Why Would You Want to Do a PhD?

Student perspectives on the value of a graduate degree
MAY 2018

If you are reading this blog post, there is a good chance that you are thinking about a PhD, possibly at MIT. But MIT or not, almost every doctoral program would ask you why you are interested in their program and how it fits into your career goal. A typical answer would be:

I am interested in your PhD program because I want to do research in my area. My career goal is to become a professor at a university or research institute.

Indeed, doctoral degrees are by default the training programs for academics. You would presumably spend five years or so learning how to become a capable researcher in your academic field before applying for postdocs and eventually assistant professorships.

Things may not be so simple. The latest Doctoral Exit Survey by the MIT Career Services reveals that close to 50% of the PhD graduates in 2017 do not work in research institutes or universities immediately after graduation. Instead, they work across private and public sectors.

The “mismatch” between the program’s design to train academics and the non-academic careers pursued by many PhD graduates calls for us to revisit to the question: why on earth would you want to do a PhD? To that end, I interviewed a group of prospective, current, and graduated PhDs. The following themes popped up

Intellectual Curiosity
If you are doing a PhD, you probably enjoy the subject of your program so much that you are willing to spend five or six years on it. Indeed, intellectual curiosity is common to most PhD students that I spoke with. Often it comes with little consideration to specific career choices. On this topic, Dr. F. shared his thoughts

“When I was considering my options after undergrad, the idea of getting an advanced degree and learning a topic at a deep level is very attractive to me,” said Dr. F., who got his PhD in atomic physics at MIT.

However, I asked if he had any postgraduate careers in mind when starting his PhD.

“I did not have a clear plan for what I wanted to do after graduation,” Dr. F. admitted, “But I did think that the jobs that I could pursue with an advanced degree were much more interesting than the ones with only a bachelor’s.”

After having worked at the MIT Lincoln Labs for a decade, Dr. F is now a CEO and founder of a company.

“I feel that with my PhD degree, I’ve got not only the technical tools but also enough confidence to analyze and solve the problems and deal with the unknown in my daily job.”

Non-Academic Careers
It is a myth that a PhD degree only prepares you to succeed in academia. Since a doctoral program helps you develop a field specialty, it is not hard to imagine people who use their PhD training to sharpen their skills in order to work in industry. Abbas Shikari is no exception. A master’s student in mechanical engineering at MIT, he plans to extend his current program to a PhD. During our interview, he said it loud and clear,

“I would like to be a software architect for autonomous vehicles, and a PhD would help me achieve the depth of knowledge necessary to becoming a strong contributor to the field of robotics and self-driving cars.”

Formerly a supply chain manager at Fitbit, Abbas nonetheless grew unhappy with the business path that the position put him on.

“My daily job involved lots of email exchanges and small managerial tasks, and I found them quite boring,” said Abbas, “after speaking with the Fitbit engineers, I found robotics to be very interesting and technically challenging.”

“Robotics and autonomous vehicles are about to get into every aspect of our lives. I want to ride the next wave of the robotics, maturing the industry and making it more accessible to everyone. To do that I need acquire sufficient technical skills, and a PhD is my best bet.”

Feeling like the Only Choice
Sometimes, pursuing a PhD can seem to be the only available choice after undergrad.

Clubs is a current PhD student at Harvard Medical School. Already featured in my previous article, she happily accepted my second interview, this time on why she pursued PhD.

“Graduate school was kind of a choice by default for me,” said Clubs, “I did not really explore different career options in undergrad. So close to graduation, I didn’t know what kind of jobs were out there for me.”

“I also didn’t feel the urge to join the workforce after my bachelor’s study, maybe because I was young and naïve,” said Clubs jokingly. “At the same time, all of my friends were studying for the GRE and applying for US graduate school. So I just followed suit. Later I got into Harvard, which was the best outcome I could have hoped for.”  

During her time at Harvard, Clubs actively tried out different careers, including venture capital, biotech, and management consulting. Currently, she is interning in Shanghai at the Boston Consulting Group, one of the world’s premium consultancy firms.

“The flexibility of my PhD program leaves me lots of room for other stuff, and I did take the luxury of time to figure out exactly what I want to do with my life.”

So why do you want to pursue a PhD?
I should note that I am not issuing personal judgments on anything or anyone above. After all, everyone has his or her own personal reason to pursue a doctoral degree as well as a unique expectation out of the program experience. What I’d like to mention is: it is one thing to convince the admission committees that you are a good PhD candidate, but it’s another to convince yourself that starting a doctoral program represents your best professional, intellectual, and personal interest.

So why do you want to pursue a PhD?