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To Ph.D. or Not to Ph.D.

The answer requires more questions.

Key points

  • Many students in psychology-related disciplines wonder if they should get a Ph.D. or stop at a master's degree.
  • Considerations include one’s interests, if one’s mind might change, and how much practical support one has.
  • The majority of Ph.D.’s, even beyond psychology-related fields, will end up teaching and researching.
Photo by Leon Wu on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Leon Wu on Unsplash

Every semester, students ask me if they should aim for a Ph.D. or a master’s degree. “How do you feel about research?” I ask them. Because even if you don’t use your Ph.D. for research, you will spend many years researching a Ph.D. program.

It takes a long time to get a Ph.D., 4-7 years in psychology and related disciplines. Well, I work with some evil geniuses who got theirs in 3 years, but that’s not typical. My Ph.D. program, like many, restricts students to a maximum of 7 years. So, this isn’t an easy decision if you’re on the fence about it.

Students often wonder if they should invest the time and effort to get a Ph.D. or aim for a master’s so they can get out into the working world sooner. For those struggling with the decision, for those who don’t know without a doubt that they are meant for Ph.D. life, here are a few key questions to ask yourself:

What do you want to do?

Photo by UX Indonesia on Unsplash
Source: Photo by UX Indonesia on Unsplash

Sure, not everyone who gets a Ph.D. in psychology or related disciplines will end up in academia, but many people will. Of course, someone with a Ph.D. in I/O psychology, for example, may end up working for or consulting with businesses, or someone with a Ph.D. in social work might become a DEI consultant for nonprofits. Still, the majority of Ph.D.’s, even beyond psychology-related fields, will end up teaching and researching. That’s essentially the focus of a Ph.D.

I specifically focused on master’s degrees because I wanted applied degrees. In other words, I wanted to get out there and “do the work.” I was interested in academia and research, but I was committed to public service.

Fast forward 20 years, and here I am in a Ph.D. program while I continue to teach psychology and public administration. However, I always felt like I wasn’t done. Thus, we come upon the next point: You might change your mind.

Might you change your mind?

Photo by Tachina Lee on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Tachina Lee on Unsplash

I worked for a good 20 years in both public service and teaching before that, “but you’re not done” voice in my head got too loud. So here’s the thing: If there’s any chance you might change your mind and decide to get your Ph.D. later in life, like me, prepare for it.

I’m incredibly thankful that I had opportunities to conduct research and publish in some of my workplaces, like universities, and my teaching experience certainly didn’t hurt. If it wasn’t for that, to have some publications and a lot of presentations, I’m not sure I would have been accepted to Ph.D. programs.

Ph.D. programs are going to ask why you want to get your Ph.D. So if you’re not an undergraduate or recent graduate who has established yourself as a (future) researcher, then you need to keep some connection to academia. Try to adjunct teach, keep connections to past professors, and do some research and research if you can. If there’s any chance, you might decide not to get a Ph.D. now but may want to in the future, set yourself up for success now.

Do you have support?

Sure, we all need social support, and psychology has pretty confidently figured that out. What I’m concerned with, however, is more practical: financial support. Can you afford to get your Ph.D.?

Photo by Michael Longmire on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Michael Longmire on Unsplash

I’m grateful to the colleagues and mentors who told me never to become a Ph.D. student in a program that makes me pay tuition…and to get into a program that will pay me to be part of their scientific community. I know that won’t be possible for everyone, but the fact is, going to school for 4-7 years post master’s degree(s) quite often means giving up income, even if you do have tuition remission and a stipend.

Many Ph.D. programs across disciplines do not want. Some do not allow their students to work outside of the program. Some offer paid to research and/or teaching assistantships. Still, I would venture to guess that no Ph.D. compensation comes close to the salaries many of us need to survive (we’ll lament the low-paying nature of this work another time). Therefore, it’s essential to figure out how you will live as a Ph.D. student.

Especially if you’re going back to school after decades of working, like me, it can be a daunting prospect to give up income. I’ll never forget, in orientation for prospective students in my Ph.D. program, the response a Ph.D. student gave to an applicant who asked, “I mean…how do you all live on your stipends???” The Ph.D. student’s response resonated to my core: “Well, I was a social worker before this, so the stipend’s not much different than what I used to make.” And that stipend is generous for a Ph.D. program but low for a salary, trust me.

Unfortunately, many of us don’t make enough in psychology and psychology-related professions to pay rent, let alone save. Still, if you can, I strongly suggest you do so now, with an eye towards a reduced income if you decide later that a Ph.D. is your next move. Yes, I know that the idea of saving made many of you, who are living paycheck to paycheck, laugh out loud, but one can always have goals (again, we can lament the low-paying nature of this work later).

Photo by Xan Griffin on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Xan Griffin on Unsplash

The Sigh of Relief

There are many more considerations, but this is a good place to start. And, you might find that as you continue through your studies, the answers to these questions become clearer and clearer. You might feel in turmoil now, but trust me, that sign of relief is on its way.