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Graduate Matters

To pursue or not to pursue a doctorate

Some say doctorates are designed for the pure love of research and to advance scientific knowledge, but this model excludes students who wish to pursue non-academic careers.


Few decisions dramatically influence the course of one’s life. Shouldn’t educational choices, such as a doctorate degree, be one of those? As an aspiring psychotherapist, I began researching possible educational pathways that ranged from a doctorate-level clinical psychology degree to two-year master’s degrees. What I discovered was dizzying. Briefly, the career opportunities available to master’s-level psychotherapists and doctorate-level psychologists are comparable, with the option for doctorate holders to also conduct research. From a practical perspective, if most clinical psychology doctorate students go on to do counseling, and the career options are similar, I wondered what advantages could explain the additional four-year investment (or more) to earn a doctorate. I began exploring the trade-offs as I considered my educational options.

Some say that doctorates are designed for the pure love of research and advancing scientific knowledge. But, unfortunately, this model excludes doctorate students who wish to pursue non-academic careers and suggests that anything less than a tenure-track professorship is a sign of failure. Such strong biases for an academic career path (although slowly shifting) should not be the case if doctorate degrees were simply for intellectual fulfillment rather than training for academia.

Then, there are questions about the real reward of graduate school. After years of tireless research in an uncertain and competitive environment, some financial reward, social influence and increase in career opportunities are reasonable expectations for PhD graduates. However, although university and college graduates earn more than high school graduates, PhDs earn only modestly more than those with master’s degrees in similar fields, and often only after two decades in the workforce. While some sources assert that doctorates are essential to innovation, others have pointed to the lack of data, evidence and even serious questioning of such premises. For many students without financial security or familial support, pursuing something based primarily on interest is not a realistic option.

Contradicting assertions about utility and purpose makes it incredibly difficult to gain accurate expectations about a doctorate degree’s benefits and trade-offs. As a result, I fear that students are intrigued by the promise of higher education while considerations of market needs and personal fit are pushed back until prospective students have already committed to a program. Although graduate school can be a strategic decision that opens new doors and satisfies intellectual curiosities, we cannot discount the trade-offs. In Canada, federal and provincial grants, teaching assistantships, and research positions provide a financial base for Canadian students at taxpayers’ expense. Even with access to quality education, graduate school is not necessary for everyone’s goals and values, nor is it a requirement for gaining knowledge, a stable career, influence, or conducting research. Below are a few considerations that I have gathered and edited for gauging my readiness for pursuing a doctorate.

1. Am I ready for this?

One person’s dream is another person’s compromise. Am I making a decision based on the perspectives of friends, professors, parents, coworkers or social media, rather than my own? Am I setting aside something vital that I might regret later? Address any conflicting desires before committing to a doctorate program, as it will be more difficult to explore these within the program – with its time restraints and productivity demands.

2. What are my intentions and expectations from a doctorate?

Is a doctorate the best way to address my needs? Although we may tell ourselves that we love to research and expect nothing in return, any one-sided giving is taxing after a few months or years. Is there something that you hope to gain? For instance, are you looking for self-acceptance or social prestige? How about networking or career opportunities? Is a master’s degree or a professional diploma sufficient? Can I gain what I’m looking for in another way? Be clear on your expectations from the program during and after completion.

3. How does my personality fit with doctorate studies?

A mismatch is like writing with the non-dominant hand – more effort for little extra gain. Ask yourself the following questions: Am I suited to a highly stressful, demanding and uncertain environment? How do I function in a non-structured work environment? Do I enjoy working alone for long periods? Do I have adequate emotional support and mental health resources? Identify possible mismatches between an academic research environment, your personality and your emotional resources. This can help you prepare for challenges and make informed educational decisions.  

4. What am I willing to put aside?

Dedication to doctorate studies may require several compromises, such as forgoing hobbies, homeownership, securing a stable income or starting a family. Are these core values of yours? Education and career may be essential, but they might not be central for you.

5. What else do I need to know before making this decision?

Consider finding a non-academic mentor in addition to gaining relevant work experiences, talking to professors andcurrent doctoral students, and learning about your specific career market. These conversations, especially with people of different backgrounds, could offer complementary perspectives worthy of consideration.

What would happen if prospective students dove into their studies without going over such guiding questions or trade-offs? Several things. Primarily, delayed evaluation of the trade-offs can produce a lack of clarity. At best, students may feel unease and doubt whether their sacrifices were worthwhile. At worst, students might realize they invested years in something that is utterly unnecessary for their goals. Even in environments that can foster growth and research excellence, ambiguous priorities can feed feelings of disengagement and disempowerment. Some students find the trade-offs worthwhile. Others will find that a master’s degree or gaining experience through employment is enough.

For me, my priorities of building financial security, improving mental health and beginning a counseling career sooner than later make a master’s education preferable over a doctorate. In the end, very few decisions are good or bad, but rather “good enough” for current circumstances. Whether with or without a doctorate, the ideal outcome is to make an informed decision that fits you and that you can stand behind.

Chelsea Chen
Chelsea Chen is a student in the MA(Ed) program in counselling psychology at the University of Ottawa.
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