Should I Complete a PhD?

GraduationRecently, someone who I worked with briefly some years ago contacted me through LinkedIn and asked me what I thought about her tentative plans to return to school to complete a Ph.D. in Psychology (most likely she’d study an applied area like Industrial/Organizational [I/O] Psychology).

She’s been teaching abroad for 3 – 4 years and really loves the academic lifestyle. She knows that she’d enjoy teaching in North America but she also knows that in North America, she’d need to have a Ph.D. and plenty of publications in order to have a reasonable chance at obtaining an academic position. She admits that she’s less enthusiastic about doing academic research. This means that even if she could complete the academic research that would be required to complete her doctorate, she might not be able to sustain that effort and motivation to generate multiple publications that would help her land her dream job. Then, even if she could do what was required to land the job, it might be even harder to keep up with the ongoing demands of having enough publications that would help her get tenured while also continuing to teach full time.

So, from an effort and interest perspective, it seems that the doctorate is not a great fit. The other aspect that’s worth considering, is the job market for professors. In some fields, there are more openings than others. This might be due to local demographic features. For instance, if some fields were very popular and experienced significant growth about 30 years ago, there’s a chance that there are enough retiring professors that there are opportunities for new faculty members. A faculty member in an I/O Psychology program told me that he’s noticed more hiring in this area over the past year or so. Generally speaking, however, the story that I’ve been hearing from most academics is that when faculty retires, the university prefers to hire sessional or contract instructors instead of tenure-track, full-time faculty.

So what’s the takeaway message? If you’re considering completing a Ph.D. degree because you think you’ll enjoy teaching but you’re not genuinely interested in producing research, it’s worth thinking about other ways that you can teach without being required to publish research (e.g., community colleges). If there are other careers where having a Ph.D. will be an advantage, then those might also be worth exploring. With that said, it’s important to do your homework. If your job prospects and probable income are similar whether you have an MA or a Ph.D., then the time and cost associated with the doctorate (both direct and opportunity costs) might be too high. Also, there are many employers who may consider you overqualified if you have a Ph.D. so you’ll need to do your homework to explain how your different credentials will be beneficial. In the end, it’s a personal choice. If you’re curious, I don’t regret earning my doctorate, but when I graduated, the economy was different than how it is now.

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