“Your PhD degree is a waste”.
That is the message you might get, after going through the detailed statistical analysis in Jordan Weissmann’s article in The Atlantic. According to the article, people who do Ph.D.-s put in some of their best years doing back- (or mind-) breaking work while earning one of the lowest possible wages. How low are the wages? — Jorge Cham of PhD Comics claims that the annual salary of a PhD student is just $15 higher than someone working at a McDonalds!
But low wages for a few years of PhD life are fine as long as, in the end, one gets a adequately well-paid job of his/her liking.
But does that actually happen?
To know more about this, let us get back to the article at The Atlantic.
The article goes on to show some alarming statistics found by combing through data released by the National Science Foundation:
- Since 2001, the unemployment rate in people graduating with PhD-s has been constantly increasing.
- Though there are variations amongst disciplines (e.g. science vs. engineering, life sciences vs. physical sciences), the overall trend is that unemployment after PhD is increasing.
- The increase in unemployment rate is more for international students, but also exists for US citizens and Green Card holders.
And because of this lack of suitable employment, a new demon has risen its head out of the mire — the decade long post-doc. Two-year long post-doctoral positions were the norm earlier, as they were a stepping stone to greater success. But now, PhD-s are forced to go through five-to-seven-to-ten year long post-doctoral stints (possibly at two or three institutions). Also pay during these post-doctoral years is significantly lower than positions as faculty or in industry.
The claims in this article are not something you can ignore as a doomsayer’s solitary wailings. Similar conclusions have been drawn in other articles:
- Article at Nature Blogs: Education: The PhD factory (a highly cited article published at one of the most prestigious scientific avenues).
- Article stating that the demand (employment opportunities) for STEM graduates is lower than supply (i.e. number of graduates). This is exactly opposite of what is said in passionate political speeches calling for increases in STEM education.
The trend is real. The PhD bubble HAS burst.
At this point you might have the following thoughts in mind :
>> Thought scenario 1 – What you might be thinking: How can this be possible? I see so many successful PhD-s around me who graduated and got prestigious positions in academia / industry. So what this article is saying must not be true.
— And here is what is actually happening: Stories of successful PhD-s are good to listen to, so they get told. The unhappy stories are never told. This is a case of biased emotional selection. Also talk to the successful PhD-s, and they will agree that these days, it is getting increasingly harder to succeed.
>> Thought scenario 2 – What you might be thinking: Pay is not important to me. And I am happy doing a post-doc for seven years. This is where my passion lies, and I will ultimately make it big in the end.
— And here is what is actually happening: It is true that being passionate about your work is the most important thing. But five to ten years ago, people did the same amount of work as you did, and yet reached their goals of becoming a faculty / joining industry five years faster. Isn’t that unfair?
Despite all the depressing data and conclusions, one thing remains true — doing a PhD can be a fantastically liberating experience. It can open up channels of thought in your mind that would otherwise never have been activated (I know that line sounds like an ad for dope, but this is true about a PhD). It leads to life-long friendships and collaborations. Thus a PhD degree per se is not bad.
Only that the value of a PhD (just like the value of real estate in multiple countries) has gone down.
This is the sad truth. And one must keep this truth in mind, and make others aware of it. Because:
- GRE preparation courses like Princeton Review or Kaplan ain’t gonna tell you that. It’s bad for their business.
- Your university is not going to tell you that. That would be counter-productive to the university’s research goals.
- Your family members / mentors are not going to tell you that. Because, frankly, they might not know.
In the end, what should one do? Should someone who wants to join a PhD program decide against it? Is your PhD really a waste?
The answer lies in the simple fact that the world is drastically changing. Earlier a PhD holder was one of a select few with in-depth knowledge about a certain field. But now, with globalization, search engines, data mining and other fundamental changes in economies and way people work, knowledge is becoming “downloadable” and “outsource”-able. Hence the power of knowledge is becoming obsolete.
However, the power of thinking will never be obsolete. Einstein’s quote sums it up all too well: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
So the person contemplating a PhD degree can go ahead with his plans. But that person should resolve to do a “smart” PhD. Instead of knowledge, one should concentrate on approach. The technology that a PhD works with during his/her studies may become obsolete (or it may become cheaper to get that same work through outsourcing). But the mindset to solve a challenging problem that one builds during a “smart” PhD is something that cannot be outsourced. A “smart” PhD should be resourceful and find new ways of conducting / applying his/her research. The “smart” PhD should not follow on paths set by seniors, because those paths may become obsolete very quickly.
PhD-s are famously known to be isolated from the world. Earlier that was OK. But not anymore. The world is changing too fast for us to spend a few years in the lab and not care about what’s happening outside.
To conclude, if you are in the PhD program or have just graduated, the situation may not be as comfortable as it was five to ten years before. But you can do something to tackle the situation. But you can do so only if you are prepared, by keeping your eyes on this ever-changing world, and by getting “smart” about it.
Calling all “Smart” PhD-s
Did any of you face similar challenges during/after your PhD? If so,
- What are your ways of being “smart” about your PhD?
- How do you use the latest technologies and developments to aid your PhD and research?
Share your thoughts in the comments section below so that others can get benefited.