In an attempt to avoid adult life and responsibility for even longer, I’ve decided that after 7 years of post-secondary education what I really needed was 4 more. Three weeks ago I started a PhD program in Biology at a school in our nation’s capitol. Having had a year off it’s been difficult getting back into the academic swing of things, but I’m beginning to feel like a normal student once again – re: an aging pseudo-adolescent with lots of debt baggage! (that’s my friend Amy who is currently enjoying her second year in a PhD program).
Some people (and occasionally myself) question my need to continually seek higher levels of education (accompanied by lower levels of income). Do I really need a doctorate degree? Can’t I get a job with just a Masters? Well I could, but not in academia, which is where I want to end up. My ultimate goal? To be a university professor and mould the impressionable minds of the young (world domination here I come!). Having had the opportunity to teach and perform research at the university level I know it’s something I love.
And I’m not alone in this insanity – I have several friends currently enrolled in or also just starting (or still applying to) PhD programs; here in Canada as well as in the States, who also want to be professors. In addition to 4 years (or more) of extreme poverty, soul crushing research, and absolutely no social life, we’ve also all signed up for future job insecurity.
As a recent article in Nature points out, schools are producing PhDs at an unsustainable rate. Especially in the US. There just aren’t enough jobs in either academia or the private sector for the continual onslaught of graduating doctorates. For example, Nature reports that in 1973 55% of US doctorates in biological science secured a tenure track position within 6 years of graduation, but by 2006 this percentage had dropped to only 15.
Ironically, many of us pursue advanced degrees because we simply can’t find jobs with the BA’s or BS’s that we already have.
Since you mention it, the New York Times published an article on educational inflation this past July. It echoes the sentiment of PayPal founder Peter Thiel concerning the imminent burst of the higher education bubble. Both articles deserve a read, but to summarize, since jobs are scarce, people are getting advanced degrees to be more competitive. Enough people have done this that employers can afford to hold out for the more educated candidates. As it stands, higher education still correlates with higher pay, but that may not be the case for much longer. Colleges win because enrollment is up. Business wins because they get a more educated workforce with no cost to them. Of course, someone has to lose in this equation and as they say in poker, “if you look around the table and can’t see the sucker, you’re it.” – Matt
The Economist has also discussed these issues. They point out that between 2005 and 2009 America produced more than 100 000 new doctoral degrees. In the same period there was just 16 000 new professorships created. To help put this in perspective I made some helpful graphs:
Here are some more depressing statistics/facts:
- America produces approximately 50 000 PhDs annually
- In Canada, 80% of postdocs earn $38,600 or less per year before taxes
- A PhD may offer no financial benefit over a master’s degree (at best a 3% premium)(so, at that rate, I could pay back my massive student debt in about three years…if I lived in a box and ate chicken off the sidewalk).
- In America only 57% of doctoral students will have a PhD ten years after their first date of enrolment
- The organizations that pay for research have realized that many PhDs find it tough to transfer their skills into the job market
- Graduate student employees and faculty members serving in contract positions now make up more than 75% of the total instructional staff at many universities
So why are students still being encouraged to proceed to the PhD level? Well, some of us are simply delusional and convinced that we’ll be able to secure an academic teaching position (*cough *cough), and some of us just don’t understand the reality of the job market. In addition, schools realize how cheap PhD students and Postdocs are compared to faculty members. Work 60+ hours a week to secure our funding? No problem! You want those 100 papers marked by Monday? Done. As sources of cheap labour (and cheap ego-boosters), grad students are irreplaceable.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m very excited to be in a PhD program and my advisor is awesome. But I think it’s important that students are aware of what’s really waiting for us after school. At this point we’ve invested a lot of time and money in our education and we should be able to make our degrees “work” for us after graduation. Schools need to start stepping up and adapt PhD programs to fit reality.