A picture of students in a grad school seminar.

Grad School | Part 1: The Value Of A PhD

There are a few different kinds of advice about whether or not you should get a PhD. This series has a bit of each approach. Each post is just a few hundred words, but it explains and/or evaluates a crucial part of grad school.

Here’s the one-liner version: getting a PhD can be fantastic, but that doesn’t mean that it will give you an academic job, a non-academic job, or a solely positive experience.

The series has 5 parts. In Part 1, I start to help you decide whether you should apply to grad school. The crux of your decision, as I see it, depends on a central question. Before we get to this question, however, we need to cover some background stuff. …or you can skip to other parts of the series.

[End of Part 1] | Part 2 | Part 3Part 4 | Part 5

1.  Undergraduate Degrees in Philosophy

Reality check #1: Only a fraction of people with PhDs in philosophy will get jobs in academia [Un-Hired Ed: The Adjunct Crisis]. Even fewer will get full-time positions in philosophy. Fewer still will receive tenure track positions [PhilosophyNews].

Interestingly, many people with undergraduate degrees in philosophy will get jobs. In 2006, a mere 6.7 percent of philosophy undergrads were unemployed 6 months after graduating [American Philosophical Association). This isn’t surprising in light of that fact that…

    1. many philosophy majors make impressive business careers for themselves [Business Insider].
    2. employers often look for philosophical skills at least as much as business savvy [Chronicle of Higher EdAACU).
    3. philosophy undergraduates seem to do better on standardized tests than pretty much everyone else (GRE data for undergraduates by major, GRE data for all grad-school-bound undergraduates by major, and some LSAT data).

But maybe you’re thinking, “Ok, but do philosophy majors get good jobs?” That’s a good question. Check this out: philosophy majors, on average, make about as much money (sometimes more) 10 years after graduation than many other allegedly lucrative majors like Information Technology [The Wall Street JournalAmerican Philosophical SocietyAssociation of American Colleges and Universities (AACU)].

2.  BA vs. PHD

So now you’re thinking, “That was interesting information, pal, but why are you telling me about the prospects of undergraduates? You’re supposed to be telling me about grad school! Remember?

Here’s why: Having a bachelors degree in philosophy gives one loads of potentially appealing employment and graduate study options. A PhD in philosophy simply doesn’t offer a comparable number of additional employment or educational opportunities.

This asymmetry might be a result of specialization. Think about it. The skills and expertise one acquires from studying philosophy as an undergraduate are useful in almost any setting — e.g., critical thinking, creating persuasive arguments, technical writing, seeing through bullshit, and accepting distasteful but probably true conclusions.

The additional skills or expertise that you obtain by completing a PhD are not so broadly useful — e.g., an intimate acquaintance with arguments that only a handful of other people care about, the ability to compose a massive tome that no one will ever want to read, and the ability to make ends meet on a graduate stipend.1 So if you want or expect your PhD (or MA) to get you a job, then this asymmetry poses a problem. The problem is two-fold. First, a PhD might not get you a desirable job in academia. Second, it doesn’t increase your chances of getting a job outside of academia more than its pre-requisite degrees. So the primary benefit of a PhD isn’t job prospects.

3.  The Central Question

So you have to ask yourself the following: would you appreciate earning a PhD in philosophy even if (a) it wouldn’t get you an academic job or (b) it wouldn’t increase your chances of getting a non-academic job? An even better question — I think — is this:

Do you think that completing a PhD is valuable enough — by itself — to be worth the time, energy, and sacrifice it requires?

I think it is. Many others do too. But not everyone does, so it would not be unusual for you to be unsure about your answer to this question.


Even the best of us suffer from a bit of optimism bias [Wikipedia] at times, so there is probably a reader out there who — despite my warnings — is still hanging on to the fantasy of getting one’s dream job by getting a PhD. I will probably not be able to change this reader’s mind.

I can, however, try to give this reader more information about academic careers (Part 2), about grad school itself (Part 3), about the pros and cons of grad school (Part 4) and about grad school contingency plans (Part 5).


  1. Actually, learning to live on little income might be one of the most important lessons in the 1st world, whether or not you’re an effective altruist.

Featured Image: “Poster Session” by David Eppstein licensed under CC BY 3.0)

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Nick Byrd

Nick is a cognitive scientist at Florida State University studying reasoning, wellbeing, and willpower. Check out his blog at byrdnick.com/blog