Should you get a PhD? 5 ways to know.

PhD admissions strategy

Perspectives on whether people should pursue a PhD run the gamut from cautiously positive to incredibly negative. From the changing financial prerogatives shaping higher education to the casualization of labor and the dismantling of entire humanistic fields, academic hopefuls must navigate an increasingly complicated landscape. Particularly for those interested in doctoral study in the humanities and humanistic social sciences, the decision to commit to such a course of study in this landscape is significant—but for some people, it can still be a great choice.

Here are 5 critical questions to consider when weighing whether doctoral study may be a wise and meaningful next career step at this stage of your life.

Have you given yourself time to explore many career possibilities?

Though some academics recommend that their undergraduate students go straight from college into a PhD program, many of my peers and I have found there to be immense value in pursuing other types of work prior to embarking upon doctoral study. The experience of holding other jobs brings some people to the conclusion that they are better suited to one of those non-academic environments, while others find their attraction to academic work heightened. It may be difficult to know which of these groups you fall into without experiencing the variable cultures, work rhythms, modes of intellectual stimulation, and compensation offered in various professional settings. Regardless of which camp you ultimately fall into, taking this break from academics to gain a more robust understanding of the world of work and how you fit into it can help you to make a solid decision about any future studies—and stay the course once you’ve begun.

Is your career vision clearly defined? does That vision require a PhD?

Though this one might seem obvious, it’s not always the case that people begin doctoral study with the intent of securing (or crafting) a role that requires a PhD. This one is important because having a clear sense of inner motivation and purpose propelling you toward the finish line can make the difference between students who are able to complete their degrees in the face of immense challenges and those who do not. Take some time to dive deep into your career vision and consider whether there are other routes to your desired destination that demand fewer sacrifices. Learn to sniff out weak motivations, like the desire for prestige, a sense of obligation, or not knowing what else to do with yourself as red flags and allow more time for your authentic career aspirations to take shape. Though the realities of academic hiring increasingly demand creativity and flexibility in defining one’s career aspirations, it is crucial to know why you are pursuing this degree, how you will use it to contribute to the world, and why it deeply matters to you.

Are your health and self-care routines dialed in?

The challenge of maintaining one’s well-being in the face of the considerable stressors and uncertainty implicit in doctoral study makes cultivating a bulletproof self-care regimen essential. From food and supplements, to exercise and mindfulness practices, having a solid routine in place before arriving to campus can mean the difference between hitting the ground running and, alternatively, crashing and burning on impact. It should also be said that there’s no shame in delaying graduate study to stabilize a difficult health situation, particularly in light of the limited medical coverage available to so many doctoral students. Experiment with what you can do to strengthen your personal foundation for health and general thriving before you set foot on campus.

Do you have a strong support network?

Doctoral study can be incredibly isolating, so having a supportive network around you—including friends, family, and mentors—is crucial to weathering the storms that lie ahead. This is especially crucial for first-generation college and graduate students whose families may not relate to the unique cultures, demands, and values of the academy. Take advantage of opportunities to assemble your team of supporters, confidantes, and role models—ideally including people outside of your program—before you even arrive on campus. This way, when things get tough, you’ll already have a team of supporters in your corner.

Do you have a financial plan?

Many doctoral students’ stipends do not cover the cost of living in their geographic areas while others—including many funding packages described as “full funding”—only meet that bare minimum. It’s also important to understand that investing 5+ years of your time in doctoral study entails significant opportunity costs, including lost earnings and potential retirement savings during peak earning years. Due to the nature of compound interest, taking time out of the workforce for this long and at this time in your life is a major financial decision that may or may not be worth it depending on your goals, needs, priorities, and expectations.

If you decide it is worth it to you to pursue a PhD and you don’t have extensive resources at your disposal, you must be prepared to think expansively—even entrepreneurially—about how you can meet your needs financially for the many years you will be a student. Though possibilities abound, potential approaches include starting a side hustle, exploring campus jobs, and even learning about the financial independence movement and investing what you earn in low-cost index funds. It’s okay to ask for help if these ideas are new to you or tough to navigate, but having a clear financial game plan before you begin your studies will help to ameliorate one of the greatest stressors that doctoral students face and allow you to focus on the scholarly goals that brought you to graduate school.

Conclusion

Even if you determine that right now is not an ideal time for you to embark upon doctoral study, that doesn’t mean that it won’t ever be a good time. Trust and embrace your personal timeline, and be willing to think expansively about the many ways you can meet your needs for intellectual stimulation, connection, meaning, social contribution, health, well-being, and financial stability. 

Kaitlin completed her undergraduate studies at Swarthmore College, where she majored in Sociology and Anthropology. She later completed a MSW at Smith College and is now pursuing a PhD at Harvard in the History of Science, with an emphasis on the history and philosophy of psychology, critical theory, and African American Studies.

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