Over the past few years, Isabelle Kohler has heard the same question countless times from Master’s students: should they do a PhD? Students often associate a PhD with research but overlook other important aspects, notably related to career prospects. In this column, Isabelle discusses the realities that PhD students may face, which are often overshadowed by the emphasis on research.

If you have been following Exploring Academia for some time, you will know that I value teaching and mentoring students very highly. Students have noticed this too; they feel more comfortable asking me for advice about their careers. A common question I hear from Master’s students is:

‘Should I do a PhD?’

I have heard this question countless times. When I was a pharmacy student, only 10% of my classmates pursued a PhD, likely because most pharmacy graduates traditionally worked in community or hospital pharmacies. But students I have supervised and mentored in the Netherlands face a much wider array of choices (e.g., industry, government institutes, start-up companies, science communication, academic career, etc.). I am therefore surprised by the relatively high and increasing number of students interested in a PhD.

The growing number of PhD students makes me think about the current system. The primary motivation for pursuing a PhD is most often a passion for research. Students dream of devoting years to a beloved project, culminating in a doctorate. Their eyes sparkle with excitement at the prospect. This passion is justified, as a PhD develops the ability to conduct independent research, think critically, and offer new insights into their field. It trains early-career scientists in research design, implementation, analysis, and solving complex problems with innovative solutions.

However, this emphasis on research sometimes overshadows realities that some PhD students face during or after their PhD.

What I witnessed is that prospective candidates often overlook their post-PhD career plans. What roles, sectors, or responsibilities will they seek? A PhD changes one’s professional profile, expecting them to take on leadership, management, and supervision roles, which might not align with everyone’s interests. For instance, someone with a keen interest in research but no affinity for leadership may face challenging times finding a suitable position after their PhD.

Another aspect is the opportunity cost. Spending years on a PhD also means not progressing in industry and gaining experience in the private sector. What are the long-term costs and financial implications of investing multiple years in a PhD? What is the value of a PhD in the chosen career path? These are important questions, particularly for careers in the private sector.

Finally, despite being a journey of professional and personal growth, a PhD is challenging and requires resilience, perseverance, dedication, hard work, flexibility, adaptability, independence, humility, self-management, and strength. It is an emotional rollercoaster, with lots of failures and moments of frustration and doubt. The journey ahead may be long and the tasks may feel heavy. For instance, academic writing is a crucial aspect of a PhD (writing research and review articles, abstracts for conferences, posters, supervising students writing their thesis, etc.). If you had difficulty writing your master’s thesis, imagine having to repeat the process 4-5 times during your PhD.

Choosing to pursue a PhD is a monumental decision. I would argue that we have created a PhD bubble, where we idealize the pursuit of academic knowledge and the prestige of a PhD, resulting in an oversupply of PhDs which may lead to difficulties in finding suitable roles, competition for limited positions, or burn-out talented scientists at a young age already.

If you are considering a PhD, ensure that your decision is well-informed – not just inspired. Reflect not only on the PhD itself but also on its broader implications for your future career. The most important thing is to align your decision with your personal and professional goals. Therefore, take the time to define these goals thoughtfully and thoroughly, whether you choose to pursue a PhD or take another route.


If you are interested in learning more about how to navigate academia and whether a PhD is the best next step for your career, do not hesitate to join the NextMinds Community! For this, you have plenty of choices: visit NextMinds website to learn more about my work, sign up for the newsletter, and follow me and NextMinds on LinkedIn.