I'm working on my master's degree, and during a talk with one of my professors, the subject "Would you be interested in pursuing a PhD?" came up. I've given this a lot of thought over the last few months, but I'm at a loss for a response. I believe the issue is that with a bachelor's or master's degree, you have a good idea of what you're getting yourself into and what is expected of you, however with a PhD, it's much more difficult to get information (at least for me / in my country).

I had some work experience before going to university, and I know I don't want to spend the rest of my life doing monotonous office work. During my master's studies, I intend to participate in as many extracurricular events as possible in order to gain a grasp of "department life" or at the very least a sense of what it's like to work in science. I enjoy working with the team and the professor, although I have had more contact with the postdoc so far. With this respect, I have a few questions and your feedback might help to list the pros and cons 

  • Other PhD students complain about the professor's ambiguity about the direction of their research. Isn't a PhD position about charting your own course and conducting research with the assistance of postdocs and professors? If there is a clear way, I believe we won't need PhDs or researchers, right?
  • What professional options will I have in the sector once I complete my PhD? Will I be considered overqualified?
  • Can I earn the same pay as someone who has worked in industry for 4-5 years if I opt to do a PhD and then transfer into industry?
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Having a Ph.D. confers relatively few benefits outside of academia. The writing style and skills taught in academia are very very different from that of industry, and the opportunity cost of pursuing a Ph.D. vs going into software engineering (or something similarly renumerative) is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

I would suggest that if you don't know exactly what you want to do with your life, you would be well-suited to doing something that earns you a bunch of money. This money can later be used to finance grander ambitions when you have figured out what you want to do.

I'll turn this question around on you: why is a Ph.D. the best way of accomplishing what you want to do?

As to the drudgery of office work-- "office work" is, i think, a false category. I spent hours of unbearable tedium performing repetitive reactions in lab during my PhD, and my current cushy Microsoft engineering job is enormously more creative and interesting while paying approximately 10x as much. For someone with the smarts to get a ph.d., retraining into engineering is very, very easy.

One other generally undiscussed aspect of the working world is that, for a number of reasons, your employers mostly treat you with respect roughly proportional to your salary. Ph.D.s, consequently, are often treated very poorly. This probably contributes to their poor mental health, as documented elsewhere.

The mental health of PhD students is the main reason I’m not interested in doing one. There are lots of surveys showing terrible symptoms, e.g. this one where 36% of PhD students had sought treatment for depression or anxiety related to their PhD. That’s nearly 5x higher than the baseline 8% of Americans. You can find many similar surveys, and my anecdotal experience of asking PhD students whether they’re enjoying the experience has only confirmed this dismal picture.

https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-03489-1

Hm. I wonder about selection effects. PhD students might be more aware of mental health issues, and PhDs often come with some level of access to mental health services and occur in cities where those services are available. PhD students are also typically at an age when the baseline rate of anxiety and depression is significantly higher - I see figures in the 20% range (although this is for having anxiety, not seeking treatment). It's natural that whatever anxiety and depression they'd feel would be centered on their main focus in life.

I wouldn't be too surprised if anxiety and depression are somewhat elevated among PhD students as compared to their peers with a similar socioeconomic status, age, and IQ, but I suspect that that 36% vs. 8% comparison might be somewhat misleading.

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It is generally agreed that PhD is only worthwhile for those interested in staying in academia, at least for most STEM fields. Even then, it is a long slog and a lot of competition in the fields I am familiar with before you get that coveted assistant prof position, likely being stuck for the rest of your life at one place, underpaid relative to industry and forced to teach disinterested masses, writing grant proposals and navigating departmental politics. That said, I would have gladly stayed in academia after my PhD, were it a possibility in my case. If you have plans on working in the industry eventually, why not start now?

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