The Merits of the PhD Degree: Is It a Waste of Time?

I read over a dozen articles this weekend, but it was an article in The Economist which I thought was worth mentioning here. Aptly titled “Why Doing a PhD Is Often a Waste of Time,” the author goes in depth discussing reasons why attaining a PhD degree isn’t worth the cost or the time commitment. As always, I encourage you to read the entire piece, but I do highlight some notable passages below.

This was a nice introduction to the PhD degree:

In most countries a PhD is a basic requirement for a career in academia. It is an introduction to the world of independent research—a kind of intellectual masterpiece, created by an apprentice in close collaboration with a supervisor. The requirements to complete one vary enormously between countries, universities and even subjects. Some students will first have to spend two years working on a master’s degree or diploma. Some will receive a stipend; others will pay their own way. Some PhDs involve only research, some require classes and examinations and some require the student to teach undergraduates. A thesis can be dozens of pages in mathematics, or many hundreds in history. As a result, newly minted PhDs can be as young as their early 20s or world-weary forty-somethings.

Some consider graduate work (working for the PhD) as slave labor (see Reference 1 at bottom):

One thing many PhD students have in common is dissatisfaction. Some describe their work as “slave labour”. Seven-day weeks, ten-hour days, low pay and uncertain prospects are widespread. You know you are a graduate student, goes one quip, when your office is better decorated than your home and you have a favourite flavour of instant noodle. “It isn’t graduate school itself that is discouraging,” says one student, who confesses to rather enjoying the hunt for free pizza. “What’s discouraging is realising the end point has been yanked out of reach.”

An interesting implication in the passage below (that because professors are expensive to hire and cultivate, it is much easier to employ graduate students, regardless of whether they go on to acquire a PhD):

But universities 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

The large number of drop-outs from PhD programs in the United States was a striking statistic:

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%. Worse still, whereas in other subject areas students tend to jump ship in the early years, in the humanities they cling like limpets before eventually falling off. And these students started out as the academic cream of the nation. 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.

But I think the most important passage in the piece is this one, regarding the premium that a PhD affords (or not) over Masters and B.S. degrees (I bold the two sentences most revealing sentences in the entire piece):

PhD graduates do at least earn more than those with a bachelor’s degree. A study in the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management by Bernard Casey shows that British men with a bachelor’s degree earn 14% more than those who could have gone to university but chose not to. The earnings premium for a PhD is 26%. But the premium for a master’s degree, which can be accomplished in as little as one year, is almost as high, at 23%. 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.

Sobering to read these statistics (and I wish The Economist linked to some outside sources for vetting).

The article is factual in nature and doesn’t go in depth of non-economic purposes of pursuing a PhD degree:

Many students say they are pursuing their subject out of love, and that education is an end in itself. Some give little thought to where the qualification might lead.###

And it’s hard to argue with that argument: there will always be students who are passionate about research or have found a particular problem that they want to solve. For the rest of us, a PhD degree is out of reach, and perhaps for the reasons explained in the article, that’s a good thing.

One last note: always be cautious of the bias present in journalism, such as this dinger near the end of the piece:

Many of the drawbacks of doing a PhD are well known. Your correspondent was aware of them over a decade ago while she slogged through a largely pointless PhD in theoretical ecology

Overall, I think this is a really solid article, articulating the draw-backs of the PhD degree. As I mentioned above, I would be interested in reading the other side of the argument from respected sources.



1) A letter from Erick Carreira (an associate professor at Caltech at the time) to a member of his research team, in which Carreira explains that work on evenings and weekends is required. But also see Carreira’s response in The Boston Globe.

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