Should I do a PhD?

Is doing a PhD even worth it? Won’t you just be too educated even to be employed? But you don’t want to be a professor, so why would you bother?

These are some of the negative thoughts that surround the prospect of grad school, from people inside and outside the system. In this blog post, I want to explain why these are all the wrong questions to be asking if you’re considering going back to school or continuing in your journey of higher education.

My experience

Let me just introduce myself before I dive in with my professional credentials: I did a BASc in environmental engineering at Waterloo, worked for 5 years in consulting and got my PEng, started a master’s at the University of Toronto in Civil Engineering, then transferred into a PhD, all fully funded, so completed a PhD transfer within 5 years. I am now working at the City of Vancouver, designing & implementing the same things I was studying. I set out to gain expertise in my little domain (green stormwater infrastructure) – and then I successfully landed a job precisely because of that expertise and the gained PEng mentioned before.

While I had an objective of pursuing higher education (becoming an expert in my field), it wasn’t the only reason I did the PhD. Mostly I did the PhD because I enjoyed it.

“You do not need to waste your time doing those things that are unnecessary and trifling. You do not have to be rich. You do not need to seek fame or power. What you need is freedom, solidity, peace and joy. You need the time and energy to be able to share these things with others.”

– Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist monk and peace activist

My time doing my PhD filled me with freedom and possibility, and I was able to do so much that I thoroughly enjoyed. I learned that I love working alone, I like to lead my own work, and I’m self-driven. These are pretty key characteristics for graduate students, particularly PhDs, because you’re often alone and have to rely mostly on yourself to make it through. I was also really passionate about the questions I was studying – I wanted to know more and dig deeper – and the PhD gave me the space and freedom to pursue those questions.

I didn’t spend that much time thinking about what I would do next. I did feel some pressure to finish on time (funding would be cut off!) and to excel (get those papers published to be recognized and important!), but I didn’t feel any pressure about what would happen after grad school. I figured I didn’t want to do academia – I found that the teaching part of my PhD was the most tedious for me, and I wasn’t interested in the bureaucracy of university life – and teaching and administrative work are two of the three pillars of being a professor (the third being research, the bit I liked).

I felt confident I would find that next thing and it would all be ok, and I looked into going into business on my own – either through some kind of product/invention or consulting. I’d gone through so many difficult times in getting through the PhD up to that point – that gave me a lot of confidence in myself and that I could achieve something new and different.

Well, that’s nice for you – but can you actually get a job with a PhD?

Yes! And I did! And it wasn’t in academia!

My experience is general to other PhD graduates as well – we all seem to do well! The employment rate for graduates with PhDs is very high – 85% of PhD graduates are employed after graduation, compared to 82% of those with master’s degrees and 82% of those with undergraduate degrees (Conference Board of Canada, 2015).

PhD graduates are not all employed in academia – actually only 20% of PhD graduates are full-time university professors (Conference Board of Canada, 2015). The University of Toronto went into a lot of detail with the 10,000 PhDs Project, where they checked out the careers of 10,000 PhD graduates from 2000 to 2015, and I pulled off the graph below for those in Applied Science & Engineering – showing that the same portion of PhDs in Engineering was employed in post-secondary education as in the private sector.

Employment for PhD Graduates from Applied Science and Engineering at the University of Toronto, by Sector. Source: University of Toronto 10,000 PhDs Project

Ok, so a PhD doesn’t make you unemployable… but should you still do it?

Common reasons I hear for going back to school is a need for a “change”, with this “change” being very ill-defined. It’s best to step back before you make the change to really consider what it is that’s making you unhappy to truly understand why you feel this need for “change”. By knowing yourself better, you can make better decisions.

So if you’re at that point of considering a change – here are some questions to work through:

  • Is this need for change in your career or about something else?
    • Reflect on whether it’s the job, the company, your specific role, or something else in your life that’s making you unhappy.
    • Sometimes a change in attitude, a promotion, a lateral shift, or even a new exercise regime can be what you need!
  • Learn about yourself – know what your working style? How do you like to work?, for example, doing a personality test or leadership style test can help you uncover these things (example from University of Toronto, Bolton & Bolton test), read the book What Colour is your Parachute?, or simply reflect on your past work experience and write out what you did and didn’t like about each of them.
  • Find ways to make that change and work towards the change
  • Assess: do you need further education for this change?
    • Are you ok with the sacrifices that need to be made for further education? Can you afford it? What are the practicalities of this change?
    • Does the further education match your working style and how you like to work?
    • Are you sure you need further education, or could you find ways to train on the job?

If this whole exercise has led you to the answer of “Ok, I need to do a PhD”, then I’ll finish with the intrinsic qualities of a successful PhD graduate – aka someone who successfully graduates from a PhD program. If any of these items are absolutely not who you are as a person, please reconsider. Also, note that there are a lot of skills that a PhD student gains during their time, like synthesis, analysis, communication and more – you don’t have to be good at these going in. You could learn them as you.

A successful PhD graduate is someone who is (in my opinion!):

  • Self-motivated, self-directed, a self-advocate and takes initiative
  • Good at seeing both the big & small pictures (not forgetting the forest for the trees, or vice-versa)
  • Super excited & passionate about the subject what they’re going to go and study
  • Deeply curious

Now over to you

What do you think of this analysis? What jives or doesn’t jive with your own experience of higher education/academia? What do you think are the intrinsic qualities of a successful PhD graduate? Let me know in the comments below!

Bio: Sylvie Spraakman, PhD, P.Eng., is a Senior Water Resources Engineer at the City of Vancouver, Green Infrastructure Branch.

One thought on “Should I do a PhD?

  1. Thanks for such a good sharing, Sylvie! I found the questions you suggest asking before considering a change in a career very instrumental and practical – we need to think about what change we really want, alternatives to further education, and also the practicalities of different options before making decisions and sacrifices. As a young working professional, I learned a lot from your opinions and I think it will definitely help me when this question comes up to me in the future.



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