Is a Ph.D. Worth It Anymore?

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

This reader doesn’t think so:

I am certainly glad that Congress increased NIH funding, but from where I sit as an early-career academic researcher, it’s not going to put a dent in the massive brain drain out of academics. The reason is this: Ours is a terrible profession to work in. Just terrible.

The number of good jobs—the tenure-track jobs—has collapsed. What has replaced them is graduate student TAs, adjuncts, one-year visiting assistant professorships, and postdocs. The typical academic career path now looks like this:

Get a Ph.D. (This once took four or five years, but the time to degree is now creeping up to six or seven years.) Get a string of several temporary positions (postdocs, adjunct-ships, visiting assistant professor positions), which are paid very poorly relative to your education level and require you to move cross-country or even internationally every 1-2 years. When I say “paid very poorly relative to your education level,” I mean that people in these jobs get paid the same or less than my friend who is a mechanic. Even so, there are so few jobs relative to the number of newly minted Ph.D.s that many people never even make it this far.

Let’s assume that things go well and you eventually land a tenure-track job. At this point, you are probably in your 30s, maybe even in your 40s. You are still not in a very good position. There’s the opportunity cost of a decade or more of low wages. You probably don’t have any significant savings, and you may even be in debt. You probably haven’t been able to start on typical adult financial steps like buying a house or contributing to a retirement account.

If you are a woman who wants to have children, your age and declining fertility are a serious problem. Many women are married to academics and have problems finding two positions in the same city, what is known as the “two-body problem.” Many women drop out of academics because family and childbearing are incompatible with having an academic career.

That’s assuming you get a tenure-track position. There is a growing academic underclass of people in perpetual adjunct or visiting assistant professor positions who never make it out.

I love learning, I love research, and I love teaching. I love that I get to wake up in the morning and discover something new and then tell everyone all about it. But I cannot in good conscience recommend getting a Ph.D. and going into academics.

I’m not even sure it was the right choice for me. I have yet to land a permanent position and I’m not sure I ever will. With my intelligence and drive, I could have studied something more practical, made a boatload of money, retired early, and then spent my time doing research from a position of financial security. I’ve always been infertile, so I don’t have to worry about my biological clock, thank God, but if I did, I very well may have already left academics to become a housewife.

It makes me angry when people in the government talk about the need to train more people in STEM. We already have plenty of people in STEM. What we do NOT have is enough jobs for them, or enough jobs that treat and pay them as the highly-trained professionals that they are.

It especially angers me that the solution to more women in STEM is to try to push more women through this leaky pipeline. Once I got to grad school, I never saw a woman leave due to lack of confidence in her abilities. I saw plenty of women leave due to overt sexism on the part of their supervisors and due to the structural problems that make academics incompatible with childbearing. We shouldn’t be trying to fix these problems on the backs of people who will waste a decade of their lives pursuing this dream only to be forced out by powers beyond their control.

For a related Notes conversation, readers wrung their hands over the cost/benefit of a bachelor’s degree these days. And related to the Ph.D. angst, Te-Erika Patterson wrote a piece for us this week asking “Why Do So Many Graduate Students Quit?” The top reader comment:

As an ex-Ph.D. candidate in History, 50 percent attrition does not seem like a bad thing to me. The academic life is not for everyone, and the fact that some people chose to leave the more they are exposed to it is completely unsurprising. Even for those who complete the Ph.D., job prospects can be brutal, with the very real chance of never getting that tenure track job and being stuck in adjunct professor hell. Not to mention the trouble of finding a job where a significant other could also find employment.

I left while writing my dissertation to change fields/lifestyle and got a job on a trading desk in the financial industry. Of my friends in the program who stayed and finished, I would trade places with none of them. While I loved grad school, leaving it was one of the best decisions of my life.

If you have strong opinions about the Ph.D. path, drop us a note. Update from a reader who responds to the first one above:

In response to the reader who complained that her pay wasn’t even as much as her mechanic friend’s, there’s a reason for that: Her mechanic friend is probably more intelligent. He or she chose a profession that pays and contributes to society.

Elites wonder why people vote for Trump, and then offhandedly dismiss blue-collar workers as undeserving. I have no sympathy for her.

A blue-collar worker who makes sure he tips his poor PhD baristas well.