Career Choices For JD, MD, MBA, and PhD Graduates: What's Best for You?

As a Brain and Cognitive Sciences PhD turned career coach, I am always curious about new articles that address career choices for PhD students. This morning I came across a new article in the Chronicle of Higher Education titled 'Master's in English: Will Mow Lawns - Most programs don't say where graduates get jobs, and future Ph.D.'s don't demand the data'. The article was trying to explain the dissociation that exists between prospective students interested in professional graduate degrees (e.g. JDs, MDs, and MBAs), and prospective doctoral students in PhD Programs. Indeed, prospective students interested in professional degrees pay a lot of attention to post-graduation job data while prospective PhD students do not seem to pay much attention to that data. Does this means that PhD students are not aware that they will need a job upon graduation? Is this due to the lack of data or the unwillingness of departments to provide this data?

I believe that directly comparing these different graduate programs without taking the time to truly review and contrast their similarities and fundamental differences is a bit misleading. Let's review three fundamental differences across these programs: Their length, who pays for the tuition costs, and the goal of these programs.

A first fundamental difference is the lengths of these programs. PhDs will only graduate if, beyond completing their required coursework, they can write and defend a dissertation that makes a meaningful research contribution to their field of study. Not surprisingly, this rigorous process leads to high attrition rate. In a March 2010 report, the Council of Graduate Schools reported that about 30% of entering PhD students in America will leave their program without a PhD degree. In addition, the dissertation requirement also leads to a high time-to-degree. Indeed, based on the same Council of Graduate Schools report, the average time-to-degree for PhD that actually graduate is 7.7 years.  In contrast, graduation time lines are very predictable for JDs, MDs, and MBAs. Students will become graduates if they complete all required coursework and complete experiential learning requirements. For MBAs, the length varies from one to three years. Of course, after completing their required 3 years of coursework, JDs who want to practice law will have to pass the bar exam. MDs who want to practice medicine will have to complete their residency requirements. Overall, a PhD program is a better fit for students that are highly disciplined and self-motivated.

A second fundamental difference between a PhD program and other graduate programs is who pays for tuition and living expenses. The tuition of most PhD students is paid by their home departments. In exchange for tuition, PhD students conduct research while supervised by their PhD advisor, and serve as teaching or research assistants. In addition, many PhD programs in the Sciences provide a scholarship that covers for most or all living expenses for their graduate students. However, most PhD students in the humanities have to teach or find other employment option beyond their research endeavors to cover the cost of their living expenses. In contrast, tuition as well as living expenses are paid by the student in MBA, JD and MD programs. In exchange, these students gain access to courses, extra-curricular activities and on-campus recruiting programs that enable them to connect with employers interested in hiring interns and full-time employees from their program. In sum, who pays for the education is different for PhD students than for any other graduate program. If a PhD program asks you to pay tuition, I would encourage you to very carefully consider whether this is the program you want to enroll in. Of course, the lower the post-graduation debt, the broader the career choices.

A third fundamental difference has to do with the goals of these programs. Pretty simply, career choices for many professional graduate programs are sold as pretty straight forward: JD programs train future lawyers, MD programs train future doctors, and MBA programs train future managers, who focus on generating higher margins by increasing revenue while decreasing costs. Of course, many JDs choose along the way not to practice the law, while some MDs choose not to practice medicine. Instead, these 'renegade' JDs and MDs use their transferable skills and hard work ethics to redirect their careers and build a path that better aligns with what they enjoy to do. From having worked with many professionals in transition, transitioning from a JD or MD identity to a new one is a painful process.

Therefore, if you are applying to a JD or an MD program and you are not sure if you want to be a lawyer or a doctor, be sure that you thoroughly investigate these career choices before enrolling. If you want to become a doctor, shadow at least 2 doctors in your specialty of interest for a week each before enrolling in an MD program. By shadowing 2 doctors for a week each (or a lawyer if you are interested in JD programs), you can get a better idea of what they spend their time doing. As a result, you can better assess whether you would like that kind of career path for yourself.  In addition, by documenting what you liked about shadowing these professionals in your application, you will stand out more as a candidate and increase your chances to get admitted in your target programs. A similar process would be very valuable for prospective MBA students. Being a marketing manager at BP, Stonyfield Farm, or Google are very different jobs, knowing more about which types of companies and which functional career you want to pursue are key in translating your MBA studies into a financially and personally rewarding career choices.

In contrast, PhD Programs are focused on training future researchers.  While it is the goal of most incoming PhD students, few PhDs will become tenure-track faculty members in research institutions. Other PhDs will choose to focus on teaching at teaching institutions. Yet others will accept low-paid and semester-based adjunct positions more by need than by choice. Finally, others will use their transferable research, project management, and leadership skills to create new career choices for themselves within and beyond academia. As for JDs and MDs, reinventing one career outside of academia is tough for PhDs. Fortunately, rewarding PhD careers beyond becoming a faculty member are available today and their visibility is tremendously increased through websites such as the Graduate Student Section of the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Career Profiles on ScienceCareers.org, the non-traditional career articles on NatureJobs.com, and PhDs.org.  In any PhD program, few PhD graduates will be approached by employers wanting to hire them.  Instead, PhD graduates have to create their own career choices. PhD graduates have to leverage the entrepreneurial mindset and the tenacity they developed during their PhD program to design and implement their own self-directed job search.

Despite their differences, all these graduate programs have one common goal: They all aim at providing you with a specialization. If you are going to graduate school to keep your career options open or to broaden your career choices, you are on the wrong track. Any graduate school program will make you more qualified for specific career choices, and will also make you less qualified for other career choices. I hope that these insights will help you determine which graduate program would best align with the career choices you want to pursue post-graduation.

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