financially rewarding, at least not in the short term.

How to Make It Through

  1. Look at the PhD as a Job: If students get through their PhD programs, it’s because they’re thorough and they’re careful and they’re professional and treat it as it should be treated — as a job of work rather than a calling or an exploration.
  2. It’s Not About Money, Fame or Power: You should go after a PhD 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.
  3. It’s Not About the Folks: It must be your own ambition that drives you, not the ambition of anyone else.
  4. Research is the Goal: After graduating with a PhD, you should have the inclination and ability to research anything, whether it be mortgages, biology, cooking or Toyota engines, and with that comes the expectation that you will understand your research.
  5. Rebel with a Cause: You should naturally find yourself questioning things. That doesn’t mean being a rebel just for the sake of it. It just means being constructively critical.
  6. Rockin’ Your World: Your PhD work does not mean that you may create an enormous breakthrough, which has your subject rocking on its foundations. Research students who think that it does (even if only subconsciously or in a half-formed way) will find the process pretty debilitating.

What to Do with that PhD?

  1. To Teach or Not to Teach: Contrary to university administrators and department chairs’ assumptions that all students aspire to a faculty career, overall only about one-half, or 50 percent, of the survey respondents in one report aspired to faculty positions [PDF] after earning their PhD degrees. Despite the fact that only half of the PhD students sought faculty positions, they experienced apprehension in articulating their actual career goals.
  2. Perhaps Not a Job Guarantee: Paradoxically, spending 6-10 years to obtain a Ph.D. degree, it may be the worst thing that an individual could do if he or she wants to obtain gainful employment in the life sciences industry.
  3. Overqualified? Some employers actively discriminate against Ph.D. graduates, deeming them “over-qualified.”
  4. Doctoral Student

  5. Other Possibilities: While teaching and research are obvious choices for graduates with a PhD degree, many graduates also go on to careers in government departments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), or in the private sector.
  6. You May Not Need a PhD: Not all high level jobs in every career have a requirement for a PhD degree; however, some fields like psychology require that you have one in order to go into private practice.


  1. Online PhD Requires Discipline, Too: When you enter an online PhD program, you are taking on the responsibility of doing your coursework at your own pace, and that takes discipline. You won’t have a daily classroom instruction to remind you of what is due or what you should be working on.
  2. Get the Right Advisors: Tenured professors tend to have access to more grant money, equipment and connections, while non-tenured professors tend to be more personally available. You can compensate for the disadvantages of one kind of professor by choosing both tenured and non-tenured professors for your advisory committee, provided they are all versed in your field of research.
  3. Quitting: Of the 46,000 who earned a PhD in 2003, an equal number (or more) got to ABD (All But Dissertation) status and quit. Probably more than half of the others quit before they got to ABD status.
  4. Preparing for Life: The sense of disappointment in the process of being named a PhD is training for everything else that comes afterward…rewards are not instantaneous in the work required for a PhD, and rewards are few and far between in life as well.

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