PhD in Materials Science – Is it Worth Doing?


I wanted to be “Dr. Brandon” since before I understood what a Ph.D. was. Through elementary school, high school, and undergrad, I kept this goal in mind. Every time I made a decision concerning my education, I considered how it would affect my odds of earning a Ph.D. I’ll leave the specifics of those steps for another post, but today I need to address whether it is worth earning a Ph.D. in materials science.

And to address any potential biases–I am currently pursuing a PhD in materials science. My wife Ewelina, however, wouldn’t do a PhD if her life depended on it (she does have a Master’s in materials science). She’s helping me write this article, so you can see both sides!

It IS worth earning a Ph.D. in materials science and engineering if you want a career leading a research group. A Ph.D. is generally NOT worth acquiring if you have purely financial goals. A master’s degree is generally worth the same as a bachelor’s plus 2-5 years of work experience, so you will have to decide if you’d rather earn a master’s or actually get work experience.

Let’s go point-by-point to see if a Ph.D. is right for you. Most of this advice may be relevant to anyone interested in graduate school in STEM, but since I’m personally studying materials science, I’ll stick to what I know.

Earning a PhD is hard–everyone knows that. This is a decision you will have to make for yourself, but I hope to outline exactly what you will gain from a PhD.

Let’s start with the elephant in the room: salary

Salary

How much more do doctors make than regular scientists? Unfortunately, this is not something that can be easily searched. Depending which site you read, you will probably find that doctors in materials science earn about $95,000 per year, plus or minus $15,000.

A good rule of thumb I’ve heard from working professionals is that–in materials science–a bachelor’s degree should start you with an annual salary of about $60k, a master’s should start around $80k, and a doctorate’s should start around $100k.

In reality, the subfield of materials science probably matters more to salary than the degree. I know students who went into petroleum with a bachelor’s degree and started around $110k or $120k. Professors may start as low as $80k.

In general, a master’s degree and bachelor’s degree are treated the same, but a person who has a master’s will be treated as if he/she has 2-5 years of work experience over the person with a bachelor’s. 

However, employees with PhDs are treated fundamentally differently than those without the degree. If you don’t have a PhD, your career path will stop at a glass ceiling. However, the salary difference below and above that ceiling is not that significant.

The difference between a materials scientist at the 50th percentile and 90th percentile is about $50,000 per year. Most of the scientists at the 50th percentile would not have PhDs, and I suspect that most of the scientists at the 90th percentile do have PhDs.

This over-estimate means a PhD in materials scientists will earn about $50,000 per year more than not having the PhD. 

The chart below plots these earnings, and also includes the total earnings if you invest all your money at a 5% annual return (or half your money at a 10% annual return). That’s more investment than most people can afford, but I think it’s worth looking at. 

If you’re motivated by money, it’s interesting to notice that a person with a bachelor’s making this investment will always have more money than a person with a PhD who does not invest.

(Although remember that this assumes the PhD degree is net 0 income. Any reputable materials science PhD program will pay you, but it’s not much. Most PhD students that I’ve met tell me that their stipend exactly covers their cost of living in a college town).

Another way to approach this is to consider the salary improvement of having a PhD in chemistry. Since there are more chemists than materials scientists (and many materials science graduates will have a job title of “chemist”), there is more data to judge from. The American Chemical Society (ACS) has released a report from 2013 that details salaries of chemists with bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD degrees.

ACS reports a median salary of $94,000 per year, which is different from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ report of $77,000. This discrepancy can probably be explained by who they count as “chemists,” but the relative spread should be similar. According to ACS, each “better” degree is worth about $12,000 annually.

That is nothing to sneeze at, but consider the time investment (and money investment, for master’s students).

With regards to professor salaries, assistant professors (new hires) usually make around $100,000 at my undergraduate university. (I currently attend a private university that does not release that data, but these figures seem consistent between the public universities I’ve checked). Tenured professors in materials science typically earn around $200,000 per year. However, keep in mind that professors are the best of the best. Every professor I’ve talked to has claimed that industry has offered them 2-3 times the salary, so there is a lot of money to be made at the top 1% of the field.

However, for most people focused on earning as much money as possible, I would recommend looking for a job in oil and gas with a bachelor’s degree. Earn as much as possible, as quick as possible, and invest it. Those early investments will snowball. As you can see from those graphs, a financially-minded person with a bachelor’s can earn more than a non-investing PhD-holder at all times.

While I don’t think a PhD provides the best financial benefit, you may be interested in a different job benefit than salary: position.

Position

As I mentioned earlier, having a PhD will open entirely new career paths. In the world of research, you aren’t taken seriously unless you have earned a PhD.

It is definitely possible to get research positions without a Ph.D. National laboratories, company laboratories, and universities all need technicians and research assistants. 

For example, technicians at my undergraduate university make about $60-70k a year. Pay will depend on where you work (public universities tend to be on the low end), but this is about twice what they pay administrative staff, for reference.

In many cases, a materials scientist with several years of experience can be on a team with PhD-holders. This may be a research team, a future policy/strategy team, or a quality control team. A non-PhD-holder may even manage several teams, including the research team. 

However, the research lead will always have a PhD. Some of my professors have lamented that when they worked in industry, their well-qualified peers who did not have a PhD were often ignored because of this. A person with a master’s might have a head start over someone with a bachelor’s, but after many years of work experience, these differences will soon be unnoticeable.

Office politics will surely vary from company to company, but even after decades of work experience, a person who does not have a PhD will not be eligible for the same research leadership as someone with a PhD.

My undergraduate professors encouraged me to study for my PhD because they didn’t think I wanted to sit on the side and perform research according to someone else’s plan. I wanted to control overarching research decisions and strategies.

It is absolutely possible to perform research without a PhD, and many people are perfectly happy to follow someone else’s directions while solving smaller problems. But if you want control of a company’s overall research strategy, you will need a PhD.

The main job position that is limited to PhD-holders is being a professor. Everything else is possible to do without a PhD, as long as you are willing to have a PhD-holder as your boss.

Why is a PhD Valuable to You?

Having a PhD is valuable to you because it opens doors to exciting positions. These positions typically offer higher salaries and prestige (although if that is your only goal, there are better paths).

While you are studying in grad school (PhD or master’s), you do have several benefits.

You can network with other highly intelligent, highly motivated people. Some of these may be world-experts in your field that you’ve met at conferences, others may be PhD students at different departments in your university. Graduate school is a great place to meet people who want to found startups.

You may have flexible working hours and a great deal of control over your day-to-day activities. You can also maintain involvement in university activities such as intramurals, clubs, and interesting classes. You have full access to university resources, including advisors for career development, libraries, and mental health resources.

You will gain lots of experience presenting and writing papers.  If you want to become a professor, earning a PhD is a necessity. You will literally become the world expert in a narrow topic.

One often-neglected reason to pursue graduate school is if you want to increase the prestige of the school on your resume. When you apply for a job, your employer will only care about the most recent school on the resume. 

If you know that you want to pursue graduate school, I highly recommend accepting an undergraduate scholarship at a less-prestigious school. If you graduated with a graduate degree from a more prestigious institution, that will be the only school your employer notices. (Incidentally, this is the main reason I believe a master’s degree is valuable. It offers you a quick way to change the name of the most recent school on your resume).

Of course, you shouldn’t only think about what you have to gain by earning a PhD. Why would your employer care?

Why is a PhD Valuable to Your Employer?

Having a PhD is valuable to your employer because it proves some things about you.

A PhD proves that 

  • You are dedicated and willing to stick to one project for 5 years
  • You are willing to work longer and harder than most people
  • You can learn new, difficult things (classes are tough!)
  • You are a self-starter and can plan several years ahead.
  • You can work independently without someone micromanaging you

In addition to the personal qualities that a PhD ensures you have, in the course of your PhD project you will become the world expert in a narrow topic. 

Sometimes, that narrow topic is of interest to your employer. A company may have a specific problem that needs to be solved, and since you are one of a dozen people in the world with a full understanding of the problem, you are an obvious hire. In many cases, the company would reach out to you or your advisor while you are still completing your PhD. They may fund specific research and offer you a job upon completion of the degree.

In most cases, however, employers will not hire you to continue your PhD project. You have proven that you can become a world expert in one topic, and your employer will want you to become a world expert in another, possibly related topic. In some cases, the company that hires you may not care about the topic of your PhD dissertation at all!

Is Your Personality a Good Fit for a PhD?

It is undeniable that you’d rather have a PhD than not have it. However, acquiring a PhD doesn’t come for free. You have to give up 4-6 years of income, studying one topic. You have to take hard classes, work long hours, and solve messy problems.

Ultimately the decision to earn a PhD will depend on your personality; how much will you personally appreciate the benefits that come with a PhD, and how easily will you bear its costs.

You should heavily consider aiming for a PhD if:

  • You are curious and interested in finding answers.
  • You truly love research and are inspired by the “higher cause” of contributing to humanity’s total knowledge
  • You can stay motivated even when faced with difficult problems
  • You value flexible, but intense, working hours
  • You can stay motivated for five years working on one project alone
  • You want to become a professor, consultant, or other high-status professional
  • You want to have more jobs opportunities with exciting prospects (like national labs or startups)

You probably don’t want to do a PhD if:

  • You are primarily motivated by a higher salary
  • You aren’t sure what to do after undergrad but you are afraid to enter the real world
  • You would rather have job stability than a prestigious position
  • You don’t love research.
  • You are tired of classes and work that follows you home
  • You aren’t willing to earn near-minimum wage for the next 5 years

If you want to do a PhD, you need to have strong mental health. The endeavor is extremely difficult and 50% of PhD students will experience psychological distress.

You need to be prepared for long hours with little pay (at least you’re in STEM, which has pay!).

If you still want to pursue a PhD after all the negatives I’ve told you, great! Determination is an important quality to have!

If I have convinced you against pursuing a PhD, don’t worry. There are still many options available with a Materials Science Degree!

Alternative Career Paths that don’t Involve a PhD

If you aren’t sure if you want to do a PhD, you may want to pursue a master’s. In many cases, a master’s is like a mini-PhD. Many universities offer a 5-year bachelor’s + master’s combo, which is a great option if you are considering applying for a PhD but aren’t sure. However, keep in mind that a Master’s will take 2 years (or 1, in an accelerated program), but if you do decide to get a PhD, you will probably only save about 6 months of your total PhD time.

If you want to make money, I recommend applying for as many internships as possible in undergrad. Get involved in undergraduate research (internships are better for landing a job, REUs are better for applying to grad school). Try to work for a petroleum company, earn six figures immediately, save and invest aggressively.

If you want a stable job, I still recommend undergraduate research and internships. These are the most attractive things on a resume. Find companies with more job stability than petroleum, possibly something that involves failure analysis, and possibly in the government. Try to become proficient at a skill in undergraduate research; for example, you could volunteer to help a graduate student polish samples or take pictures in a microscope. Having concrete skills like this will help you land a job as a lab technician. 

If you want a job internationally, I would recommend the same steps I suggested for job stability. If you are demonstrably proficient at a single instrument when you graduate, you will be able to fill technician’s roles at any company or lab, in the US or abroad. I would also recommend applying for internships at foreign national labs. These labs usually don’t pay as much as company internships, but they will provide international work experience.

If you want to boost your resume because you had poor grades or graduated from a less-prestigious university, I would recommend applying for your master’s. If your university offers a 5 year bachelor’s +master’s combo, you may not want to take this. Instead, I would recommend applying for an accelerated master’s program, which usually takes 1 year. Be aware that these programs are extremely expensive! However, I know a few master’s students at my school, and most of them are very happy with the resume boost and current salary.

You may also take the “dark path.”

Master’s students are rarely funded. PhD students are always funded, and if you drop out of a PhD, you will usually come away with a master’s. This is called “mastering out.” It is a bit dishonest to apply for a PhD program with the intention of mastering out, but it may save you six figures in tuition.

However, if you are considering this, realize that PhD programs are much harder than master’s programs. You will need to take intense classes and work full time in the lab. You will probably need to publish at least one paper, and it will take you 2-3 years, which is longer than the 1-2 years needed if you had directly applied to a master’s program. Additionally, you’ll need to be careful to avoid burning bridges when you quit. Your advisor has invested a lot of time and money into you, and may be upset that you are wasting this investment by mastering out.

I would not recommend mastering out, but if you are pretty sure you want to do a PhD, instead of starting with a master’s and upgrading a PhD if you like it, it is possible to start with a PhD and downgrade to the master’s.

Final Thoughts: Who Should Pursue a PhD in Materials Science and Engineering?

You should consider applying to a PhD program if you want to be challenged as intensely as possible. The rewards for having a PhD can vary significantly, but it will improve your prestige more than your salary. If you are inquisitive, love research, and willing to work long hours, you will survive a PhD experience.

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