Getting a PhD is still a good idea, despite what you have heard

For those considering joining the ranks of people who hold research doctorates there are two recent, and fundamentally negative, articles you should read.  One focuses on the low probabilities of landing a job as a professor once you have your PhD. The second article focuses the many problems of culture and practice that afflict academic research and those who perform said.

By all means, step into your degree program with your eyes wide open. Read those two articles if you are considering applying to research doctoral programs. There’s no question most of those problems exist. But both articles largely omit that most of those same problems have existed for decades.

I want to address one point that neither of the articles really focuses upon, yet each side-swipes in their own way. That’s the economic issue of whether our society is producing too many research doctorates. Both articles lead one to believe there is an over-supply of PhDs, who have no value outside of academe.

I want to share a couple of data points that strongly argue against that.

First, there is no PhD “Bubble”

A good way to look at this question is via time trends. If we are producing too many research doctorates, we’d expect to see an ever rising production rate, or at least a big bubble.

When I plot out the numbers of research doctorates awarded each year since 1957, what I see is, basically, a flat line running back to the 1970’s. You’ll see a flat line when you normalize the data correctly, here, in terms of overall population. Thus, the rate of PhD production per million US population is flat and has been for several decades.

annual new doc awards us

Second, PhD’s are among the most employed people in the economy

If we are producing too many research doctorates then we would expect to see high rates of unemployment and low wages for people with PhDs. In fact, Bureau of Labor Statistics data show just the opposite. PhD’s have an unemployment rate and wages that are almost the same as people with professional doctorates (eg, MD’s, JD’s).

employment_chart_001

As hierarchical institutions, universities are inherently biased towards the exploitative. Mentor-protege relationships are very tricky and can become unstable. Grad school, and academic life, have had a hellish aspect for a long time.

Finally, for some perspective, it’s been difficult, but not impossible, to land a tenure track academic job and government research grants since the mid-70’s.

I’m certainly not an apologist for the system. More like a realist. Anybody considering one of these doctoral degree programs needs to understand the pitfalls and be on the alert for red flags.

I only say this to point out there is nothing really new in either of those two articles. Earning a research doctorate is extremely challenging. But that experience can be as rewarding. It will probably pay dividends throughout ones career.

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