In their Christmas issue, The Economist included a special feature on PhDs, arguing that they may be a relatively poor choice for many people. The article contains some interesting nuggets:
- “[U]niversities have discovered that PhD students are cheap, highly motivated and disposable labour. With more PhD students they can do more research, and in some countries more teaching, with less money. A graduate assistant at Yale might earn $20,000 a year for nine months of teaching. The average pay of full professors in America was $109,000 in 2009—higher than the average for judges and magistrates.”
- “PhD students and contract staff known as “postdocs”, described by one student as “the ugly underbelly of academia”, do much of the research these days. There is a glut of postdocs too… Dr Freeman concluded from pre-2000 data that [I]f American faculty jobs in the life sciences were increasing at 5% a year, just 20% of students would land one. In Canada 80% of postdocs earn $38,600 or less per year before tax—the average salary of a construction worker. The rise of the postdoc has created another obstacle on the way to an academic post. In some areas five years as a postdoc is now a prerequisite for landing a secure full-time job.
- “In America only 57% of doctoral students will have a PhD ten years after their first date of enrolment. In the humanities, where most students pay for their own PhDs, the figure is 49%.”
- “Research at one American university found that those who finish are no cleverer than those who do not. Poor supervision, bad job prospects or lack of money cause them to run out of steam.”
- “In some subjects the premium for a PhD vanishes entirely. PhDs in maths and computing, social sciences and languages earn no more than those with master’s degrees. The premium for a PhD is actually smaller than for a master’s degree in engineering and technology, architecture and education. Only in medicine, other sciences, and business and financial studies is it high enough to be worthwhile. Over all subjects, a PhD commands only a 3% premium over a master’s degree.”
- “Many of those who embark on a PhD are the smartest in their class and will have been the best at everything they have done. They will have amassed awards and prizes. As this year’s new crop of graduate students bounce into their research, few will be willing to accept that the system they are entering could be designed for the benefit of others, that even hard work and brilliance may well not be enough to succeed, and that they would be better off doing something else.”
All this relates to the earlier discussion here about the recession and the value of grad school.
I do personally see appeal in doing a doctorate, but much of the appeal comes from the possibility of 2-5 more years of student life. Working full time for more than three years has definitely given me more appreciation for the lifestyle of students – cash-strapped though it may be.