Should I Get a Terminal Degree? 5 Questions to Ask Yourself

In high school and college, I was the girl writing 10-page five-year plans, making copies in triplicate, and mailing a copy home to my mom just for good measure. My entire life was planned out — perfect job, perfect career, exact plans for education. I was going to have my PhD by 25, retire by 45, and live my best life, all before YOLO was a thing. Up until I was 21, everything was going to plan. I graduated with a master’s degree at the end of my 21st year of life and felt on top of the world. Then I was fired from my job two months later.

The very first thing I did (after crying, applying for unemployment, and shamelessly eating a pint of Jeni’s ice cream) was consider going back to school for a PhD. After all, I was less than four years away from my “PhD by 25” deadline and according to US News, doctorate degrees typically take five to seven years to complete

As I fell down the rabbit hole of researching terminal degrees, I had so many questions. What is the difference between a doctoral student and a doctoral candidate? (They indicate pre/post coursework stage.) Is there a difference between a PhD and a DBA? (Both are terminal degrees, but thesis requirements vary.) Can you do a PhD part-time? (Yes, but you’ll be very busy.) Is there some kind of minimum experience level necessary to do a PhD? (There aren’t hard and fast guidelines, but typically a master’s degree and minimum work experience is a good start.) I ended up opting against a PhD at the time. Instead, I took the business I’d been slowly building as a side hustle and accelerated it to my full-time gig. In many ways, I received the best business education one could ask for from the hands-on experience in building a company.

Fast forward four years and I’m now nearly 26. I have a day job at Google and still run that same business as a side hustle again. I’m also a month into a DBA (Doctor of Business Administration) program. I won’t have my PhD by 25 as originally planned (technically I won’t have a PhD at all), but things have worked out just fine.

What made me decide to get a doctorate degree? Was it the right decision? 

When thinking about advanced education, it’s critical to consider future intent to ensure efficacy of the financial and personal commitments necessary to complete the coursework and research. Traditional bachelor’s and master’s degrees can quickly become out of date — in fact, my bachelor’s degree is less than a decade old and I’ve already surpassed the usefulness of the information I learned. However, doctoral or terminal degrees infer an expectation that you’ll forever be an expert in the given field. There’s also a presumption that you’ll contribute new research to the field, building upon the existing knowledge base.

 

Determining if a terminal degree is the right decision for you is very personal, but here are some questions that can guide your thought process: 

 

1. Do you intend to ever teach in the field you would be studying? If yes, at what level would you want to teach?

Many colleges and universities require a terminal degree (often specifically a PhD) to teach and seek a tenure track role. According to Age of Awareness, you could still be a college professor at a lower level or non-tenure track with a non-terminal degree, but your teaching opportunities would be limited.

 

2. If not teaching, what is your motivation for pursuing a degree?

If you are looking to get ahead at work, oftentimes a master’s degree will suffice. Talk to both academic and professional mentors to ensure that your choice of degree fits your end goals. If you are pursuing a PhD for the “Doctor” title, five to seven years or more is a long time and a lot of work for that status symbol.

 

3. Are you a proficient public speaker or educator?

While a terminal degree will give you the credentials necessary to become a professor down the line, there is little to no education in actually being a lecturer. Whereas K-12 educators have to complete state certification requirements in addition to pursuing a degree, there is no such requirement to teach at the college level — PhD programs focus on producing research, not creating teachers. You’ll be on your own to ensure you have the skills necessary to teach (and to gain the experience necessary to prove it). 

 

4. Do you have access to financial resources or alternatives to fund a degree?

In most cases, bachelor’s and master’s degrees are cut and dry. They take two to five years to complete and the financial commitment can be projected and planned for. Terminal degrees aren’t so easy — while coursework can be projected, research can extend years or even decades into the future. Do you have a plan for financing this burden? Fellowships, assistantships, and scholarships are available by application or your employer might finance some of the degree cost, but there is likely a portion that will need to come out of your pocket. 

 

5. Are you fiercely passionate about a topic related to the field of study?

This is a less stringent question than the ones we’ve discussed, however you will be studying and researching a laser-focused topic for at least two years, if not longer. Are you passionate enough about a topic to sustain that kind of focus and dedication?

 

It may seem as though I am dissuading you from pursuing a terminal degree, and to some extent, I am. A doctoral program is a tremendous amount of work and a massive commitment. For example, during the first week of my program, I was on vacation in Europe. I had to be up at 3am to attend lectures that were scheduled based on domestic time zones. In a bachelor’s or master’s program, I likely could have missed that week of class, but in a terminal degree program that’s not an option. However, if you know that a terminal degree will further your personal or professional goals, I highly encourage you to take the leap and dive in. It may have taken me a few extra years to decide, and I definitely won’t be a 25-year-old doctor, but it’s been worth the wait thus far.

 

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