Who needs more school, anyway?
It’s the rare student who completes a postgraduate (doctoral) degree; by this time, you’ve most likely spent four years on an undergraduate degree and two years on a master’s degree. Why keep going? Someone with a PhD is likely to make less over his lifetime than someone with a master’s, just because of the additional four years out of the workforce (and associated student loans). Having the terminal degree can even make it harder to find a job, as employers who would hire someone with a lower degree will assume you’ll leave when something better comes along. Not only that, but there’s no guarantee of finishing; unlike most earlier degrees, the PhD always requires original research; the student must make “a significant contribution to the literature”. So is all this extra stress worth it? What are the advantages of postgraduate studies?
“The more education you have, the fewer jobs you qualify for. They’re just better jobs.”
The title of this section is a quote from Darrell Whitley, the chair of my department, in a seminar he gave soon after I started my PhD. His point was well-taken: as you gain more education, you tend to become overqualified for most jobs, but the ones you do qualify for tend to be more interesting.
Nobody gets a doctorate unless they like to think and enjoy being challenged; positions that require a PhD tend to depend on exactly those attributes. Jobs that require being able to do a strictly defined task on a short deadline can be better handled by someone with an undergraduate degree; PhDs are better for tasks that require applying knowledge in new ways. The obvious one is university professor, but many large companies - AT&T. Google, IBM, and Microsoft, to name a few - hire PhDs to do research.
Aside from being a requirement for many positions, the process of getting a PhD teaches you how to do independent research; by the time you complete the degree, you should understand how to define your problem and execute a plan to solve it.
Of course, the networking benefits are important as well; when applying for a high-level position, it’s always helpful to know experts in the area who can pick up the phone and tell your future employer how wonderful you are!
Thinking of teaching? Be a GTA..
Rather than paying tuition, many graduate and postgraduate students take on a position as Graduate Teaching Assistant, teaching (or helping with) a class in exchange for tuition and a small stipend. While the money usually isn’t comparable to what you’d make at a full-time job, the hours tend to be more flexible and it provides the opportunity to obtain the type of real-life teaching experience you’ll need if you want to teach college after finishing your degree. Teaching a class is also a great way to become more familiar with the material!
Never mind work, let’s have some fun!
Of course, postgraduate education has plenty of benefits that don’t directly relate to finding employment. Particularly, it’s an opportunity to spend time with a number of smart people, many of whom will be experts in various aspects of your field. This makes for a great environment for learning about your area of study; in fact, many people consider the out-of-class collaboration to be more important than the actual classes!
For a busy adult, it’s rare to have an extended time to focus on one particular thing; postgraduate studies not only allow but encourage that. For gaining a real in-depth knowledge of something, even if you never intend to do anything practical with it, grad school is the way to go!