Is a PhD worth it?

Is a PhD worth the effort? Is it worth the stress, the money and the time? Is it worth sacrificing potential career progression to pursue some obscure topic most of the world doesn’t care about?

Unfortunately I can’t give a straight yes-or-no answer. Personally, I think it was worth continuing when I wanted to quit, but had I quit and followed a differnt path I might have said it was the best decision I had ever made. I wouldn’t have a PhD, but would my life be worse for it? I think things would have worked out OK.

In trying to answer whether your own PhD is “worth it”, you’ve got to define what the “it” is.

Is a PhD worth working hard for? Yes. Is it worth occasional late nights and a bit of stress? Yes. Is a PhD worth a career break? Yes, if you really want to do it and you can support yourself.

But is it worth genuine suffering?

In the last few years, I’ve spoken to some students in truly awful circumstances; whether that’s because of crippling financial debt or criminally abusive supervisors. I’ve spoken to students who work every hour they can, wracked with guilt because they never see their kids, and students who suffer immeasurably through anxiety and depression.

Sometimes it is better to walk away; to write off the sunk cost and escape. If the PhD is not what you expected it to be, if you are constantly exhausted or making yourself ill, if your relationships are suffering, if you live in fear, if you feel humiliated by your supervisor, if you hate every day and if you are gaining nothing positive from the experience… I don’t think getting a PhD is worth going through those things; especially when there’s no guarantee of sucess if you keep going.

Research should be hard, but it should also be fun. It’s a luxury to spend several years in pursuit of obscure new knowledge, playing with ideas and surrounded by wonderfully obsessive, interesting and often slightly weird people. If you never enjoy it, what’s the point?

Ultimately, you have to decide for yourself where the limits are; what you are willing to sacrifice and what you are not.

See also:

A PhD is not everything


5 thoughts on “Is a PhD worth it?”

  1. A PhD is not at all worth it. The whole thing is a shame and it’s purpose is to take advantage of good young people -ones with ambition, intelligence and energy. If you have what it takes to get a PhD, you can apply all of that drive to something else and get a far better return for your trouble.

    • You are right that a PhD is not worth it *for some people*. It very much depends on who you are and who you study with.

  2. Hi James,

    Thank you for the blog post, it is an interesting read and provokes a lot of questions in my head. I have written a few blog posts in the past on whether one should or should not embarked on the phd journey, and I have played with the idea on quitting too. I must admit, being a PhD student myself, it is an incredibly hard journey, much harder than I thought it would be when I started, and I have been questioned by my dearest whether it is all worth it in the end. Phd is often a solo trip in terms of the work, but you are also dragging your closest along in terms of supporting you. Whether it is a partner who is making cups of coffee and wiping the tears away, or parents who listen for hours to your rants, or friends offering a glass of wine and words of encouragement for three-four long years. I trust that PhD is much tougher when you have to fund the journey yourself, a financial burden is a significant burden, and trying to find an ‘intellectual’ satisfaction in the research whilst working full-time in a non-related field is no fun. This observation is from personal experience.

    Whilst agreeing that if your PhD programme is unbearable, you should definitely ask yourself where is this taking you and the meaning attached to this suffering; I also agree with Paula’s post above – that giving up swimming across the channel, or climbing Kilimanjaro, when you are half way through, and have already put so much resources into it… that’s not an easy decision to make. And definitely one I wouldn’t be able to do, unless it is a life/health threatening situation. To walk away without a feeling that I haven’t given it all I could, and haven’t exhausted all the possible avenues… that would make me very sad and I would question such decision for the rest of my life. What’s the worst that can happen? I can fail. I can live with that, but I wouldn’t be able to live with walking away half way to the top.

    Again, this is providing that PhD is not seriously impacting on my psychological and physical wellbeing, the struggles that you mentioned above are really alarming and I had no idea what other people have gone through. I set up a little community for Phd students recently on [link removed] where we are all battling with challenges and supporting each other where we can. Any Phd student is welcome to join, if interested.

    Thank you for the post and for your words of encouragement from the bigger perspective. You said ‘if I wouldn’t have a PhD, would my life be worse of it’? Definitely not! There are so many wonderful opportunities in life, a PhD is only one of them. But if it is possible, and there is still some strength, I am a believer in keeping on climbing that mountain and giving it all you can in order to see the top. But getting the altitude sickness and keep walking to the top? That is a definite no no. It is better to keep an open mind and putting a PhD into a bigger life perspective could be a life-saver.

    Best wishes to all phd sufferers.

  3. Hello,

    I need to write my thesis to finish my PhD. This is being a little bit difficult since I’m working 8 hours a day. I thought of giving up, but every one is telling me that the worst part is over and that I just have to write. I talked to my supervisor I he said to me: “Think… it will be more difficult to explain people why you are given up right now than finishing your thesis!”… so I’m catching a break and I’ll restart writing someday next week.

    Also… I fill kind of guilty when I think of giving up, because is almost like put a lot of effort to swim across the English Channel and then give up when you are 2m away from England.

    By the way, I think research is “worth it” and I think a PhD is “worth it”. I do not agree with the abuse, pressure, and difficulties that supervisors put on students due to faculty bad funding. PhDs should be like college degrees. PhD students should be just that… students and not cheap work forces that support supervisors projects.

    In my country, PhDs are 4 or 5 years projects. I also think that PhDs should be shorter. 🙂

    • If you are so close, then yes it probably is worth completing it!

      Usually in your kind of situation I tell people to focus on just completing one chapter. Get it into a submittable state, including all the formatting, references, captions… everything. If you aren’t sure where to start, start with chapter 1.

      There’s nothing wrong with thinking about quitting, but make a decision and stick to it. If you say you will start writing sometime next week, do it whether you feel like it or not!

Comments are closed.