The true value of a PhD

Why should anyone get PhD these days?

The letters.

Having those letters next to your name is great branding. Society is much more likely to think of you as a qualified, intelligent individual.

And, generally they are proven right because grad school selects for these traits. Intelligent, driven people happen to be the same kind of people who apply to PhD programs in the first place. So when a hiring manager needs to fill a position, the safe bet is to pick the candidate with the PhD.

Unfortunately, PhD graduates are only a subset of this pool of talent. The candidates who are equally as qualified but lack a few letters on their resume, don’t get the chances they deserve. This, in turn, drives more people to do PhDs.

This is slightly biased from of my experience in academia but, along with some great practice solving problems, all a PhD really gives you is a heavy dose of impostor syndrome and an irrational, frenzied drive to publish in peer-reviewed journals. On top of that, PhD programs generally don’t prepare you well for life outside of academia. Most of the people who train and teach you have been in the academia bubble their whole life, and if you leave for industry, it’s highly unlikely your research will be relevant (my work on holographic axial optical tweezers hardly helps me in my work as a software developer).

To be fair, one gains a lot of valuable skills while pursuing a PhD. But I would argue that, unless you’re furthering a field you’re truly passionate about, equally valuable skills could be developed elsewhere. Ideally, without the poor compensation and high rate of depression.

For a long time, universities were the only place to go to obtain knowledge and achieve expert status. But now the internet exists, and besides dank memes and cute cat videos, there is an abundance of resources for self-learning. With the rise of MOOCs, wikis, and online tutorials, it has become increasingly easy to gain knowledge and expertise without the need for institutions.

The people who actually do this successfully (we’ve seen quite a few come through SharpestMinds) impress me more than PhD graduates. Driving yourself to learn a new subject, without a degree at the end the tunnel to motivate you, says a lot about personal character.

There are a lot of wrong reasons to start a PhD, and only one right reason. If you truly are passionate about a particular field, enough to dedicate your life to advancing it (likely by a negligible amount), by all means go for it. We need people like you expanding humanity’s circle of knowledge. But if your reason is literally anything else, don’t do it.

The letters aren’t worth it.

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