Do I need a PhD to have a successful career?
As a science graduate, there is a point where you will ask yourself whether you need a PhD or not. This is likely to occur during your undergraduate studies, but may also come up later on. The reason you ask yourself this question might be because you want to pursue a path which you think requires further study. You may also think that the more ‘qualified’ you are, the more employable you are. Or, you may just not know what to do next apart from study further. When I was doing my Biology degree, pursuing further study was something that felt like a natural next step. It seemed exciting, especially when I enjoyed a module. I thought it would be fun to delve deeper into that subject. But I quickly realised that I wanted to be in the workplace sooner. I wanted to deliver work in a more practical way with a different kind of impact. Doing a PhD is an extremely valuable pursuit and should be encouraged for those who want to pursue research careers. However, it’s important to point out the alternatives for you if you would like to contribute to the science world whilst using other skills. There are a few things you can think about if you've considered doing your PhD but still aren’t sure.
Do you want to pursue a career in research?
Do you see yourself working in a lab or the field for a few more years? Would you like to pursue a research-based career in industry? The main motivation for doing a PhD is that you want to pursue a research career. If you’d like to delver deeper into an area you enjoyed during your degree, this is your chance. If you'd rather enter the workplace with a more fast-paced environment, a PhD may not be for you. There are roles you can do where you can make an impact in the science world without having specialist knowledge. Your knowledge from your undergraduate degree gives you enough of an advantage working in a science context.
What skills do you enjoy using?
Ask yourself whether you enjoy working in labs and doing deep analytical work on a particular topic. A PhD may be for you if you enjoy hypothesising and experimenting, working with data and making observations to come up with conclusions or further questions for research. It may not be for you if you prefer using softer skills, interacting with people on a day-to-day basis and a faster pace of work. You may want to see the impact of your work faster or even immediately. In this case you may be more suited to roles outside the lab.
How long do you want to stay in academia?
One of my motivations for not pursuing further study was that I wanted to earn money sooner, not continue paying others! I wanted to go out into the world and make an impact that I could see. I really enjoyed my degree and still wanted to keep a link to it and contribute to the science world in some way. But for me, I didn't want to make my contributions directly by staying in academia. I also felt that I wanted to be in a professional environment sooner so that I could develop skills like relationship building and meet a wider variety of people. Consider whether you want to be in an academic environment continuously for the long term.
Is this the right time?
You don’t have to do your undergraduate degree, a Master’s and then a PhD all consecutively. You can do further study at any time in your life. Perhaps you can do your PhD when other parts of your life and career have quietened down, and you’d like to delve deep into a subject just for the sake of it. This all depends on your ultimate motivation to study further. If it’s for your career, then you may want to do it earlier. If it’s just your interest in the subject and curiosity to explore that further, maybe you can get some skills and experience in the workplace first, and go back into academia later. Sometimes, work experience can also enhance your contribution to further study as you have real life examples and insights to draw upon.
What career areas are you interested in and what skills are needed for those jobs?
This is probably the most important question if you are at the stage of deciding which path you want to take. There are certain perceptions out there that the more you study and ‘qualify’ yourself, the more employable you will be. This is absolutely not the case. It really depends on the path you want to follow. There are many jobs out there which only require an undergraduate degree, with some level of work experience. I would emphasise work experience and building soft skills as the key priorities for making yourself employable. Unless you want to pursue a research career, you don’t need to keep studying until you become an expert in a particular area. There may be some professions that are more niche where a Master’s may be advantageous. In these cases, look at a few job descriptions to see what they ask for, and try networking in the field to find out what they require. Even in these cases, where you have work experience, there is often flexibility with the stated requirements. If you're asking yourself whether you need a PhD to be successful in your career, the answer is, it really depends. What career path do you want to follow? Remember that you can always look into returning to academia at a different stage in your life. You don’t have to do it all at once. With your undergraduate science degree, you already have a wealth of transferable skills that make you very employable. Don’t feel limited by only having an undergraduate degree or pressured to do further study. Think about the factors mentioned above and whether the timing is right for you.
If you are ready to take your career outside the lab and want to know how to start, watch our webinar on How Science Graduates Can Get a High Paying Job Outside the Lab Even if You Have Little to No Work Experience.