Is PhD Worth It When You Can Do a Lot With Your Life?

Is PhD Worth It. Degree during COVID-19
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Slogging long hours, sometimes even weekends, for 3-8 years to achieve that moment of glory when people can finally refer to you as ”Dr. XYZ” is definitely a satisfying experience. However, those 3-8 years don’t guarantee your success in life. PhD is not a life insurance, just like other educational degrees. If having a degree defined success, Benjamin Bolger with 14 degrees and Michael Nicholson with 30 degrees/credentials would have been popular names on university campuses. But hardly people know them. So, let’s delve into the real question, ”Is PhD Worth It?”

Benjamin Bolger with 14 university degrees
Benjamin Bolger: The man with 14 university degrees, that includes the degrees from the University of Oxford, Harvard University, and the University of Cambridge. (Source: Flikr)

The Pros and Cons of PhDs

When I have a difficult decision to make I like to write a pros and cons list. So let’s start by breaking down the good and bad sides of getting a PhD. Although I’ve tried to stay objective, do take into account that I have completed a PhD and enjoyed my project a lot!

These lists certainly aren’t exhaustive, so be sure to let me know if you can think of any other points to add!

What about an Online PhD?

What about part time PhD?

Countries with Highest Paid PhDs

It would be oversimplification if you just compare the PhD stipends between different countries at face value. Therefore, I will use the Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) model to compare the PhD stipends/PhD salaries between countries and present the countries with the highest paid PhD programs.

Note: Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) is a simple macroeconomic metric to compare the standard of living between countries. It is calculated through a ”basket of goods” approach where you take a ratio of cost of a basket of goods in currency 1 to the same basket of goods in currency 2 (usually USD).

Here is a chart showing the difference between nominal GDP v/s GDP by PPP as a comparison metric.

PhD in Switzerland

ETH Zurich summer internship
ETH Zurich, Switzerland

PhDs in the academic institutions of Switzerland are paid really well and the payment is in sync with the higher cost of living in the country. The PhD salary in Switzerland is paid at a fixed rate which is specified in the table below.

Here is a snapshot of the PhD salary at ETH Zurich in CHF in 2021.

PhD Stipend and PhD Salary in Switzerland ETH Zurich
PhD stipend in CHF in ETH Switzerland (Source: ETH Zurich)

There are 5 fixed rate brackets for PhD stipends in Switzerland. The right bracket/rate depends on your type of contract. The PhD stipend for 100% level of employment or the maximum PhD stipend is specified in Rate 5.

The standard rate is 66.67% or two-third of rate 5. Rates 2, 3 and 4 are considered as 75%, 83.33% and 90% level of employment.

Unlike the PhDs in UK and Ireland, the PhD salary scales higher year on year. However, no further salary hikes are specified from the fourth year and onwards.

You can see that the minimum standard rate PhD salary in Swiss Universities is nearly $45,000/annum and the minimum average PhD salary for 4 years of PhD would be nearly $48,000/annum at the standard rate. The Swiss PhD salary is eligible for income tax.

The tax on PhD stipend in Switzerland is nearly 15% on average, paid towards income tax, pension, and insurance. However, the income tax rate (Tax at Source) varies based on your city/canton of residence. For example, if you live in Zürich, you would pay less tax than someone living in Bern with a similar work contract.

Further, the tax rate can vary based on your marital status and number of children.

Income Tax in Different Cities of Switzerland
Tax rate in different Swiss cities. See the tax rate in Bern is as high as 9.07% while it is less than 5% in Zurich.

To calculate the tax that one would pay in different Swiss cities, see the following link: Swiss Tax calculator by Cities

As an overview, you can say that the average gross monthly PhD stipend in Switzerland is $4000 and the net monthly average stipend is $3400.

PhD in Saudi Arabia

PhD in Singapore

PhD in Netherlands

PhD in Germany

PhD in Denmark

PhD in other European Countries

PhD in India

PhD in US

The Good Parts: Reasons to Do a PhD

Life As A PhD Student

  • You get to work on something really interesting. Very few people outside of academia get to dive so deep into topics they enjoy. Plus, by conducting cutting edge research you’re contributing knowledge to a field.
  • It can be fun! For example: solving challenges, building things, setting up collaborations and going to conferences.
  • Being a PhD student can be a fantastic opportunity for personal growth: from giving presentations and thinking critically through to making the most of being a student such as trying new sports.
  • You are getting paid to be a student: I mean come on, that’s pretty good! Flexible hours, socialising and getting paid to learn can all be perks. Do make sure you consciously make the most of it!

Life As A PhD Graduate

  • The main one: Having a PhD may open doors. For certain fields, such as academia itself, a PhD may be a necesity. Whilst in others having a PhD can help demonstrate expertise or competency, opening doors or helping you to leapfrog to higher positions. Your mileage may vary!
  • You survived a PhD: this accomplishment can be a big confidence booster.
  • You’ve got a doctorate and you can use the title Dr. Certainly not enough justification on it’s own to do a PhD, but for some people it helps!
Read more about the opportunities available as a PhD student here.

The Bad Parts: Potential Reasons Not to Do a PhD

Life As A PhD Student

  • It can be tough to complete a PhD! There are lots of challenges. Unless you’re careful and take good care of yourself it can take a mental and physical toll on your well being.
  • A PhD can be lonely (though doesn’t have to be), and PhD supervisors aren’t always as supportive as you’d like them to be.
  • Additionally, in particular now during the pandemic, you might not be able to get as much support from your supervisor, see your peers or even access the equipment and technical support as easily as in normal times.

Life As A PhD Graduate

  • You might find that having a PhD may not bring the riches you were expecting. Have a certain career you’re looking to pursue? Consider trying to find out whether or not having a PhD actually helps.
  • Getting a job with a PhD can still be tough. Let’s say you want to go for a career where having a PhD is required, even once you’ve got a PhD it might not be easy to find employment. Case in point are academic positions.
  • Even though you’ve put in the work you may want to use your Dr title sparingly, it certain industries a PhD may be seen as pretencious. Also, use your title sparingly to avoid getting mistaken for a medic (unless of course you’re one of them too!)

Does Having a PhD Help Your Career Progression?

Hopefully from the discussion so far about both the good and bad parts of a PhD have helped to start informing you whether a PhD could be worth it or not. If you’re wondering “Should I do a PhD?”, part of your motivation for considering gaining a PhD may be your career prospects. Therefore I want to now dive deeper into whether or not a PhD could help with future employment.

It is difficult to give definitive answers because whether or not a PhD helps will ultimately depend a lot upon what kind of career you’re hoping to have. Anyway, let’s discuss a few specific questions.

Does a PhD Help You Get a Job?

For certain industries having a PhD may either be a requirement or a strong positive.

Some professions may require a PhD such as academia or research in certain industries like pharma. Others will see your qualification as evidence that you’re competent which could give you an edge. Of course if you’re aiming to go into a career using similar skills to your PhD then you’ll stand a better chance of your future employer appreciating the PhD.

In contrast, for other roles your PhD may not be much help in securing a job. Having a PhD may not be valued and instead your time may be better spent getting experience in a job. Even so, a PhD likely won’t have been completely useless.

When I worked at an engineering consultancy the recruitment team suggested that four years of a PhD would be considered comparable to two or three years of experience in industry. In those instances, the employer may actively prefer candidates who spent those years gaining experience on the job but still appreciates the value of a PhD.

Conclusion: Sometimes a PhD will help you get a job, othertimes it wont. Not all employers may appreciate your PhD though few employers will actively mark you down for having a PhD.

Can You Start at a Higher Level and Earn More Money with a PhD?

This question is very much relates to the previous one so my answer will sound slightly similar.

It’ll ultimately depend upon whether or not the industry and company value the skills or knowledge you’ve gained throughout your PhD.

I want to say from the start that none of us PhD-holders should feel entitled and above certain types of position in every profession just for having a PhD. Not all fields will appreciate your PhD and it may offer no advantage. It is better to realise this now.

Some professions will appreciate that with a PhD you’ll have developed a certain detail-orientated mindset, specialised knowledge or skills that are worth paying more for. Even if the position doesn’t really demand a PhD, it is sometimes the case that having someone with a PhD in that position is a useful badge for the company to wave at customers or competitors. Under these circumstances PhD-holders may by default be offered slightly higher starting positions than other new-starters will lower degree qualifications.

To play devil’s advocate, you could be spending those 3-4 (or more) years progressing in the job. Let’s look at a few concrete examples.

PhD Graduate Salaries in Academia

Let’s cut to the chase: currently as a postdoc at a decent university my salary is £33,787, which isn’t great. With a PhD there is potential to possibly climb the academic ladder but it’s certainly not easy. If I were still working in London I’d be earning more, and if I were speficially still working at Imperial in London I’d be earning a lot more. Browse Imperial’s pay scales here. But how much is it possible to earn with a PhD compared to not having one?

For comparison to research staff with and without PhDs:

Research assistants (so a member of staff conducting research but with no PhD) at Imperial earn £36,045 – £39,183 and postdoctoral research associates earn £40,858 – £48,340. Not only do you earn £5000 or more a year higher with a PhD, but without a PhD you simply can’t progress up the ladder to research fellow or tenure track positions.

From Imperial’s payscales published here.

Therefore in academia it pays to have a PhD, not just for the extra cash but for the potential to progress your career.

PhD Graduate Salaries in Industry

For jobs in industry, it is difficult to give a definitive answer since the variety of jobs are so wide ranging.

Certain industries will greatly reward PhD-holders with higher salaries than those without PhDs. Again it ultimately depends on how valuable your skills are. I’ve known PhD holders to do very well going into banking, science consultancy, technology and such forth.

You might not necessarily earn more money with a PhD in industry, but it might open more doors to switch industries or try new things. This doesn’t necessarily mean gaining a higher salary: I have known PhD-holders to go for graduate schemes which are open to grads with bachelors or masters degrees. Perhaps there is an argument that you’re more employable and therefore it encourages you to make more risky career moves which someone with fewer qualifications may make?

You can of course also use your PhD skills to start your own company. Compensation at a start-up varies wildly, especially if you’re a founder so it is hardly worth discussing. One example I can’t resist though is Magic Pony. The company was co-founded by a Imperial PhD graduate who applied expertise from his PhD to another domain. He sold the company two years later to Twitter for $150 million. Yes, including this example is of course taking cherry-picking to the extreme! The point stands though that you can potentially pick up some very lucrative skills during your PhD.

An Imperial PhD grad sold the company he founded to Twitter, for him the PhD was probably worth it! Story here.

Conclusion: Like the previous question, not all industries will reward your PhD. Depending on what you want to go and do afterward your PhD, it isn’t always worth doing a PhD just for career progression.

For professions that don’t specifically value a PhD (which is likely the majority of them!) don’t expect for your PhD to necessarily be your ticket to a higher position in the organisation.

Is a PhD Worth it?

What Is “It”?

When we’re asking the question “is a PhD worth it?” it is a good idea to touch on what “it” actually is. What exactly are PhD students sacrificing in gaining a PhD? Here is my take:

When a PhD Could Be Worth It

1. Passion for a topic and sheer joy of research

The contribution you make to progressing research is valuable in it’s own right. If you enjoy research, can get funding and are passionate about a subject by all means go and do the PhD and I doubt you’ll regret it.

2. Learning skills

If there is something really specific you want to spend three year or more years learning then a PhD can be a great opportunity. They’re also great for building soft skills such as independence, team work, presenting and making decisions.

Do be aware though that PhD projects can and do evolve so you can’t always guarantee your project will pan out as expected.

If there is the option to go into a career without a PhD I’d bet that in a lot of cases you’d learn more, faster, and with better support in industry. The speed of academic research can be painstakingly slow. There are upsides to learning skills in academia though, such as freedom and the low amount of responsibility for things outside your project and of course if you’re interested in something which hasn’t yet reached industry.

3. Helping with your career

See the section further up the page, this only applies for certain jobs. It is rare though that having a PhD would actively look bad on your CV.

When a PhD May Not Be Worth It

1. Just because you can’t find another job

Doing a PhD simply because you can’t find a job isn’t a great reason for starting one. In these circumstances having a PhD likely isn’t worth it.

2. Badge collecting

Tempted by a PhD simply to have a doctorate, or to out-do someone? Not only may you struggle with motivation but you likely won’t find the experience particularly satisfying. Sure, it can be the icing on the cake but I reckon you could lose interest pretty quickly if it is your only motivation for gaining a PhD.

Do I Feel That My Own PhD Was Worth It?

When I finished my undergrad I’d been tempted by a PhD but I wasn’t exactly sure about it. Largely I was worried about picking the wrong topic.

I spent a bit of time apprehensively applying, never being sure how I’d find the experience. Now that I’ve finished it I’m very pleased to have got my PhD!

Here are my main reasons:

  • I enjoyed the research and felt relatively well fulfilled with the outcomes
  • Having the opportunity to learn lots of some new things was great, and felt like time well spent
  • I made new friends and generally enjoyed my time at the university
  • Since I’d been interested in research and doing a PhD for so long, I feel like if I’d not done it I’d be left wondering about it and potentially end up regretting it.

In Summary, Is a PhD Worth It?

I’ve interviewed many PhD students and graduates and asked each one of them whether the PhD was worth it. The resounding answer is yes! Now of course there is some selection bias but even an interviewee who had dropped out of their PhD said that the experience had been valueable.

PhD Profiles
Read the PhD Profiles section for lots of thoughts on what these PhD students and graduates (and more) think about if a PhD is worth it.

If you’ve got this far in the post and are still a little on the fence about whether or not a PhD is worth it, my advice is to look at the bigger picture. In comparison to your lifetime as a whole, a PhD doesn’t really take long:

From my post: How Long Does it Take to Get a PhD?

People graduating now likely won’t retire until they’re in their 70s: what is 3-4 years out of a half century long career?

So Should I Do a PhD?

Whether a PhD is worth all the time and energy ultimately comes down to why you’re doing one in the first place.

There are many great reasons for wanting to do a PhD, from the sheer enjoyment of a subject through to wanting to open up new career opportunities.

Nevertheless, it is worth pointing out that practically every PhD student encounters difficult periods. Unsurprisingly, completing a PhD can be challenging and mentally draining. You’ll want to ensure you’re able to remind yourself of all the reasons why it is worth it to provide motivation to continue.

If you’re interested, here were my own reasons for wanting a PhD.

Saying that, if you’re interested in doing a PhD I think you should at least apply. I can’t think of any circumstances where having a PhD would be a hindrance.

It can take a while to find the right project (with funding) so I suggest submitting some applications and see how they go. If you get interesting job offers in the meantime you don’t need to commit to the PhD. Even if you start the PhD and find you don’t enjoy it, there is no shame in leaving and you can often still walk away with a master’s degree.

My advice is that if you’re at all tempted by a PhD: go for it!

I hope this post helped you to understand if a PhD is worth it for you personally. If it is then best of luck with your application!

About Post Author


I started this blog for my love of writing and disseminating my views on things that excited me. I don't have a clear direction with this blog. However, you can find content mostly related to higher education, career development, MedTech, finance, and budget travel hacks. Background: After graduating in Mechanical Engineering from IIT (BHU) Varanasi, India, I pursued a dual degree Master's program in Europe (MS in Biomedical Engineering at RWTH Aachen, Germany and MS in Bioengineering at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland). I am currently working as a 'Manufacturing Engineer' in a MedTech company in Ireland.
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