The Ph.D. Glut

Gary North has an approriately blunt look at the neverending glut of doctoral program graduates. Why don’t people get the message from low prices and stop entering such programs? He concludes as follows:

Earning a Ph.D. may pay off if your goal is status, although I don’t understand why anyone regards a Ph.D. as a status symbol that is worth giving up five to ten years of your earning power in your youth, when every dime saved can multiply because of compounding. If the public understood the economics of earning a Ph.D., people would think “naive economic loser” whenever they hear “Ph.D.”


  1. While that totally makes sense, I think some people, although very few, aren’t driven by the money, but the opportunity to add to the knowledge base of a field.
    But I hear ya brotha! Too much glut.

  2. People don’t pursue a PhD to maximize their earning potential. People study for a PhD because they love research and knowledge.
    I regret never finishing mine.

  3. i would imagine most people get phds because they can’t figure out how to support themselves outside of schools, so they stick around at universities which will coddle them just enough to maintain the quality of life they enjoyed as an undergrad.
    i would look at what is driving it this way: for a recent college graduate, what’s the greater ego injury: to take a job immediately that pays in line with what a high school graduate earns, or to spend ten years in the living conditions of a college sophomore, motivated by the hope of respect at the end of the tunnel?

  4. The article is about academia and though not explicitly stated, PhDs in humanities. Every time I hear about the plight of those in the humanities the unbidden thought is “Oh, the humanity!” Whtever will we do without yet another semiotic of a poet no one has heard of (usually for good cause) written in language so stilted, formalized, and encoded that it may as well be called Mandarin English, a language intended to obfuscate.
    Hard science PhDs like electrical engineers are in an environment that includes industry. There is money for those who are useful to industry. I have known several of these people and they seem to easily and profitably navigate between academia and reality.

  5. A PhD is a starting point in the hard sciences. Glass ceilings abound for non-PhDs in biotech, for example.

  6. Interesting point of view. I had the time of my life working on my Ph.D. The original point was that I enjoyed the research and the learning…where else does a person have the access to some of the greatest minds and equipment and the ability to pursue whatever you want (regardless of short-term commercial outcome) for 4 years? Talk about the opportunity to take technical risk and not worry about the commercial outcome! The objective of maximizing financial gain didn’t even cross my mind (and I doubt it crosses the minds of most Ph.D. candidates). Almost 16 years later I still look back on it as an outstanding experience that shaped me in a lot of positive ways.
    It seems to me that the U.S. has a glut of almost everything. One major scarce resource is passionate people with the skills to pursue their passions in positive ways. At least a few of these people graduate from Ph.D. programs (and a lot of other programs) each year. In my view, the passion fire is stoked by people pursuing whatever they are passionate about. If it is a Ph.D., why not?
    Of course, if we really wanted to get hard nosed about economic outcome of education on a departmental and even individual level, we could probably eliminate a great number of individuals and programs from existence. Not my taste, but possible.
    As a side note, I found the Ph.D. program and the people too theoretical for my more commercial taste. I still, however, really appreciate the contributions that they made to molding me and continue to enjoy everything that I learned from them!
    Scott Maxwell
    Ph.D. Mechanical Engineering (Course 2) M.I.T. 1990

  7. The article is not about scientific PhD’s per se, but in the sciences, if you don’t have a PhD you can kiss a scientific career goodbye and for good reason. You need the PhD to really understand developing research projects and honing your technical skills. I would do one again in a heartbeat. I would be earning far more in another field if I didn’t have one, but its not about the money, but the knowledge.

  8. I guess I did take something away from the execrable book Freakonomics, because what immediately struck me about North’s analysis is that the market for PhD’s is a tournament. North thinks the supply of PhD’s is driven by ego, but in reality it is driven mostly by hope.
    The situation is analogous to that faced by talented high school athletes. Their chances of making it to the pros are remote (and even entry into the professional leagues is no guarantee of financial succcess). But a shot is still a shot, and so a depressing number of hopefuls get churned through a process that almost inevitably ends badly.
    When I was an undergraduate, I clearly remember engaging in tournament thinking when I was comtemplating a PhD. The postdocs I worked with seemed miserable to me, but the head of the lab had a great life. Eventually I decided that 15 years of misery for an uncertain reward was a foolish proposition, which I guess was the economically rational decision. But certainly not the hopeful one.
    I suppose hope could be equated with ego, but that judgment seems a bit harsh. All sorts of biases cloud our judgment of the odds of success — and probably that’s a good thing. After all, entrepreneurship and the VC business are tournaments as well.

  9. Roger Bohn says:

    First, PhDs are a consumption good, not an investment, for the reasons North sketches. I advise potential PhD students to do it only for its own sake, not for hope of future reward. You will spend 4+ years of monastic life, followed by uncertain job prospects and a high likelihood that you will make less money than in other careers. HOWEVER there is nothing wrong with not maximizing earning potential, current American fixation on money aside! Even for successful academics, we don’t maximize income ex post, as evidenced by the moderate amount of consulting most of us do. And it’s good for the world that we are motivated more by curiousity than money: say “Thank you,” world.
    Second, the exploitation of doctoral students and postdocs by some faculty is disgusting. The system at research universities rewards departments for bringing in doctoral students, then keeping them for as long as possible to get more publications out of them. Sometimes their spouses (who are typically getting an MS degree at the same time) tell me horror stories. The degree of exploitation varies tremendously, of course, by field and individual. But the worst cases (eg health and safety risks to save research dollars) really are immoral.

  10. Roger,
    Your comments on the exploitation of PhDs and, even more, postdocs are very much on the mark. One reason I chose to not pursue a postdoc (and there I got very lucky), is that to me, someone with an advanced degree like a PhD should not be treated like slave labor as a lot of postdocs are.
    I also think that the immigration policy aids in exploitation. While you are a student, you keep your immigration (F1) status. It is easier getting the J visas a lot of postdocs have than the H1’s they should get (and universities usually don’t help). So a lot of foreign grad students toil away knowing that this way they won’t be kicked out.