Should you complete a Ph.D.?

In the previous post, I discussed how increasingly Universities are getting outdated, with a specific example. That post was brought on by a seminar I attended at Purdue. Today’s post is brought on by a particular news item in today’s local newspaper.

Purdue dean shrinks graduate pool to boost pay

One reads,

Buss brings home about $13,800 a year before taxes, which is slightly lower than the average salary of $13,967 for a graduate student in the College of Liberal Arts, according to a November task force report on graduate education.

The federal poverty threshold for a one-person household is $12,331 in annual income before taxes, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Although higher than the poverty threshold, the stipend provides barely enough income for graduate students to survive, according to the report, which includes anonymous stories of how students find it difficult to pay for health insurance, university fees and nutritious food.

To survive, many take out loans, teach additional courses and work during the summers when they don’t get paid.

This poverty is the reality of graduate life in the US.

She said she thinks the dean’s goal “was partly to make sure that we don’t get into a pattern of expanding graduate programs just to meet teaching needs (but) rather that we have the goal of quality research and opportunities for graduate students to do research instead of only teaching as a way of supporting themselves.”

Now read that again. “…pattern of expanding graduate programs just to meet teaching needs.” To me that sounds like exploitation.

And that is what I’m talking about today, with obviously a special focus on the Mathematics / Hard Sciences (Since that is the area I’m most conversant with).

In fact, let’s back up a bit, and read that last quote again.

“was partly to make sure that we don’t get into a pattern of expanding graduate programs just to meet teaching needs (but) rather that we have the goal of quality research and opportunities for graduate students to do research instead of only teaching as a way of supporting themselves.”

Now let’s read something from the very well-regarded magazine the Economist.

The productivity of PhDs

“IF THE objective of graduate training in top-ranked [economics] departments is to produce successful research economists, then these graduate programmes are largely failing.” That’s the startling message from a recent paper published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives.

The authors of the study quoted created an index to measure the productivity of graduate students post their PhD. And what are the results?

The number of AER-equivalent papers of the median PhD student, six years after graduation, is below 0.2 for all universities. Yes, all—even Harvard, MIT and Chicago. The 50th percentile at almost all universities has a score of 0.1. That’s equivalent to publishing one paper in a second-tier field journal over six years.

Which is not at all flattering.

And why is this happening? The Economist elaborates,

The paper probably says something about how economics PhD programmes are taught. Professors may give a disproportionate amount of time to the students that they think are most naturally gifted, while leaving the majority behind. As a result that lucky student is much more likely to have a successful publication record.

We’d rather not comment on that further, except to note that conditions are not that much different in other disciplines.

So far, I guess we have established a few things.

  1. Graduate Students are being recruited in the US primarily for teaching purposes, with no regard to these students’ ultimate future. This is a form of exploitation.
  2. Not surprisingly, most of these students have dismal publication records post their PhD.
  3. A few of the brightest students are pampered – let us say “Groomed” – become the Professors of the next generation.

Now given these facts – given the fact that being a Graduate Student in the US is a raw deal – what should a student do? What should be his / her attitude?

For this, we again turn to the Economist, and an article that we definitely recommend should be read in full.

The Disposable Academic

One reads,

There is an oversupply of PhDs. Although a doctorate is designed as training for a job in academia, the number of PhD positions is unrelated to the number of job openings. Meanwhile, business leaders complain about shortages of high-level skills, suggesting PhDs are not teaching the right things. The fiercest critics compare research doctorates to Ponzi or pyramid schemes.

Something that does not sound unfamiliar. But let’s read further.

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.

I’m not saying exploitation, the Economist is.

Indeed, the production of PhDs has far outstripped demand for university lecturers. In a recent book, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, an academic and a journalist, report that America produced more than 100,000 doctoral degrees between 2005 and 2009. In the same period there were just 16,000 new professorships. Using PhD students to do much of the undergraduate teaching cuts the number of full-time jobs. Even in Canada, where the output of PhD graduates has grown relatively modestly, universities conferred 4,800 doctorate degrees in 2007 but hired just 2,616 new full-time professors. Only a few fast-developing countries, such as Brazil and China, now seem short of PhDs.

And what if you were one of the Bright Ones, being groomed for a Professorship, possibly a post-doc in the short term?

In research the story is similar. 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 if 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.

The conditions are so bad, that most US nationals do not even want to get into it – its foreign nationals all the way, no doubt enticed by the offers of citizenship.

Dr Freeman estimates that in 1966 only 23% of science and engineering PhDs in America were awarded to students born outside the country. By 2006 that proportion had increased to 48%. Foreign students tend to tolerate poorer working conditions, and the supply of cheap, brilliant, foreign labour also keeps wages down.

And more on the career prospects, in case we have forgotten.

One OECD study shows that five years after receiving their degrees, more than 60% of PhDs in Slovakia and more than 45% in Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany and Spain were still on temporary contracts. Many were postdocs. About one-third of Austria’s PhD graduates take jobs unrelated to their degrees. In Germany 13% of all PhD graduates end up in lowly occupations. In the Netherlands the proportion is 21%.

But don’t PhD’s at least earn more than others, provided they can land a job? The answer, again is not what you would expect.

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 then,

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.

In fact, having a PhD may cause you to earn lesser!

The premium for a PhD is actually smaller than for a master’s degree in engineering and technology, architecture and education.

There is some consolation though,

Only in medicine, other sciences, and business and financial studies is it high enough to be worthwhile.

But not a lot, really.

Over all subjects, a PhD commands only a 3% premium over a master’s degree.

The conclusions are clear – get out with a Masters Degree.

Gain exposure to the cutting edge, develop yourself, strengthen yourself, and get out.

The obvious question then, is why don’t these obviously smart people do it? Isn’t it obvious that getting out is better than staying on, on this sinking ship?

From my personal experience, it is because most graduate students are depressed. Its not that they are depressed because they are graduate students; rather it is because these programs tend to attract a certain kind of person.

Again, the Economist, elaborates.

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. In one study of British PhD graduates, about a third admitted that they were doing their doctorate partly to go on being a student, or put off job hunting. Nearly half of engineering students admitted to this. Scientists can easily get stipends, and therefore drift into doing a PhD.

And, again, the exploitation rampant in the system.

The interests of academics and universities on the one hand and PhD students on the other are not well aligned. The more bright students stay at universities, the better it is for academics. Postgraduate students bring in grants and beef up their supervisors’ publication records. Academics pick bright undergraduate students and groom them as potential graduate students. It isn’t in their interests to turn the smart kids away, at least at the beginning. One female student spoke of being told of glowing opportunities at the outset, but after seven years of hard slog she was fobbed off with a joke about finding a rich husband.

We let the Economist conclude for ourselves.

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. They might use their research skills to look harder at the lot of the disposable academic. Someone should write a thesis about that.


As for how safe even tenured positions are, we offer the following links as a postscript.

European Universities Shutting Down Entire Departments

the VU University Amsterdam, my employer, is planning to shut down its pure math section and fire four tenured faculty members, including me. This is a very drastic step for a department to take, and sadly, this kind of thing is becoming more and more common (Rochester, the Schrödinger institute, Bangor, Utrecht (CS) come to mind).

The Same thing happening in the US, that too at NSF Funded programs at the University of Minnesota and Ohio State

And the same stuff from the UK.

UK University Department Closures

Hull University has announced it is to close its maths department because of falling interest among students. The university said it was phasing out its degree course because of a shortage of UK-based undergraduates and reduction in funding.

It is a system-wide problem.

The decision follows a series of high-profile closures at universities, including the pure physics course at Newcastle and the chemistry and music departments at Exeter.

Last night, the London Mathematical Society said the decision was part of a wider trend and warned that the UK was in danger of becoming a “maths wasteland”. Peter Cooper, the society’s executive secretary, said: “Maths is perceived as a hard subject by many students. There is a real difficulty in attracting sufficient numbers of people in many institutions.”

Four other maths departments in England have closed since 1999 and the number of students has fallen by more than 2,200 in the same period.

And again, the foreign students.

Of the 175 people studying maths at Hull, more than a third are overseas students, compared with an average of 16% across other courses. A university spokeswoman said it was “not good business sense” to rely on the volatile overseas market.


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