Is a Ph.D. Worth It Anymore? Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Three more readers share their critical experiences of working toward a Ph.D. and the postdoctorate that often accompanies it. Here’s Mary:

I spent (too many) years in a prestigious PhD program. During my post-doc, I saw newly-hired Assistant Professors work 60-hour weeks to generate preliminary data in order to secure funding during lean years (early ‘90s). They spent their Saturdays in the lab, bringing their young children with them. (The kids wrote on white boards. One spouse cleaned the lab.)

Quite simply, I did not possess the interest or drive for this kind of life. When my son was born, I determined that I would earn a living in a way that provided economic security, as well as time to be there for him. Initially, I was fortunate to secure a non-research position in a government agency. I later moved to the private sector.

There is an arrogance about academia that is imparted to doctoral students: that the tenure-track position is “pure” research and the only honorable path for a PhD. Stuff and nonsense.

Begin with the rate at which students for a particular advisor may graduate. One per year? One every other year? In a 30-year career, a lab chief may churn out 20 PhDs. There are far too few academic positions to justify this; rather, graduate students and post-docs are inexpensive labor. I wonder about the thinking that keeps trainees believing that they will be the exceptional ones to beat those odds.

I love what I do, and those 10 years were worth the opportunity cost. In my 21-year career, I have used my training, and the way I learned to think, most days. Bonus: I have a life outside work.

Look around, students: The academic career is not your only, or even your best, option.

Ilya would agree, and he emphasizes the upsides of the private sector to drive scientific progress:

Bachelor’s degrees are not for all people and all walks of life, and advanced degrees all the more so. I tried to get a Ph.D. in an engineering field. Leaving with a master’s was a great decision, even though it was largely forced on me. Over the ensuing years, I watched my friends who had stayed for the long slog become increasingly bitter. Here’s why.

Academic research is the right channel, if not the only channel, for strikingly original, pathbreaking work. Once a field begins to attract private investment, however, academia needs to step back. Once a field has reached a certain level of popularity and recognition, the number of strivers greatly exceeds the number of original directions available, leading to duplicate work and dissertations of little value. In fields (such as mine) that require expensive and temperamental lab equipment, a company can afford to buy the best tools and hire technicians to maintain them. Graduate students waste years fussing over obsolete instruments.

And, finally, academia tends to breed faculty with outsized egos who abuse students as a source of cheap labor for their pet projects. Companies, although not perfect, are much better at aligning the interests of frontline workers and management, and at killing projects that aren’t worthwhile.

A doctorate remains the minimum credential to be a professor, which is fair. In some fields, though, even companies will not consider applicants who lack doctorates. This is part fetishism, part hazing ritual. In my field, I have found a Ph.D. to be usually valued as much or less than an equivalent number of years of private-sector experience, and we’re all better off for it.

This anonymous reader, like Ilya, will probably settle for a master’s:

All of my comments are in reference to graduate school in STEM disciplines, since I do not have experience in grad school in other fields. As a graduate student considering exiting my program as a 5th year, I can tell you in all honesty that a PhD is not “worth” it—for me, at least. Too many eager students earning a bachelor’s degree in STEM are told that they cannot have a worthwhile career without entering grad school. I saw the PhD as one more hoop to jump before I could land a great job that would provide me with the challenges and stability I wanted in a career.

I have learned a massive amount and I don’t regret coming to grad school, but I am increasingly regretting staying. Most of what I will take from the PhD will be things I learned in my first two years. In other words, a master’s degree would have been perfect for me.

Unfortunately, master’s degree programs in STEM are not encouraged and sometimes frowned upon. The few master’s degree programs that exist do not usually cover students’ tuition or offer any sort of stipend. At top-tier universities where students can only enter PhD programs, master’s degrees are only handed out asconsolation prizes.” In other words, a master’s degree is a mere exit option for those not able to “tough it out” through the PhD.

From an institutional perspective, this makes some financial sense. Why offer a paid master’s program, where students will be novices in the lab and still refining their techniques, when a PhD student will make up for these formative 2 years by effectively “working” 3+ years after the initial phase of their training? This is certainly the case in my lab. I used to fumble with equipment and make rookie mistakes daily. I now train newer students on instruments, assist with experimental design and analysis, and manage a good deal of the lab. I don’t get credit for it, though; I have the same low stipend that I did as a first year.

My experience is the norm. It’s expected that you “pay back” for your training in the form of working more and publishing. In fact, certain fellowships require that you financially pay them back if you decide to pursue work outside of academia. Keep in mind that these fellowships are a trainee’s paycheck. If I was awarded one of these postdoctoral fellowships and decided to quit an unhealthy postdoc in month 11, I would owe back 11 months’ worth of my paycheck. If this isn’t indentured servitude, I don’t know what is.

Coupled with emotional distress, not knowing where I might be working in a year, the lack of benefits (will I ever be able to retire if I stick with the PhD?), and an overwhelming desire to do something that I am good at and getting compensated appropriately, I can’t see sticking around any longer. The PhD is not the route to career satisfaction that I envisioned. It is no longer a simple hoop; it’s a long, winding, and seemingly never-ending tunnel.

For further reading, Tim recommends:

This entertaining but serious essay by history professor Timothy Burke was required reading when I was at Swarthmore almost 20 years ago. It begins, “Should I go to grad school? Short answer: no.” The essay holds up today—and the job market worries he touches on have, of course, gotten incomprehensibly worse.

Update from a reader:

Big thanks to your reader who pointed out Timothy Burke’s essay on graduate school in the humanities! It led me to Timothy Burke’s blog, which has some fascinating viewpoints on current events around globalization, Donald Trump, and the like.

Speaking of which, I’m intrigued that so many of the responses on the worth of graduate school are about the sciences rather than the humanities. Is this because the story in the humanities is old news by now? Whereas, in science, you get this weird disconnect between “we need more STEM majors” on the one hand, and the same old math about how many more PhDs there are than tenured posts, on the other. Do we really need more STEM majors? Because a lot of us are pretty worried about becoming unemployed, or spending our lives in badly-paid adjunct posts with no job security.

Here’s one more reader, who stands up for the Ph.D. track and brings us back to the theme of government funding that started this discussion thread:

I’m at the end of my 5th year of my PhD and will graduate in the next year. In many ways, I’m lucky. I work in food safety and microbiology. Since everyone wants to know their food is safe, government funding has been cut less, and we can usually persuade industry or trade associations to fund our applied research. However, we’ve been able to do less basic research than we would have hoped, because when funding is tighter, the government funds projects which are more likely to have immediately applicable results (applied research), and industry only funds applied research. So a lot of good basic science doesn’t get funded.

Is a PhD worth it?

So far, yes. As a graduate student I've had opportunities to teach, write grants and fellowships, mentor undergrads, help manage the lab, and work on international development projects. I’ve also seen mentoring failures, abusive advisers, and nasty department politics. It is a hard road to a PhD (though I think attributing “Navy SEAL-like brutality” to it is going too far), but it does offer a lot of personal growth opportunities and the joy of research along with the frustration of repeated failure and impostor syndrome.

I plan to stay in academia because there is no other position I know of which combines teaching and basic research and opportunities for international development projects like academia does. So I’ve mentally given myself a few years to postdoc and try to get a tenure track job. I think I have a decent idea of what I'm getting myself into ... we shall see. Research funding is the thing which worries me the most.