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Is a PhD Worth It? Top 10 Highest-Paying PhDs

Highest Paying Doctoral Degrees
Rebecca Safier
Rebecca SafierUpdated September 8, 2023
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A PhD is the highest degree you can earn in a field. Doctoral programs involve a great amount of time, effort, and hard work, so it’s natural to consider, “Is a PhD worth it?” before committing to a program of study. Earning your doctorate may be worth it if you’re looking to deepen your knowledge and expand your credibility in a field that you’re passionate about. You’ll spend anywhere from four to eight years studying, teaching, researching, and writing about your field, ultimately emerging from your program with deep expertise and experience in your subject area. At the same time, not all doctoral programs have the same financial benefits in the long run. If you’re looking for a financial payoff, it’s worth considering what the highest-paying PhD degrees are. Read on for a closer look at the pros and cons of earning your PhD, along with the degrees that can provide the biggest boost to your earning potential. 

What Career Paths Benefit Most From Earning a PhD?

Some career paths benefit more than others from earning a PhD. Before heading to graduate school, it’s worth considering what outcome you’re hoping to achieve following graduation. Here are a few career opportunities you might consider after earning this prestigious degree: 
  • Academia: After earning your PhD, you could become a professor or researcher at a major university. You might also move into an educational leadership position, such as a superintendent of a K-12 school district. 
  • Consulting: PhD holders can also put their expertise to use by consulting clients in a variety of fields, including finance, healthcare, or technology.
  • Research: After honing your research skills in your PhD program, you might also find a position as a researcher in electronics, pharma, high tech, telecommunications, finance, insurance, or another industry.
  • Government: With your PhD, you could also go into government work, perhaps working as a policy analyst or other high-level official. 
  • Entrepreneurship: Some PhD graduates put their expertise to use by starting their own companies
  • Non-profit organizations: With your advanced education, you could also go into the nonprofit world, perhaps acting as a program director to help solve social challenges. 

What Benefits Are There To Earning a PhD?

Earning your PhD can have a host of benefits, including: 
  • Opens the door to career opportunities: Depending on your field, a PhD may be required for certain positions. It also shows you have the knowledge and skills to move into high-level roles. 
  • May increase your earning potential: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), people with PhDs have higher median earnings than those with only a master’s or bachelor’s degree. 
  • Allows you to pursue your passion: A PhD could also be a good fit if you’re passionate about a certain field and want to spend years developing your expertise. 

What Are the Potential Risks of Getting a PhD?

At the same time, there are risks to getting a PhD that are worth taking into account. 
  • Requires years of additional schooling: PhDs are a significant time commitment, so be prepared to continue being a student for an additional four to eight years. 
  • Miss out on a full-time income while you’re studying: While you may earn a stipend from teaching as you’re working toward your PhD, the earnings will probably be lower than what you could be making if you worked full-time instead. 
  • Post-graduation outcomes aren’t guaranteed: Some fields are more competitive than others, so there’s no guarantee you’ll get a job following graduation. Professorships and other positions in academia, for example, are notoriously competitive. 

What Are the Top 10 Highest-Paying PhDs?

Here are some of the highest-paying PhDs, according to salary data from BLS. 
  1. Physics: Physicists might work in research laboratories or observatories and earn a median salary of $147,450 per year. BLS projects that physicist and astronomer positions will grow by 8% by 2031. 
  2. Computer Science: Computer and information research scientists earn a median salary of $131,490 per year working with computer technology, data science, or a related field. 
  3. Pharmacology: Pharmacists can earn $128,570 annually working in healthcare facilities and pharmacies to dispense prescription medications. Learn more about pharmacy school costs in this guide. 
  4. Aerospace Engineering: Aerospace engineers design and develop spacecraft, satellites, and other machinery and make a median salary of $122,270 per year. Employment is projected to grow by 6%. 
  5. Math: Mathematicians may work in government, academia, or other settings to analyze data and solve problems. Their median annual salary is $108,100, and BLS predicts that employment of mathematicians will grow by 31% by 2031, much faster than the average for all occupations. 
  6. Economics: Economists make a median salary of $105,630 per year in their work evaluating fiscal policy and monitoring financial data. Employment is projected to grow by 6% over the next few years. 
  7. Chemical Engineering: Chemical engineers use chemistry, biology, physics, and math to solve problems in various industries and earn a median annual salary of $105,550. BLS projects employment for chemical engineers to grow by 14% by 2031. 
  8. Electrical Engineering: Electrical and electronics engineers earn $101,780 annually working in research, manufacturing, telecommunications, the federal government, and other spheres.  
  9. Biomedical Engineering: Bioengineers and biomedical engineers make $97,410 per year designing equipment, software, and more while combining scientific knowledge with engineering. 
  10. Chemistry: As a chemist or material scientist, you could earn $79,760 or more working in laboratories, offices, or manufacturing facilities to develop new products, materials, or knowledge. 

Should I Get a PhD?

Enrolling in a PhD program is a big commitment, so it’s natural to hesitate before you take the leap. If you’re wondering if a PhD is worth it, take some time to consider your personal and professional goals. Think about what your objectives are for completing a doctorate program and what career path you’d like to pursue following graduation. Take into account the cost of your program and expected salary, as well as how much in student loans you would need and how you plan on paying them back. Weigh both the benefits and risks of earning your PhD, and consider whether you expect a sufficient return on your investment.Earning your PhD may be worth it if you’re eager to become an expert and thought leader in your field and can apply your degree to your future career. On the flip side, it may not be the right move if you don’t have a clear path forward or prefer to start earning a full-time income as opposed to advancing your education for the next four to eight years. Recommended: 11 Ideas for Affording Graduate School

The Takeaway

Enrolling in a doctoral program is a big commitment that requires careful planning. Along with considering your post-graduation career plans, think about what the program will cost you financially and whether you’ll need to borrow student loans to cover costs. The average student loan debt will vary by type of program, but it may be a significant amount depending on the cost of your school. Many doctoral programs come with a fellowship or teaching position that earns a stipend, but the pay may not be sufficient to cover your full living expenses. Consider whether you’ll need to take on debt or work part-time as you study for your PhD to make ends meet. If you already owe student loans from your undergraduate education, you could consider refinancing them for better rates and a new repayment term. Just be careful about refinancing federal loans, as doing so turns them private and makes them ineligible for federal repayment plans and forgiveness programs. 

Student Loan Tips

  1. Refinancing your student loan can lower your monthly payments and help you adjust your loan term. Compare student loan refinancing rates to find a loan that works for you.
  2. Paying extra each month on your student loan can reduce the interest you pay and so lower your total loan cost over time. (The law prohibits prepayment penalties on federal or private student loans.)
  3. Depending on their income, qualified borrowers can deduct the interest they pay for student loans, both federal or private, up to $2,500 per year. The deduction phases out for modified adjusted gross incomes of $70,000 to $85,000 for single individuals and $145,000 to $175,000 for people married and filing jointly.

Frequently Asked Questions

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About the Author

Rebecca Safier

Rebecca Safier

Rebecca Safier has nearly a decade of experience writing about personal finance. Formerly a senior writer with LendingTree and Student Loan Hero, she specializes in student loans, financial aid, and personal loans. She is certified as a student loan counselor with the National Association of Certified Credit Counselors (NACCC).
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