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Answer & Analysis: Should I get a PhD or Work?


Considering a PhD? While it depends on your personal goals and life situation, breaking down your decision from a financial perspective can be extremely helpful.

Generally, remaining in the workforce will produce higher returns for your overall finances than getting a PhD. Tuition and the amount of time it takes to complete a PhD will cost more than your potential salary increase post-degree. It’s best to pursue a PhD if your field requires it and opportunities are projected to increase over time.

However, that doesn’t mean that you should never get a PhD either. There are many factors to consider when planing to get a PhD, and we’ll discuss them in the article below.

Should I Get a PhD or Continue Working?

What do you want out of your career? If you’re dreaming of a career as a university professor or world-class researcher, a PhD may be right for you! If not, however, you may be able to obtain your career and professional goals by remaining in the workforce instead.

To evaluate which is right for you, it’s important to consider both the financial and non-financial factors of obtaining a PhD. It’s also important to consider your field of study. Some fields may be more promising for your career than others, since particular fields may not require PhD level expertise.

If it doesn’t make financial sense for you to obtain a PhD, you should pursue career excellence in other ways, since your finances will be what support you and your family for the majority of your life. If you are okay with the career prospects your field of study promises, a PhD may be better suited to provide security and fulfillment instead. However, you should begin by counting the cost.

Cost Analysis: PhD vs. Remaining in the Workforce

When it comes to calculating out the cost of your degree and potential salary increase post-degree, it’ll be best to leverage data from your current field. For our purposes, we’ll use some basic numbers and averages to help outline some of the costs and benefits associated with obtaining a PhD (or not).

Our assumptions are as follows:

Average amount of time it takes to get a PhD: 6 years

Salary pre-PhD: $60,000

Salary increase post-PhD: 25%

Current Level of education: Master’s Degree (so that the comparison is equal between a PhD and non-PhD in our analysis)

Average cost of tuition: $115,000

Average age of PhD student when starting: 29

Average yearly raise: 3%

With these assumptions, let’s begin a few basic calculations. Our scenario will pitch two people against each other. They both have a Master’s degree and both are currently making $60,000 annually. Their average expected salary increase is 3% annually. We’ll project this out for 26 years, since a 29-year-old working for this amount of time would have reached their peak earning potential by then (for women, peak earning occurs between ages 35 to 44, and between ages 45 to 54 for men), and the average age of a PhD student is 29 years of age.

Our non-PhD earner’s salary is $60,000. Accounting for a 3% average annual raise (this may not occur every year, as some years may be less (1% or zero) and others more (5% or more)), our non-PhD earner will have a projected salary of $125,626 by age 54. They don’t need to account for the cost of tuition, so their total earnings over this 26 year period is $2,313,182.

Our PhD earner starts out with a $60,000 salary as well. We’ll imagine they’re fresh out of their Master’s program and want to spend a few years working to take advantage of the pay bump they would have earned post-degree. Eventually, they leave the workforce to devote their time and energies to a PhD. The cost of tuition is $115,000. After 6 years, they receive a 25% salary increase from where they were before their degree, equalling a salary of $77,250. Projecting out that salary by a 3% average for the next 18 or so years, their salary by age 54 is projected to be $127,682, and their total earnings would be $1,815,565 (after having taken tuition into account).

Year Working Salary (3% yearly)Salary Pre/Post PhDAge
Cost of PhD$115,000.00
Total after 20 years$2,313,182.54$1,815,565.13
Comparison of earnings between a PhD and non-PhD earner over time

The total earnings of the PhD earner account for $1,930,565 over the course of those 26 years. However, subtracting out the cost of tuition amounts to $1,815,565 overall, which is $497,617 less than our non-Phd earner.

As you can see, the cost of getting a PhD adds up. Given the strenuous demands placed on PhD students, it’s hard to complete online or without dedicating most (or all) of your resources to completing your degree. While the years spent out of the workforce eventually justify the degree (note the salary of the non PhD earner is $76,006 in year 9 compared to the PhD’s post-degree salary of $77,250), the money lost by not working during those schooling years decreases the total earnings overall in the long run – not to mention the cost of tuition.

Is a PhD right for me?

When considering if it’s better to stay in the workforce or get a PhD, it’s important to collect data relevant to your proposed field of study. Conducting a proper analysis of what your life would look like with and without a PhD is a helpful way to determine if obtaining one would be worth it to you and your family.

To perform your own analysis, you just need to create the table above with variables relevant to your situation (your current salary, expected annual salary increases, the cost of tuition for your particular degree, your age, and your projected salary post-degree). Having your own data will help make sure your decision is being based off of practical data. Perform your analysis and see if you’d be better off financially with or without a degree. You may find that a degree may not be worth the cost.

9 Best Reasons to Get a PhD

All this being said, does that mean that it never makes sense to get a PhD?

Of course not!

There are many factors to consider when determining to get a PhD or not. The financial analysis is certainly a critical factor for many, but you must also weigh the less tangible factors as well. Depending on your field of study, your degree may make you much more competitive than if you didn’t obtain one. Salaries for PhDs in electrical or computer engineering tend to be on the higher end of PhD earners, for example. It may also be easier to land a job in certain fields like economics or science since expertise in these fields are often advantageous to your career.

Additionally, it would be worth considering the following reasons when evaluating if you should get a PhD or not.

  1. Job opportunities for PhD’s in your field are increasing. Many fields of discipline require an expertise that only few can offer. If your PhD enables you to be an expert in a field that’s in high-demand, you can rely job security for the long haul – ensuring that your degree was worth it in the long run.
  2. Salaries in your PhD’s field are increasing. If the salaries for PhD’s have historically gone up, and are projected to continue increasing, it would be much easier to justify your decision to pursue a PhD. If salaries are increasing, it means that you may have the ability to pursue multiple ventures over the course of your career, instead of locking into one particular discipline because it was the one that helped pay the bills.
  3. The job you want requires a PhD level of expertise. When people go to ‘call in the expert’ – that’d be you! You’d be among a select group of individuals qualified for particular jobs or problems, and you will be well equipped with the tools to solve the unique challenges only experts face. If your field demands this kind of expertise, it’d be another reason to pursue a PhD.
  4. You are passionate about your field. Pursuing a PhD isn’t necessarily about the money, but the passion. Rightly so, because the work required to obtain a PhD will be a heavy lift. As the days and years get long, your passion will help you see your degree through.
  5. You are a serious student. PhD study isn’t for the faint of heart. If you love the chase of a scientific journal or research article, you may be well-poised for PhD study.
  6. You enjoy research. Part of being a serious student is due to the amount of research you’d need to perform. If you’re not only passionate about your field, but love the aspect of research and venturing into new frontiers, you may enjoy the hunt much research entails.
  7. Your life situation is well suited for a PhD right now. As your life progresses, it may become complicated to consider getting a PhD. For example, the longer you wait to get a PhD, the more responsibilities could pile up. You may have a family or other responsibilities that could conflict with your PhD studies. Consider your situation years down the road as well.
  8. You want to make a genuine contribution to your field of study. A PhD isn’t just an opportunity to receive, but to give as well. Gifting your contribution to your field of study by nature of the work, research, and dedication you pour into your efforts could help further the work in your field for years or decades to come.
  9. The blessings of education. Knowledge is power. The more you know, the more you’ll be empowered. Not just with factoids or information, but with a powerful mind and discipline to tackle life’s many challenges with a unique perspective and problem-solving ability.

Overall, you may enjoy the venture of a PhD much more than remaining in the workforce. If your place is in the classroom, labs, or library instead of the office, a PhD might be best for you.

9 Best Reasons Not to Get a PhD

Conversely, many of the things that can be said for getting a PhD can be said against it as well.

More specifically, these reasons are well worth your analysis when considering to get a PhD or not.

  1. Job opportunities for PhD’s in your field are decreasing. Many a PhD have spent long hours obtaining a degree that they find is diminishing in value over time. Their fields may not be in demand right now, only projecting to decrease as you would otherwise be hitting your peak earning potential years.
  2. Salaries in your PhD’s field are dropping. If opportunities in your area are down, you may be missing out on important raises into your earning years. When your salary should be increasing, it’s stagnant.
  3. The job you want requires a lower level of expertise. If you’re pursuing a particular role, it’s important to check if that job requires a PhD degree or not. If you can find the job you want and save on the time and money it would cost to obtain a degree, pursue your job.
  4. You are not a good student. If you’re not passionate about study and the work that goes into true learning, a PhD may burn you out a year or two into it. Consider the long term implications of the lifestyle you want to live for 6-8 years.
  5. You are not passionate about your field. If you don’t have the passion for your field, you may lack the motivation it would otherwise take for you to obtain a PhD. When the days get long or you’re stuck in a class from a professor you can’t stand, you’ll need something deeper to drive you.
  6. You have medium-to-large sized financial obligations. Many times PhDs may not be competitive financial choices. If you already have significant financial obligations, you may be better off pursuing other financial ventures instead of obtaining a PhD.
  7. Your situation in life doesn’t allot the time or resources to pursue a PhD. If you’re too busy to spend all of your time and energy obtaining a PhD, it may not be best for you, your friends, or your family. The time you have is precious, and it’s important to know that how you’ll be spending it may affect more than just you.
  8. You dislike the job opportunities your PhD offers. It’s important to think 5-10 years beyond your degree. Are you interested in the type of work you’d be doing? Or does narrowing down your career to a few options feel limiting instead of maximizing your potential?
  9. You’re uncertain about getting a PhD. If you’re uncertain, it may just be best to wait until you know that this is the right choice for you.


While it may make financial sense to skip the degree, remember that what you want out of life will be your determining factor. How you ascend you financial mountain isn’t as important as knowing which mountain you want to climb. Both routes can get you there, and it’s up to you to decide what gear you need for your journey through life. If you want the difficult pursuit of the degree, consider the PhD. If you are looking for a faster track up the mountain, skip the degree for now. You can always re-route if you hear the calls from over from PhD mountain.

That being said, we made some assumptions that you already had a Master’s Degree. If you’re still considering on whether it makes sense to get a Master’s Degree or remain in the workforce, we’ll break that down for you here.

If you’re looking for other ways to become financially independent, check out the best advice from people who have climbed their own financial mountains and made the most of their money as well.

Whichever you decide, we’ll be ready to help you along your journey.

Climb on, FinBase.

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John is a personal finance writer, editor, and a fellow FinBase climber. Tech worker by day, design owl by night, he is the co-founder and creator behind The Financial Basecamp.
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