Why you should consider applying for grad school right now

By Robert Wiblin

Application deadlines for US PhD programs are coming up over the next month. We think many of our readers who are considering grad school at some point in the next few years should apply this year.

We’re writing this informal list of pros and cons now because a number of people we’ve coached recently have been more reluctant to apply for grad school than we think they should have been.

Why should they take the option seriously?

  • You have to plan far ahead of time. If you apply now you will only begin the program late next year. Even if you don’t feel ready to start a PhD today, you should consider whether you will be in a year’s time. If you aren’t sure, applying keeps that option open. We’ve spoken to many people considering grad school but thought they would work for a few years before returning, only to have their situation change and grad school seem like a much better option. Early in your career, your mind can change more often than you expect.
  • An increasing number of the paths we recommend, especially in research and policy, are much easier to pursue with a PhD. For example, if you want to work on improving our ability to control pandemics, the best options appear to be research (most likely in academia but perhaps also in the private sector), or policy reform (in think tanks, government agencies, congressional, or elsewhere). Some of the best roles are only open to people with PhDs. Even where they aren’t, you’re likely to advance faster and have more impact with a PhD in a relevant area, such as epidemiology or synthetic biology.
  • There are a number of graduate programs we often recommend, such as economics, machine learning and data science. There are a number of others that can also be good if they are the right personal fit for you, such as philosophy, mathematics, computer science, physics, public policy, and some areas of biology or medicine such as biomedical research.
  • Our readers are sometimes underconfident – they can get into top programs, though don’t think they can.
  • We are concerned about untrained amateurs going directly into trying to solve very difficult problems. They can then cause harm overall, by lowering the average quality of analysis or launching ill-considered projects due to a lack of experience or understanding. A PhD reduces the risk you will do this.
  • Even if you probably don’t want to enrol next year, if you apply this year you can learn the process and put in even stronger application next time. Being declined this year often doesn’t hurt your chances applying next year (though you should check with particular programs you’re applying to).
  • Professors can usually write a stronger letter of recommendation if you’re recently out of college, just because they remember you better. It’s hard to write a good letter for someone you’ve talked with a handful of times in the past 5 years.
  • Top programs often weight recent research more heavily than research you did a number of years ago. If you spend more than 2-3 years without doing relevant research in that time, this can significantly hurt your chances.
  • There are a growing number of donors in the effective altruism community (such as the AI Fellows Program) willing to fund PhD graduates to conduct research into our priority problem areas, both inside and outside academia. As a result the job prospects for PhD graduates who are part of the effective altruism community look better than they used to.

In the past we have been more pessimistic about the value of doctoral programs. We worry readers may see us as discouraging them more than we currently do.

Of course applying for grad school involves substantial costs – the time taken to compile writing samples, take standardised tests, contact references, and of course the application fee itself. If your chances of accepting an offer for the coming year are low enough, then it wouldn’t be worth this up-front cost.

On top of that many of our reasons for being cautious about starting PhDs (but not necessarily applying) in the past remain correct.

Reasons for caution

  • PhDs take a long time. In the US, “the average student takes 8.2 years to get a PhD” and on average graduate at the age of 33.
  • On top of this, we think attention to solving many problems is required urgently. A year’s work now accomplishes more than a year’s work in a decade’s time, even if you’re doing very similar things (read more about the justification for this: intro and advanced). Given a PhD will delay your productive work, you have to think you’ll be substantially more productive after completing it, or your thesis itself very useful, for it to be worth the up-front time investment. In one plausible model (an 8% discount rate on work per year, and a PhD student who takes 8 years to complete, finishes at 33, and retires at 70), someone would have to be more than twice as productive in each remaining year as they would have been if they started work right away, in order for the PhD to be the better option. This seems quite possible, but it won’t always be the case.
  • There’s a risk you commit to a field, work for 8 years to finish a PhD, and then find the work is a bad fit for you and you have to quit. Imagine completing a medical degree and then finding you hate practicing medicine! To avoid this you should i) do a PhD with a range of potential career options, and ii) find ways of testing your personal fit before you start a PhD.
  • PhDs in some fields (e.g. history) seem to shrink your career options more than expand them, or are not viewed as great credentials. Some PhDs almost only lead to academic careers, and if you fail to secure one of those, you’ll be in trouble. However, note that we would like to have some people from these fields as part of the effective altruism community in order to bring in knowledge from a wider range of areas.
  • In most fields – with the notable exception of economics – competition for limited academic positions is fierce. If you plan to go into academia, you need to know what fraction of graduates successfully make it into research roles. For example, only 3.5% of people who complete a PhD in biomedical research in the UK end up with a permanent research role at a university. Don’t just assume you’re better than everyone else and can beat the odds without strong evidence.
  • While PhDs can offer students free time, and an opportunity for intellectual exploration, many report finding them bad for their happiness and mental health. Some key problems appear to be little structure (which encourages many people to procrastinate), low levels of teamwork (which creates social isolation), and not enough feedback on how you’re performing (which is one of the key things requires for job satisfaction). In addition, many students face financial stress and uncertainty about their future prospects, especially if they want to enter a highly competitive path.
  • PhDs can be expensive both in terms of tuition and living costs.
  • PhDs are intellectually demanding, and not everyone will be able to finish. They can also require a particular set of skills, and may turn out to be a bad fit for you if you haven’t checked this first. It’s usually a bad idea to start a PhD if you expect to drop out.

Despite all of these considerations, we expect many of our readers are well positioned to do PhDs as a way to advance their career. If you think you’re one of those, consider starting an application today.

That’s not to say you should necessarily accept if you get an offer – properly evaluating that would take a far longer piece. But below I’ve put a list of articles that could help you decide whether a PhD is a good idea for you.

For further reading, some relevant articles

Podcast episodes in which PhDs are discussed