Should I Get Another Degree?

Brian Taylor

July 28, 2009

Julie: In the past few months, we've written several columns about nonacademic career paths for Ph.D.'s. Many job candidates, faced with the prospect of going on the academic market this fall, are thinking about what else they might do if their tenure-track search falls short. The same goes for some adjuncts, or graduate students who have had a change of heart about pursuing a doctorate.

Jenny: There are, of course, countless career paths available outside academe. The problem is, many of them require specific training and skills that are not acquired during a Ph.D. program. To practice law, you need a J.D. and to be admitted to the bar; to become a registered nurse or teach in a public school, you need a specific degree in that field and state certification. Other professions—such as librarianship, historic preservation, or city planning—may not explicitly require additional training but can be challenging to break into without the appropriate professional degree.

Julie: As someone who has already spent years and years in school, you probably have many reservations about pursuing yet another degree. Is it worth the time and effort? Is this the right decision financially? You may also worry about the reaction of friends and loved ones: "Why does someone with a Ph.D. need more training?" Or, "If you knew you wanted to be a social worker, why did you bother with a Ph.D. in history?"

Jenny: As you consider your personal and professional goals and your financial situation, make sure you also do the necessary research and informational interviewing to determine whether you truly need an additional degree for the career you have in mind.

Julie: To give you a sense of how you might make this decision, we talked with five Ph.D.'s who applied to master's programs post-Ph.D.:

  • Ben Doranz, president and chief scientific officer of Integral Molecular Inc., holds a Ph.D. in cell and molecular biology from the University of Pennsylvania as well as an M.B.A. from Penn's Wharton School.

  • Liz Denlinger, curator of the the Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle at the New York Public Library, holds a Ph.D. in English from New York University and a master's in library and information science from the Palmer School at Long Island University.

  • Ridie Ghezzi, head of research and instruction services at Dartmouth College's Baker-Berry Library, completed a Ph.D. in folklore from Penn and a master's in library science from Drexel University.

  • "Jane Doe," a public high-school teacher in Oregon who holds a Ph.D. in French and is working on a master's in education, asked to remain anonymous.

  • Anne Whisnant, director of research, communications, and programs in the office of faculty governance at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and co-owner of a historical-consulting practice, holds a Ph.D. in history from Chapel Hill and was admitted to both the law school and the master's program in city and regional planning there. After careful consideration, she declined admission to both programs.


Jenny: They decided to pursue another degree, postdoctorate, for varied reasons. Jane, the schoolteacher, needed to get a master's in education in order to keep her teaching post. "In Oregon," she told us, "there is an alternative temporary license available for professionals that is good for three years but only with one school. It's perfect for people like me if they can actually get the position. … I'll have the teaching credential done by the time the temporary license expires."

Likewise, Liz, the library curator, described the M.L.S. as a "union card" for librarians. If she wanted to advance in the field, she knew she needed the degree.

Julie: For Ben, the biotech-company president, the situation was a bit different. He didn't have to have an M.B.A. to move up; indeed, many Ph.D.'s working on the business side of biotech do not have one. He chose to pursue the degree after an assessment of his own skills and career goals. "I was interested in applied science and also felt like I needed to know how to manage budgets, people, and projects, not just how to run experiments, in order to be successful as an independent scientist," he said. "Although many scientists lead companies and commercialize technologies without an M.B.A., I personally could not have done it without the education and formal training."

Jenny: After finishing her Ph.D., Ridie, the Dartmouth librarian, knew she didn't want to teach or pursue a tenure-track job. Personal considerations had a good deal to do with her choice: "I had two young children and knew I wanted to have time with them and didn't want a career in which I might be traveling or not home frequently. My husband, for his own reasons, had decided to pursue an M.L.S. and saw me as a perfect candidate for this field, something that had never even crossed my mind. As I looked into it, I saw academic reference librarianship as a way to stay connected to academics and research, which I truly loved, while working with the public, another priority."

Julie: When Anne, the Chapel Hill administrator, decided to apply to graduate school (again), she had just finished a major project—her book Super-Scenic Motorway: A Blue Ridge Parkway History. With that off her plate, she was ready for a new challenge. "I had previously attempted four times to get a job with the planning division of the state highway department on the basis of my history Ph.D. alone, and had failed even to get an interview, except once when I got to know someone behind the scenes," she said. "That interview led nowhere, though I did learn that my previous applications probably didn't even get past HR, based on my perceived lack of qualifications. I was pretty discouraged with the idea that the history Ph.D. itself could not readily be leveraged into a more applied position even in a field of work that engaged many questions that were directly related to what I'd been writing about (and what my forthcoming book was about)."

Jenny: All five Ph.D.'s said that, in choosing a graduate program for their additional degrees, proximity was critical. They tended to apply to places close to home.

Julie: Some of our interviewees found the application process to be quite onerous. Ben applied twice to Wharton's M.B.A. program. He was not admitted on his first try, mostly because he had no "real world" experience. Jane's application process was complicated because, as she put it, she "didn't fit the schoolteacher mold." She had to take a multiple-choice test in English literature in order to be admitted because she does not have a B.A. in English. It took many hours of meetings with administrators to explain that she is actually a literary scholar, even if her area of expertise is French literature. The test itself was easy, but she did have to pay more than $350 for various testing fees.

Jenny: Because Anne applied to law school, she was required to take the Law School Admission Test. "With little kids at home, a full-time job, and ongoing book-related loose ends," she said, "I was more or less unable to prepare much at all for taking this, contrary to almost every bit of advice you ever read. I think I did buy one book and take one or two practice tests late at night when I was already tired. The logic section I found exceedingly challenging. In the end, however, I took the test twice, scoring 161 the first time and 159 the second. Not fabulous, but it was enough: I was admitted."

Julie: Of the five people we interviewed, Anne was the only one to apply to and be accepted by graduate programs, and then decide not to attend. Still, she said, the application process itself helped her regain her self-confidence and sense of self-worth at a point when she was deeply frustrated by her inability to find a way to use her humanities Ph.D. outside of academe.

Jenny: We were curious about how our interviewees could afford to pay for another degree program. The short answer: It wasn't easy. Ridie had an library internship one year, received several scholarships, and also did some consulting work to finance her schooling. Liz paid for her M.L.S. degree one class at a time and made slow but steady progress. Ben took out loans that he said were "well worth it," and Jane's employer pays a significant portion of her tuition.

Julie: Part of the reason that Anne decided not to go to graduate school was because neither of the programs she applied to allowed part-time attendance. Taking out loans and putting her family in debt seemed too much to ask. And the more she considered it, the more she realized she didn't want to be a graduate student again.

Jenny: We were also curious as to how challenging and interesting they found their second graduate programs. Ben enjoyed the academic work associated with an M.B.A. because it was applied work and mostly new for him, although he said it was not as creatively challenging as science. Ridie and Jane, on the other hand, weren't very excited by the academic work, although Ridie learned a lot through her internship because it gave her the opportunity to work in the field and in a library reference department that she highly respected. Liz found that centering her projects and assignments around her area of interest, poetry, made her course work more exciting. None of them regret pursuing the extra degrees.

Julie: Changing fields after earning a Ph.D. in one field is complicated, and adding another graduate program to the mix can make it even more so. However, for some people it is the right decision, and one that enables them to move into a satisfying career.

Julie Miller Vick is senior associate director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania, and Jennifer S. Furlong is associate director of graduate-student career development at Columbia University's Center for Career Education. They are the authors of "The Academic Job Search Handbook" (University of Pennsylvania Press), reissued in an expanded edition last summer. If you have questions for the Career Talk columnists, send them to