When entering the ‘real word’ of industry and employment one of the hardest things I found in the beginning was understanding and appreciating what it actually meant to have a PhD. The true appreciation of what it means to have a PhD is really difficult to grasp, especially when you work in academia when you’re surrounded by other people with PhD’s – it just doesn’t seem too much of a big deal.
What isn’t a PhD?
Although a PhD is the intense study of a niche topic area, it very rarely gives you instant knowledge that you can apply to a range of sectors outside of academia. Put simply, the hard skills and expert knowledge you acquire throughout your PhD does not give you an advantage outside of academia. In fact, most of the time the expert knowledge you gain doesn’t even give you a leg up in academia because it’s very rare or extremely difficult for PhD students to go on and continue working on the exact same topic they’ve just mastered.
This can be disappointing, because in theory, this lack of hard skills makes it difficult to enter a range of jobs at a senior level, sure it can be done, but realistically it’s difficult to get a senior role within a specific industry without having particular knowledge of that industry’s inner workings and infrastructure. This essentially means that despite all this additional education and studying, you won’t necessarily get paid more than someone without a PhD due to lack of experience or some other formality.
This can be frustrating, confusing and dam right damaging to your self-confidence and self-worth. This leads me to the second question then…
What is a PhD?
Firstly, the worst possible outcome for your career after having completed your PhD is better than the average person. Fundamentally, if at any point finding work becomes extremely difficult academia will be your best friend to bail you out. The oldest university in the world is the University of Karueein, located in Morocco. It was founded over 1,000 years ago in 859 AD – which is evidence that universities are key to society and are likely to be around for the rest of your lifetime. So, at any point, universities will always have job openings for researchers, teachers or other academic positions which you are well equipped and qualified for. This is also reassuring as most academic positions earn a reasonable amount, more than the median salary for the rest of the population. Thus, you have your ultimate back up plan.
This leads me to my next point of what the true value of having a PhD is. A PhD gives you an incredible set of skills which make you an extremely versatile person which any business would be fortunate to have. Throughout the PhD you’re learning, developing and mastering skills which are applicable to a whole host of job roles. Therefore, at any point in your career you can change your mind and pursue another one. This freedom can be overwhelming but reassuring at the same time. If, for whatever reason, you change your mind, your personal circumstances change, you decide to live in another country, or you just fancy doing something different, you have the luxury of exploring that due to having developed and harnessed a plethora of skills which not everyone else will have.
Sure, some people may be better than you in some domains, but your PhD allows you to be a jack of all trades, capable of adapting to different challenges and pursuits. Although you won’t necessarily be paid more just for having a PhD as mentioned, you have greater flexibility and freedom than others to choose what you want to do and where you want to do it, at any point in your adult life. With the modern job market expanding and changing through the use of technology, you can never really appreciate how useful or lifesaving this could be.
It’s very difficult to truly appreciate your PhD when you’re surrounded by other PhD students, academics and the educational elite all the time. This definitely changes your sense of reality and what the ‘norm’ is when thinking about the capability needed for the workplace. To obtain a better perspective I find it useful to focus on the data. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is an intergovernmental economic organisation with 37 member countries (this mainly includes countries within the EU, the UK, the USA, Mexico, Australia and New Zealand). The OECD are known for investigating things related to economic progress and world trade, including the educational attainment of the global population. In 2019, the mean number of 25-64-year olds who actually held a doctorate degree (i.e. a PhD) was only 1.1%. This varies from country to country, but only by a couple (if not less) percentage points. Here in the UK for example, only 1.4% of the same age group had a PhD.
So, in short…
Congratulations for being smarter and more educated than 98.9% of the rest of the world
Another reassuring piece of data is that employment really wasn’t difficult for those who did have a doctoral degree. Again, in 2019…
92% were successfully employed.
When thinking about these bits of data, alongside the points I’ve outlined previously. When it comes to finding employment, starting a business or changing career paths, you will never need to worry as the true value of a PhD is one that many people would give anything to have. Not because it sounds cool, something you can show off at parties, or so your mum can frame it, but because it’s a golden ticket for job security and flexibility for the rest of your life.
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