I'm a PhD chemist working for a global chemical manufacturer and involved for many years in hiring in the US. To me, a PhD degree is primarily a credential that says someone is capable of conducting a research project without close supervision. That ability can be acquired in other ways, but for a young scientist there is really no alternative to the PhD as a door opener. We hire PhD chemists for almost all of our entry level positions. Our non-PhD hires for similar project leader positions have years of experience and expertise in some particular field. Their time learning how to conduct research in their prior jobs is always much longer than the time needed to obtain a PhD. Therefore a calculation of time, loans and salary comes out decidedly in favor of the PhD.
Yes, if you want a life in Research or Development. In fact, while one can be successful without a Ph.D., the degree is a minimum qualification for many positions whether in Academia, Industry, or Government.
No, if you desire a career path outside of R&D, such as in business management, technical sales or marketing, plant operations, and hundreds of other rewarding and lucrative career paths.
For some positions, a Ph.D. is actually a handicap to gain entry as you and your salary requirements may make you overqualified. An example of this is in technical sales. If you will take the time to study the pedigrees of senior executives across the chemical and technical industries, you will find that more reach the higher echelons starting from entry positions other than R&D. In fact, it is hard to break out of R&D into senior management of many companies as folks in R&D are often viewed as having less business acumen than those who have had more experience with profit and loss operational experience.
The answer to your question lies within yourself. The first thing you need to do is to give some serious thought as to where you want to be or what you want to do at some future time -- say five years. What you have said so far is that you don't like what you see from your present position. You feel that you are on the bottom looking up with no clear path forward that is attractive.
Develop a career plan. This is not a 15 minute exercise, but will require some effort on your part. Too many people do not have definite career plans, but give the excuse that they wish to keep their "options open." Well this is a cop out. After all with a clear direction and some goals you have set for yourself, you can always change your mind if something comes up.
Chemists and other scientists are, in general, highly goal oriented people. This is one aspect which sets them apart from the general population. Scientists are trained to keep pursuing a goal no matter the setbacks and discouragements. Yet, many fail when it comes to applying that same goal drive towards their own careers. I have a couple of catch phrases, which I use in describing this sort of behavior. One is that most will drift along in their careers hoping that something will bump into them. The second one is that when you don't know where you are going, then any path will get you there.
The years spent working towards a Ph.D. are a large investment in both time and money. You are hit hard in the pocketbook both from reduced income and income lost from advances along another career path. You are also hit hard in the experience department as time on the job ( for jobs other than R&D) is often worth as much or more than an advanced degree for many career paths.
Develop a plan. Then with a clear idea of what sort of work you want to do over the longer term and what sort of compensation level you are seeking (if that is important to you), it should be clearer whether or not a Ph.D. will be an initial asset or a liability.
Remember, it is your plan. You can change it at any time in the future. But if you apply some of that goal orientation, chances are that you will be successful in the long run once you have set some general directions for yourself. In spite of setbacks, bad bosses, and seemingly dead end assignments, career luck happens when preparedness meets opportunity.
Having just come out of graduate school myself (I'm currently a post-doc, supporting myself and my husband as he continues looking for work), I strongly empathize with the financial situation you have to consider in order to go back to graduate school. As you start applying and comparing schools, some things you may want to consider to help you reduce the loans you would need are:
-How does the stipend offered compare to the cost of living for the school?
-Does the school have health insurance programs for graduate students?
-Are there external fellowships you can apply for (e.g., NSF GRFP)? Often, these fellowships are not only prestigious, but they offer a higher stipend.
-Would you be able to avoid commuting, bike to school, or take public transportation? Even little things like this can go a long way.
On that note, I agree with the other sentiments expressed here - earning your Ph.D. is very rewarding and opens up a lot of opportunities, so good luck!
I agree with the writer who counseled you about making a plan. Graduate school is a very intense commitment of time, money and effort. It is imperative to thoroughly research schools, programs, and especially research advisers. I can't emphasize that last point enough. Your life will be in that person's hands for several years.
What sort of management style does the person have? What is their research group dynamic? Is there funding-believe me; be blunt about this question. Otherwise be prepared to teach (which isn't such a bad idea) or find your own income. What sort of ethics does this person show? Check to see how many publications, especially recent ones, this person has and how many grad students they have put out over the years. Do they have post-docs who can help you in the lab, because the profs won't be the ones to do that. You'll be dumped into the deep end of the pool, but having prior work experience will help tremendously here.
Be prepared to conduct an interview with the prof and to query graduate students. If they tell you to steer away from a prospective advisor due to poor management, lack of funding, poor communication, abusive behavior, whatever; believe what they tell you. You won't make the difference, but may end up being bitter and angry by the time you finally, if ever, graduate. The average span of grad school has increased over the years and afterward you may have to post-doc 2 or 3 times before you find a "real job." How long has it taken for the prof's grad students to graduate? Have they found jobs or post-docs? Does this prof have good connections in his/her field? Will you be sent to conferences?
I have also counseled those going in to grad school to be wary of the insecurity of the others coming in at the same time. I was surprised about this-you're in the club now, so why the cut throat competitiveness? Sad, but often true. Remember to keep your own goals in mind and not compare yourself to anyone else; there will always be those who are better and those who are worse. Try to find a research group that is supportive, because you'll need it.
One more thing, be certain that your partner is well aware of the enormous time that you will be putting in for several years, with little or no money while accumulating debt. It is critical that everyone has their eyes open as much as possible You can change your mind along the way and opt out for a MS if necessary. This could be a more lucrative path.
I used to think analytical chem wasn't that glamorous since I did my PhD work in physical/organic chem. It is a field that I've moved into over the years and I've found that it fits me. There is much research and development involvement possibility with a more advanced degree versus just "being a pair of hands." I have been in mass spectrometry which is wide open in terms of opportunities. I've learned a tremendous amount about study design. I've also met some great people.
Lastly, I've also recently been laid off for being "too expensive." I'm hoping that by the time you get out of grad school that the economy will be more favorable for you. Good luck.
Thanks again! All of the responses have been extremely helpful and informative. It has definitely helped me think about other things other than just money and time. I think I will sit down and do some research into what I want to do after graduating and plan out a goal for myself.
A PhD is a significant time investment and sacrifice. Even an MS can open more doors. You must decide if this investment is worthwhile for you and if you are willing to make this investment; it's not school, it's more like a job. There are other options though, JD, MBA, etc. or even getting an advanced degree in another field (chemical engineering is one where an MS may go further than a chemistry MS). If you're unhappy, find what makes you happy and look for opportunities there and learn what you need to capitalize on those opportunities.