My most recent blog post and accompanying news story on the problem with PhD training in Canada got many views and received many thoughtful comments. It appears to have touched a nerve. Most who commented seemed to agree in principal with the general premise that the content of PhD programs needs to be expanded beyond training these students for jobs in academia, while others argued that we are simply producing too many PhDs.
However, on a somewhat different note, a couple of tweets from Joey Berger questioned the concerns that PhD students and postdocs have about finding jobs. Mr. Berger linked specifically to two charts from the National Graduates Survey of Statistics Canada.
The first chart shows that individuals who graduated with a doctoral degree in 2005 and who were working full-time two years later were doing quite well in terms of earnings, with the median salary ranging between $60,000 and $85,000, depending on the field of study.
I tweeted him back, saying that’s fine if you’re working full time. To that, Mr. Berger responded with a link to a second chart from the same survey showing rates of full-time employment by level of study. “Why does the conversation about PhD outcomes almost never include this data?” he asked.
I can’t say that I find the second chart makes a compelling case. At a glance, the rate of full-time employment for those with a doctoral degree in certain fields does not appear to be any better than those with an undergraduate or master’s degree.
Furthermore, there is another chart from that same survey which is even more interesting. This chart shows earnings distribution of 2005 graduates working full-time in 2007 by gender and level of study. Leaving the gender aspect aside, the chart clearly shows that the greatest earnings premium is between the bachelor’s and master’s level, and that the premium from the master’s to doctoral level is low to non-existent. Here is how StatsCan characterizes it:
The largest earnings premium existed between the bachelor and master levels suggesting that investing in further post-graduate work is financially beneficial. On the other hand, the earnings premium between a master level and doctorate level suggests that the monetary gain from employment two years after graduation for doctorate students is marginal.
These are not new data and have been hashed out before. But, they do appear to back up concerns about the value of a PhD as it currently exists. Of course, there are lots of caveats. The earnings premiums and employment levels may look very different 10 years out compared to just two years after graduation. What’s more, the economic situation now is quite a bit more precarious than it was in 2007, which could affect the relative standing of PhD grads.
As always, your thoughts, rebuttals or other comments are greatly appreciated.