Q&A about the grim status of PhDs

The  Economist answers an intriguing question “Why doing a PhD is often a waste of time?” I summarized the article as Q&A. All the answers are from the article.

Who are the PhD students?

Universities have discovered that PhD students are cheap, highly motivated and disposable labor.

Why universities want more PhD students?

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.

Are there enough PhDs?

There is an oversupply of PhDs… The fiercest critics compare research doctorates to Ponzi or pyramid schemes… America produced more than 100,000 doctoral degrees between 2005 and 2009. In the same period there were just 16,000 new professorships.

Why there are too many foreign-born PhD students?

In some countries, such as Britain and America, poor pay and job prospects are reflected in the number of foreign-born PhD students… Foreign students tend to tolerate poorer working conditions, and the supply of cheap, brilliant, foreign labor also keeps wages down.

How many finish their PhD?

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%.

Why some PhD students don’t finish their study?

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.

What happens after earning a PhD?

PhDs in maths and computing, social sciences and languages earn no more than those with master’s degrees. Over all subjects, a PhD commands only a 3% premium over a master’s degree.

There is a glut of postdocs too.

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.

One 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%.

Keep in mind that these grim numbers about PhDs is in industrial countries where both academic and industrial institutes hire PhDs. In the Arab world, a PhD holder can only work in universities since industrial research institutes barely exist.


16 thoughts on “Q&A about the grim status of PhDs

    1. When I am done with my study I am going back home. So, to answer your question yes Insh’Allah I am going to teach in a university in Jordan.

    1. Before doing your master you need to ask yourself how this degree will help. Now, one thing you need to keep in mind and I am saying this out of experience to have masters and work in a university in Jordan is the worst thing that can happen to any one. If you decide to be in academia in Jordan (and this is limited to Jordan) you either do your PhD otherwise stay away from universities. Unfortunately, there is a HUGE gap between masters and PhDs in Jordanian universities I am not talking about salaries but the way master degree holders are treated. A graduate degree may help in other ways but I am not sure how in Jordan. I hope I am not being a downer.


    1. It is cheap labor for the sake of a higher purpose, one would hope so of course.
      Thanks for your prayer I am very eager to finish my study and go back home to start my professorship. I like teaching.

    1. I think you already have masters, don’t you? If so it is easier for you to decide whether to continue for a PhD or not. Where you want to work and what you want to do play a major role in your decision. Chiara’s comment below is really an excellent read regarding going to a graduate school.

      1. I am aiming for a PhD. but still not quite decisive bwt the “timing”
        I read the comment and it IS a v v good 1 indeed, thx 4 both of u 🙂


  2. That is a rather grim collection of observations, and some I would like to see the actual research for as they seem rather biased.

    In general, doing a Masters is worth the expense and wages lost for improved income. In general, doing a PhD is not. Doing a PhD is a requisite for having a proper job in academia, since now even certain ranks like tutor and senior tutor (straight undergrad teaching contracts) require higher degrees than previously.

    In the US there is a problem with academic openings because there is no retirement age for professors so they can stay in a tenured position until death do them part.

    The poor economy, and funding cuts for academia have meant increasing numbers of temporary contracts with a salary, but no benefits. This is more devastating in the US where this also means no health care insurance, no dental insurance, etc, whereas in Canada and all other industrial countries there is universal health care, and access to at least free emergency dental services.

    The vast majority of PhDs do eventually find appropriate work and remuneration-though the journey might be longer. This may also mean working in countries far from home and from where they studied, but that can be enriching too. Also an initial contract and tenure gives a secure base from which to seek a new position in a different university that is more desirable for whatever reason. Others work in research institutes, or in the research departments of industries or corporations.

    In my experience, of counselling students, teaching, and from personal experience, my own and that of friends, one should only do graduate studies if one is clear on the purpose, the requirements, and the motivation for doing so–even if these are only broadly understood, and of course, at some point everyone usually questions their choice.

    A professional, or “terminal” Masters is quite different than one that is a research one leading to PhD studies. A professional or terminal Masters is the most likely to open career opportunities and higher incomes: MBA, MPH, MFA, Masters of Journalism, Masters of Museology, MSW, MHA (Masters of Health Administration), Masters of Clinical Counselling, etc. The focus is practical, skill based, and there is little research or very practical research questions.

    Graduate studies that are more traditional are more research focused. Even very bright undergraduate students with excellent marks may find these unsuitable or challenging in unexpected ways. The greatest differences between undergrad and grad are that graduate studies involve research, exploring the frontiers of knowledge, academic uncertainties, and advancing oneself as the emerging expert; and, involve personalities and politicking among professors, among students, and in the interactions of professors and students to a far greater degree and with far greater consequences than do undergraduate studies.

    Especially regarding a PhD, the only reason for doing one, in my opinion, is inherent interest and desire, and/or preparation for an academic, research or professional career. Poor reasons include wanting the title of Dr no matter in what area from what fly by night uni, doing it to pacify/impress family, no imagination about what else to do.

    The process of doing graduate studies is enriching, exciting, anxiogenic, depressing, exhilarating, and challenging intellectually, socially, and psychologically. To survive and thrive, it is important to be engaged in the process, in the department activities, and in the discipline’s activities (publishing, conferences, etc); and, to have friends within the program and outside of it (the latter for balance and sanity); to have physical activity and sports, and hobbies.

    It is also important to remember that there are steps in the program, and not to be overwhelmed by what may seem like a giant lump of never ending, never certain work for years on end. Staying on track and planning for and meeting deadlines is extremely important.

    The advice I give the most often is CHANGE! Before you quit, CHANGE: courses, profs, supervisors, labs, topics, committee members, programs, unis. In doing this, you need to know your graduate student handbook as if it were a matter of life and death or a sacred text (in some ways it is both); and, know how to get good advice from other students, profs, the grad studies coordinator, the chair of the department, and the deans if necessary. Use the student counselling services on campus, for academics, finances, mental health, etc. If you are in a bad situation eg evil supervisor, get out as fast as possible with the least damage possible. Be academically politically correct, cover your buttocks, and transfer as much of your already done work as possible. Do it EARLY! Your supervisor gears you around on your thesis letter of intent? Make sure it isn’t normal academic requirements, then change supervisors, and topics if necessary (usually it is necessary to modify the topic to have a plausible friendly change). Change, even very late, if necessary.

    There are 2 posts on my blog that readers here might find worthwhile, as they contain advice applicable to all students, and to all foreign students:

    Advice to Saudi and Other Foreign Students Studying Abroad–
    Part I Chiara’s 10 Recommendations and 10 Tips
    Part II Fouad Alfarhan’s Advice and Typology: The Fool, The Fearful, and The Hero

    Great topic, post, and discussion!

    1. That was a good read, very enriching and helpful. Thank you!

      The observations in the article might look like there is an exaggeration but from my close encounter with many PhDs and few PostDocs I tend to believe these observations have some truthfulness. In Middle East, we say “there is no smoke without fire.” 🙂

      You are right that a Masters degree might improve one’s income and profession but in some countries like Jordan, and maybe some others in the area, it is not always the case especially when working as an instructor in a university. In Jordan for example an instructor with a Masters degree has no say of what to teach and no say of writing the course’s syllabus even if he is the only one teaching it. He is assigned 15 credit hours per semester compared to 12, 9 or even 3 credit hours to PhD holders, depends on academic ranking. And there are much more. On the other hand, working in private companies with a Masters degree might be a privilege over a bachelor degree.

      “The process of doing graduate studies is enriching, exciting, anxiogenic, depressing, exhilarating, and challenging intellectually, socially, and psychologically.”
      Wow! You couldn’t describe it better than that.

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