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Is a PhD Worth It?


It is the season for PhD program recruitment again. PhDs play an essential role in driving innovation and the development of cutting edge technologies and are important assets of the country. In order to gain insight into the motivations for further study and the benefits of earning a doctoral degree, the Science & Technology Policy Research and Information Center (STPI) under the National Applied Research Laboratories has conducted a large-scale survey involving doctorate holders who obtained their degree in the last 17 years. The overall findings suggest that most respondents hold a favorable view of the benefits of PhD degrees, especially those who graduated at an earlier stage, and those who were motivated to achieve specific career goals or become the top guns in their respective fields.

After the establishment of the National Platform on Human Resources in Science and Technology (NPHRST) in 2002, STPI has continued to conduct the longitudinal survey on local PhD holders. The subjects of this research were selected from NPHRST’s database, targeting all Taiwanese PhD holders who graduated from domestic and overseas universities between 2001 and 2017. A total of 29,702 invitations were sent out, and 4,897 valid surveys were returned, representing a response rate of 16.5%. 


To ensure its comprehensiveness, this survey was designed with reference to relevant research conducted worldwide. Nearly 20 doctorate holders from research, industrial, and academic fields were commissioned to run a pilot test on the survey, through which the survey items were extensively reviewed and revised. In addition, all sample data collected from the 4,897 surveys returned valid were weighted against the Ministry of Education’s statistical data of “the number of PhD graduates in universities, colleges, and junior colleges from 2000 to 2016 – by fields of study” using SPSS’s raking algorithm to ensure sample representativeness. The results were then published as “Annual NPHRST Survey Report on Doctorate Holders' Studying Motivations and Benefits”. The report contains the quantitative analysis result and discussions about the survey on aspects including personal data, doctoral studies, overall satisfaction with PhD education, and PhD holders’ current statuses versus actual benefits of earning a PhD degree.


Over 75% of respondents consider a PhD worthwhile

Respondents were asked to rate whether a PhD degree is “extremely worthwhile”, “moderately worthwhile”, “neutral”, “moderately worthless”, or “extremely worthless”. As a result, 75% of the PhD holders graduated in the last 17 years considered doctoral degree as “extremely worthwhile” or “moderately worthwhile”, with nearly 40% rating it as “extremely worthwhile”. 


Over half of respondents aged under 30 and over 45 considers a PhD worthwhile

The age of respondents was highly related to their perceptions of a PhD degree. Senior respondents and respondents who have graduated for many years were more likely to consider a doctoral degree worthwhile (“extremely worthwhile” or “moderately worthwhile”). In particular, 85.7% of respondents aged 50 and over considered a PhD worthwhile, compared to 66.2% of respondents aged under 40; 84.8% of doctorate holders graduated between 2001 and 2005 considered a PhD worthwhile, while only 70.9% of respondents who graduated after 2011 had the same response.        

Most of the respondents (84.6%) received a PhD degree at the age of 45 and over were mostly enrolled in in-service programs and considered a PhD degree worthwhile, compared to the youngest graduating group (under 30), 79.9% of them considered a doctoral degree worthwhile.


Respondents graduating abroad or majoring in education show higher satisfaction

Of all universities, 83.4% of respondents graduating abroad considered a doctoral degree as “extremely worthwhile” and “moderately worthwhile”, with over half rating it as “extremely worthwhile”. The number was slightly lower among PhD holders graduating from local universities, which accounted for 74.7% of respondents.

Among 12 academic disciplines surveyed, 84.9% of PhD holders with an education-related major considered a PhD worthwhile, with a satisfaction ratio of over 80%, which is 10% to 20% higher than that of other major fields. In contrast, respondents with a PhD in Sciences reported a relatively lower ratio – only 60% to 70% considered a PhD worthwhile.


Respondents pursuing PhD for job purposes, self-enrichment, and with prior work experience represent larger proportions of the satisfied PhD holders

The research also studied the relationship between motivations of study and the respondents’ perceptions of the value of a PhD degree. Results showed that career-related motivations such as “fulfill job requirement” and “meet the basic criteria of the desired career”, and degree-related motivations such as “pursue in-depth study to become a top scholar/distinguished entrepreneur/top gun in the field” were highly related to respondents who considered a PhD degree worthwhile (75%).      

Respondents who pursued PhD degrees with “career-related motivations” can be observed to be more satisfied with the benefits a PhD degree could bring. This result coincides with another survey, where respondents who “enrolled with prior work experience hired upon the completion of Bachelor/Master degree” and “enrolled while on the job” reported a higher satisfaction level as opposed to those who “enrolled right after the completion of Bachelor/Master degree” and “enrolled as a full-time student”.     

On the whole, most PhD holders saw their degrees as beneficial. Time-wise, those who graduated earlier were more satisfied with its merits, suggesting an increasing time value for PhD degrees. Motivation-wise, students who were motivated by career goals or the aspiration to ace in their fields were generally appreciative of a PhD degree’s value. Age-wise, a relatively large proportion of doctorate recipients who graduated before the age of 30 considered a PhD worthwhile.

In light of the survey results, STPI encourages aspirants who have set their minds on pursuing a PhD degree to go all out and accomplish their goals in a time-effective manner. STPI also suggests that those weighing a PhD degree against different options enter the job market at this juncture to allow them a chance to evaluate whether a PhD degree is necessary for their career development while accumulating a wealth of work experience. The decision made then to obtain a PhD degree would yield more benefits, at the same time promoting the virtuous cycle of industry-academia exchanges. 


NARLabs President Yeong-Her Wang (center-right) with STPI’s Director General Yuh-Jzer Joung (center-left) and the research team.