PhD Programs: Are They Worth It?

by Elizabeth on January 27, 2012 · 10 comments

Elizabeth joins the Broke Professionals staff writer family. Please give her a warm welcome.¬†Elizabeth quit her full-time job as a TV news producer to work from home as a freelance writer and digital media research consultant. In addition to Broke Professionals, she writes for several other finance, parenting and technology websites including Smart Money Focus (, Parent Society ( and Chron’s small business site (

It’s always been my goal to earn my doctorate degree. After earning my bachelor’s degree from Duke University and my master’s from Syracuse, getting a doctorate degree in history (my undergraduate major) or communications (my focus in grad school) seemed like a natural fit. But here I am, seven years removed from my grad school days, and I’ve yet to even apply to any of the PhD programs that abound online and on physical university campuses. So why not?

What it takes to complete a PhD Program?

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, a division of the U.S. Department of Education, it takes the average student five years to complete a PhD program. Earning any graduate-level degree requires concentration and dedication and, for many students, it also requires you to leave your full-time job. That means you could be looking at up to five years without a full-time paycheck. If that weren’t enough, factor in the average cost of earning your doctorate degree: in 2008, roughly $48,000 a year at public schools and more than $60,000 at private institutions. In case you’re not a math major, I’ll do the calculations for you: that’s potentially a quarter-million dollars out of pocket to earn a degree that, unless you plan on pursuing a tenure-track position at the college level or working in research, you may not even need.

Of course, there’s help along the way. An estimated 93 percent of graduate and doctoral students receive some type of financial aid. However, most of that aid, according to the Princeton Review, comes in the form of teaching assistant positions. These positions give you all of the workload – without all of the benefits – of a professor. You’ll be in charge of teaching lower-level courses in your field. Factor these duties in to your course load – an average of three classes per semester for a first year PhD candidate – and you can see how a PhD program can take over your life.

And take over your life it does; I have a friend who has spent the last seven years of his life getting his doctorate degree in environmental engineering. His goal is to improve the construction and implementation of natural-material dams in the Great Lakes. After his first three years of mainly classroom work, this friend started working on the granddaddy of them all: no, not the Rose Bowl, his dissertation. Think of it as the mother of all research papers. It involves not just reviewing and digesting previously accepted scientific research, but conducting research of your own in many cases. The process of crafting a dissertation typically takes several years, depending on the breadth of your research and your field.

My friend, under the guidance of his sponsors, spent four years working on his dissertation. He presented it to faculty at his Midwestern university in December… and was told to go back to the drawing board. The faculty rejected his dissertation, urging him to make major revisions that he estimates will take the greater part of a year to execute. He’s now going into his eighth year without a full-time paycheck.

Sure, when he graduates – if he graduates – he’ll become among the one percent of Americans who can call themselves “doctors” without ever going to medical school. But is it worth it?

PhD Programs: Are They Worth It?

For me, the answer has been – and continues to be – no. While my ego longs to see the letters “Dr” on my Christmas cards, I know that essentially leaving the workforce for the next half decade, at the very least, isn’t financially feasible for my family. As a broke professional, I’m still paying off my debt on the student loans I took out to pay for my undergrad and master’s degrees. Maybe once I’ve paid off those, I’ll consider enrolling in a PhD program.



{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Penny January 27, 2012 at 6:07 pm

In my experience, which is entirely based in more technical fields than yours (math, hard science, and engineering), you really shouldn’t have to pay tuition for grad school. You can typically get a tuition waiver and living stipend in exchange for working as a graduate assistant or research assistant. They don’t pay a lot, particularly compared to a real job, but it at least keeps you from going into debt. I am fully willing to believe that that isn’t the case for liberal arts fields, simply because there isn’t as much research funding.

I would certainly be hesitant to go for a Ph.D, and that’s not just because I’m sick of school as I approach the end of my masters. Unless you have a very specific career path in mind that you’re certain requires a Ph.D, you run the risk of finding yourself overqualified for the jobs you really want.


2 Practical Parsimony January 28, 2012 at 12:39 pm

I won’t be dissuaded. I still want a PhD. I talked to a school last year that indicated that there was plenty of help for the program.


3 World of Finance January 28, 2012 at 3:00 pm

Great article. You are correct about these programs taking over your life. My boyfriend is currently enrolled in one and I see firsthand how demanding it is.


4 Melissa@Fiscal Phoenix January 30, 2012 at 8:06 am

Your points are well-taken. My husband just finished a combined M.A./Ph.D. program and it took 10 years! (He did take one year off when our first child was born.) We also have debt; while he got an assistantship, the stipened was too small for him to live off as a single person in our urban area, let alone a married guy with three kids. I know the degree will pay off when he gets a job (he is doing a post-doc now), but I am a bit sad about all those years of earning power gone.


5 MoneyforCollegePro January 30, 2012 at 8:49 am

I am currently working towards my M.Ed. with the goal of one day pursuing a PhD. In my profession it does make since to reach the terminal education level. However, I certainly would not do it if I had any doubts about whether or not it would pay back.


6 Van Beek @ Stock Trend Investing January 30, 2012 at 8:52 am

Welcome Elizabeth. The question to answer is “Is it worth it?”. It is a personal question for each individual that can only be answered individually. To answer it, I think, the first question to ask is “Why do I want a PhD and how important is that to me?”. When you answer that question for yourself truthfully, it will be not that difficult, I think, to come to a conclusion if it is worth it to you.


7 Elizabeth February 3, 2012 at 9:22 pm

Van, I think you hit the nail on the head – my motivations, I must admit, are largely what lead me to question whether an advanced degree is worth it. The simple answer is, I love the academic environment and consider myself a lifelong learner. I think those who are motivated by career advancement have a much clearer answer than someone like myself who simply loves being a student.


8 Elizabeth January 30, 2012 at 3:01 pm

Thank you for all the feedback! I agree, the PhD is definitely worth it in certain career fields – unfortunately, my industry (communications) is not one of them. When I worked full-time in TV news, I was the only person in my entire building that had a master’s degree – and that included the station manager! In fact, most of the journalists with whom I worked – particularly the veterans who had been there 20 years or more – didn’t even have their undergraduate degrees.


9 Bob June 27, 2012 at 11:10 am

It seems like a massive failure of your friends supervisors if he got to the point of defending his dissertation and was told to “go back to the drawing board,” you are not supposed to get to that point without confidence in the work.


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