PhDs and business leaders weigh in on the costs and benefits of getting your doctorate degree, and how to decide if it's the right move for your career

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college graduates Experts recommended having a financial security blanket to fall back on in the four to seven years you’re in a PhD program.

  • A PhD can widen your career options, but you might want to consider the steep price of transitioning from corporate life to academic life before taking on an advanced degree. 
  • Business leaders and PhD holders shared with Business Insider their perspectives on PhDs and why they regret or didn’t regret going back to school. 
  • Some experts said PhDs help you acquire research, writing, critical thinking, and presentation skills, but others believe it’s a waste of time and money if you don’t have long-term plans to teach or do research.
  • While a PhD might be worth the investment if you want to work in science, math, engineering, or finance, the tech world is moving away from having the degree as a requirement. 
  • Experts also said prospective PhD candidates should consider the emotional toll of being away from friends and family. 
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

A PhD often brings prestige and career clout that can lead to bigger and better opportunities. 

It can also be a strong test of your resilience and aptitude. Philippe Barbe, who has a PhD in math and has served as an invited professor at Yale and Virginia Tech, said that going back to school for your doctorate “is very much like training and running a marathon, a test of your will.” 

“Once you pass it, you know how far you can go,” Barbe said.

But the degree also comes at a steep price. A 2019 infographic by Steve Tippins of Beyond PhD Coaching breaks down the myriad costs of a PhD, from tuition and fees to lost job opportunities and wages, reporting that PhD programs can set you back $30,000 a year on average.

Business Insider spoke with several business leaders and PhD holders to get their perspective on whether they’re thankful for — or regret earning — an advanced degree. Here’s what they said.

A PhD can boost your career in teaching and research and help you build transferable skills — but hold you back in certain corporate settings

In some fields, a PhD is a necessity for success. Barbe said that if you’re interested in a highly technical industry, getting a PhD can open doors to an academic or research position in a renowned lab. For those in the corporate world, he added, it can help you lead “extraordinary technical teams and move toward high-level technical or non-technical management responsibility.” 

But some experts opined that having the degree can actually hold you back in certain career situations.

“I have had more than one HR manager, interview panel, and headhunter tell me directly that I would be best served when applying for executive jobs in the private sector by leaving the PhD off my CV,” said Klay Dyer, the president of Dyer Educational & Research Consultants Inc. who left the academic world after 20 years of university teaching. “[It can] open doors in which the credentials will add cache or validation to an organization or project, and close them on many others when the perception is of over-specialization or of taking a private-sector job as a stop-gap or stepping stone.”

Klay Dyer_2020 Klay Dyer.

He added that if the goal is to acquire additional transferable skills, then it can be a worthwhile investment. “My research, writing, critical thinking, and presentation skills have been valuable assets as I transitioned from academic to corporate to consulting life,” he said.

Read more: 8 accelerated MBAs offered by top business schools that allow you to get a degree quicker than at a traditional program

PhD-holder Mark Coster, an online entrepreneur and owner of the STEM-focused websites STEM Toy Expert and Organic Chemistry Explained, agreed that the degree is more useful in some roles than others.

Mark Coster 512px.JPG Mark Coster.

“When I decided I wanted to do scientific research in chemistry, I saw that college professors and industry professionals all had PhD qualifications,” Coster said. “More recently, since pivoting to online entrepreneurship, I see the majority of successful people online do not have PhDs in marketing or business.”

Elisebeth VanderWeil, principal consultant at Hand in the Dark Consulting and a faculty member for Government Training, LLC, got her PhD when she heeded the call to teach.

Elisebeth VanderWeil Elisebeth VanderWeil.

She feels that her degree studies have served her well for not only teaching and research, but also in providing a robust foundation for consulting with diverse organizations. Nevertheless, she said that if your career plans don’t involve a heavy amount of teaching or research, you shouldn’t “waste time and money on a PhD.” 

A PhD can sometimes increase your earning potential, but comes with costs that go beyond the financial

Studies show that employees with a PhD can earn up to $20,000 more each year than those without one. Payscale reports that the average salary for those with a PhD is nearly $100,000, and that some roles, such as data scientist and senior research scientist in biotechnology, can make north of that. 

With stats like this in mind, Grant Aldrich, founder and CEO of educational platform Online Degree, said that in industries such as science, math, engineering, or finance, a PhD is worth the investment. 

grant small headshot (1) Grant Aldrich.

“For example, after getting a four- or five-year degree in pharmacy, you can work in a drugstore or open a pharmacy,” Aldrich said. “The work you’ll be doing is basic and not advanced, such as filling prescriptions. If you get a PhD in biopharmaceutical studies, however, you can have the opportunity to be an advanced scientist. Instead of merely filling prescriptions, you could be leading the synthesis of new drugs.”

Aldrich said that the choice ultimately comes down to individual preference and what you want to get out of your career. 

“If you yearn for more advanced, cutting-edge work, the only way to access it is to get a PhD,” Aldrich said. “Also, you could get a salary increase that would make the investment worth it monetarily.”

Read more: An inside look at the first ‘mobile-friendly’ accelerated MBA program, where aspiring entrepreneurs and leaders can earn their degree from their phones — without paying a cent in tuition

But Brian Trotter, CEO and founder of intellectual property consultancy Bishop Rock, LLC, isn’t convinced of a PhD’s value.

Brian Trotter Brian Trotter.

“While a PhD can get you a higher starting salary (maybe 10-15%), that will quickly disappear — high performers will quickly reach the same level independent of their highest degree,” Trotter said. “When I was managing a team of designers, my best performers were not the engineers with PhDs.” 

Trotter told Business Insider that overall, he believes the tech world is moving away from the PhD as a requirement and that PhDs can have a reputation of “getting lost in the weeds in a difficult design problem.”  

Another consideration is whether you can afford to take time out of the workforce.

“Especially for those studying full time, PhD students should have a ‘security blanket’ to fall back on for the next four to seven years,” said Brian Dechesare, founder and CEO of Mergers & Inquisitions, which offers investment banking courses for careers in finance. He recommended that prospective PhD candidates calculate outgoing and unexpected costs beforehand to ensure that they don’t encounter financial trouble during their academic career, which could jeopardize their qualification. 

Brian Dechesare Brian Dechesare.

Executive mentor and business consultant Anthony Babbitt, who’s currently a PhD candidate in higher education administration and leadership, feels that time considerations are the most important factor in deciding whether to get a PhD, since the long degree can require social and familial sacrifices that may be even tougher than the financial ones. 

“PhD programs tend to last three to eight years, so it can be a long haul,” Babbitt said. “Student loans are relatively easy to obtain, so financing is usually less of an issue. [But] potential students will be making an enormous time commitment requiring time away from friends, family, spouses, and children.” 

Anthony Babbitt Headshot Anthony Babbitt.

Babbitt shared that for most of the people in his PhD program, this has been the hardest part. 

“I did not start my program until my children were out of our home,” he said. “The time factor is one of the reasons you see many people wait until their late 30s or early 40s before beginning. This delay is incredibly helpful since people have had time to work professionally, too.” 

He said he doesn’t regret getting his PhD.

“Regardless of your field, a PhD will help your career in a variety of ways that do not always include more money,” Babbitt said. “The people I talk with agree: The person who walks across the stage at graduation is much different than the person who entered the PhD program.” 

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