Getting a PhD will boost your career, right? Many people assume that this is the case. But research into doctoral education shows that, for some people, a PhD can actually be a career set-back. If that sounds surprising, read on!

Here are six ways that a PhD might actually damage your career. You need to take these into account when deciding whether a PhD really is for you.

Colleagues may overtake you at work

Doing a PhD will take anything from three to five years, if you study part-time. It’s intense. It will consume all your spare time and much of your head-space. So while you are studying, you are not going to be able to take on challenging projects at work, or accept promotions or exciting job offers that come your way. Your less studious colleagues, who may be as ambitious as you, are going to be available to take up these challenges. That great project that you get offered and turn down, will go to the next person. Likewise the promotion. Or the cool job.

At the end of your three- or five-year slog, someone else will have those accomplishments on their CV, while you will have added a PhD to yours. One more line under education, versus a few paragraphs describing years of new responsibilities and challenges? Hmmm. Their CV might be looking better than yours.

You will lose touch with your professional network

This is a common complaint from professionals who complete a PhD. Somehow there is just not enough time to show up at events, attend meetings, keep in touch with colleagues and contribute to your profession in all the ways you do at the moment. This kind of networking keeps you present in the minds of your peers and opens up the opportunities I was talking about above. If you are not around, you will be forgotten.

While you study, people move on, new networks form and you won’t be around to keep tabs on things. PhD graduates say that getting back into circulation after the PhD takes work. They feel that they have lost ground. Could be bad for your career.

You may not keep up with developments in your field

While the research you will be doing during your PhD will certainly be “cutting edge” in the academic world, there will be a wealth of knowledge circulating in your professional field that you won’t be able to keep up with. You will likely miss professional conferences and your reading will be around your PhD, not your usual fare of professional journals and web sites.

So you may emerge at the end of the PhD, not familiar with the latest techniques or technologies and missing important current debates or developments. This is worse if you are in a fast-moving field, like ICT, where keeping up is a challenge even when you are not registered for a PhD. After your PhD you may find you know a lot about your research topic, but are in the dark about important issues in your profession. This can feel like a career set-back.

You may be considered “too academic” or over-qualified

Research into what employers value confirms that most employers are not looking for PhD graduates for professional positions. When asked why, they say that people with PhDs are too academic in their thinking, not practical or focus on the wrong things. Companies also don’t want to have to pay a premium when someone less qualified can do the job.

Knowing before-hand how PhDs are regarded in your profession and workplace is important to ensure that your PhD does end up being an asset, and doesn’t disqualify you for some of the positions you have your sights on.

Your way of thinking may change, for ever

The accusation of being “too academic” actually has some grounding in reality. A PhD teaches you to think more deeply about the world. You will see more explanations for a situation, and be aware of more complexity. This can make it harder to respond to the need, in business, for immediate decisions because options will no longer look clear-cut to you. Where a less educated person might see an obvious solution, a PhD graduate may see more possible actions and be inclined to investigate the risks and challenges of each. This can make you less useful as an employee.

Many PhD graduates say that they think differently after the PhD. They think more and are, ironically, less sure of their answers. (The more you know, the more you realise how much you don’t know.) That’s not to say that your new way of thinking is a bad thing; it is part of why you do a PhD. But it can make it less rewarding to work in an environment where deep thinking is not appreciated. You may no longer be a good fit for your job.

You may lose confidence in yourself

One of the less-talked-about aspects of doing a PhD is that it can challenge your sense of who you are. The criteria for evaluating knowledge are so different in the academic context that you may go from being the professional who has all the answers, to feeling like the most stupid person in the room. (You are not stupid, you are just in a room with very different rules).

This experience can be devastating and many leave the PhD with dramatically lowered sense of self-esteem. Many PhD graduates are prepared to take on lower-paying positions because they no longer believe that they are any good. This kind of loss of confidence can be a serious set-back for your professional career.

Its not all gloomy

So, that’s the bad news. The good news is that a PhD doesn’t have to be a career set-back. There are constructive ways to tackle these challenges, if you know about them. The problem is that not many people talk about these kinds of challenges to prospective PhD students.

Deciding to do a PhD is a big step with big consequences, both negative and positive. It’s better to go into it anticipating these challenges and prepared to face them.

What do you think? Do these put you off? Do you know PhD graduates who have faced these challenges? How did they cope?