Is a science PhD worth it?

Most students are between the”PhD sucks”                and ‘PhD rocks” camps

Daniel Lametti gives it a resounding yes:

The pharmaceutical industry, the Washington Post reported, has cut scores of chemists. Even so, the American Chemical Society told me the unemployment rate among its Ph.D. members is 3.4 percent this year, down from 3.9 percent last year. During these rough economic times, the unemployment rate of scientists in one of the hardest hit fields is less than half the national average. Why? Because scientists learn more in graduate school than how to peer into microscopes and pour chemicals ever so carefully from one Erlenmeyer flask to another. As one biologist told me, the statistics and computer programming she learned during her degree can be applied just about anywhere. More generally, scientists know how to solve complex problems, and finishing a doctoral dissertation shows that you can get things done…

You might argue that if I leave academia to, say, teach high school or become a journalist, I’ve wasted my laboratory training. This argument is ridiculous. Since the Ph.D.’s inception in 18thcentury Germany, the product of a doctoral education has been a dissertation—a body of research that, in a small way, moves a field forward. There’s nothing wrong with contributing to science and then moving on. The work won’t disappear. Dissertations are published, and doctorates last a lifetime.

I greatly appreciate Lametti’s sentiments, which offer a needed corrective to the all-too-often ‘grad school is a waste of time’ screeds (h/t Freddie). The low salary notwithstanding, there are many benefits to graduate school. And for the most part PhD’s don’t have to worry about unemployment. Though it might take a while, we do eventually get jobs.

But despite its many positives, Lametti’s essay doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know–education generally helps your employment prospects.

The problem isn’t Lametti’s answer so much as it is the question. There are only so many ways you can determine whether a PhD writ-large is “worth it.” By necessity you end up relying on aggregate data data that have limited value to questions that are deeply particular and personal. Survey results and national economic trends don’t tell you how I experienced my PhD, what I thought about it, and most crucially, what could have made it better. Given that tens of thousands of people will continue to enter PhD programs every year, and also given that neither Lanetti nor his dissenters will change that fact anytime soon, this last question is what we should be focusing on.

Instead, we end up with a cramped, depressingly binary debate:  The “grad school sucks because you spend six years making no money only to end up with a job unrelated to anything you learned” camp vs the “grad school is awesome because you are intellectually engaged for six years and the odds are you’ll end up with a decent job” camp.

Without a doubt, some grad students found their calling in the academy and loved every minute of it. And surely some hated the experience and only have regret. But if my friends and I are any indication,the majority are somewhere between these poles. Like all human beings, we have conflicting feelings about our experiences. Academic research is, after all, just a job for so many of us. And like jobs everywhere, it is constrained by certain immutable truths. Research, like most jobs, can be beautiful in the abstract but ugly up close. There is a daily grind that sometimes complicates and dampens our our enthusiasm without completely negating it. There is no contradiction between loving the idea of your job while hating your actual job.

So for those of us in the messy middle, the blistering confidence of both Daniel Lametti and Penelope Trunk doesn’t seem relevant. Consider the careers issue since it figures so prominently in these debates. Yes, statistics show that PhDs have the lowest unemployment rate among all demographics. But those stats don’t capture the insecurity, the pain, the self-doubt, the “how can it be so hard to get a job when I’m so smart and have a PhD” feeling that so many of us go through. I can’t count the number of people who wished they dropped out after their masters (or earlier) precisely because of feelings like these. And the people I’m thinking of are scientists and engineers. I suspect it might even be worse for those in the humanities.*

The upshot of this is that national data-sets can miss a lot of nuance in this issue. And regardless of the final outcome, we can do a lot to make a PhD “more worth it” for grad students. Even if we all get a job in the end, it doesn’t have to be so stressful.

*In light of the Jonah Lehrer dustup, I feel compelled to point out that I self-plagiarized this passage from a comment on Freddie’s blog.


  1. I would suspect an optimistic bias, but it’s a bit like post-relationship suggesting that it could have turned out differently. Or maybe that’s something people say to sound positive. “Even if we all get a job in the end, it doesn’t have to be so stressful” probably needs defending.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I will write another post elaborating on my last sentence, since that got some attention. But is your critique of my post, or the last section? Not sure.

  2. Not to diminish the accomplishments of science PhD’s and Masters holders but it’s easier to employ 96.4% of an inherently small population than 96.4% of business majors. A market, however specialized, can only stand so many people before it becomes over-saturated (for instance, Law).

    Still, I like the second of Lametti’s paragraphs. We spend a lot of time trying to quantify skills and so “soft skills” often get lost in the balance.

    1. Appreciate this Maher. You raise a point I didn’t think of. You’re right…there really aren’t that many science masters/PhDs out there, and so the unemployment rates aren’t probably reflective of what would happen if we started cranking out more of them. I totally hear you on the oversaturation of the legal market.

      Finally…”soft skills” are very important. I’m going to try expand on that in another post.

  3. “Even if we all get a job in the end, it doesn’t have to be so stressful.” – Perhaps it is the stress and ability to deal with it that makes those with PhDs so employable and desired. Could there be a “no pain no gain” aspect to the PhD experience? When it comes to physical training our society is very comfortable with required sacrifice and hardship, but in academics and career-building such painful/stressful experiences are often scorned as unnecessary and pointless. Someone used to tell me that “everything you learn will turn out to come in handy at some point in your life.” Maybe the hallmark of a long road to the PhD is that you learn a great deal of skills and facts that may seem of little value at a given time but in their totality are a formidable foundation for many of life’s paths.

    1. Hey Marek. Thanks for the response. I hear what you’re saying…that the process of getting a job makes you more employable. But I’m not sure how much that actually helps. I’ve just been involved in all stages of hiring for my company (formal and informal recruitment, planning the interview, interviewing, helping decide on the candidate, etc.), and by far the most important criteria were the concrete skills (both hard and soft) that the candidate possessed. It’s possible that their “soft” skills were improved by a tough job search. But I’m deeply skeptical, and would ask you to support that claim in more detail.

      Just curious…why do you think that painful/stressful experiences are scorned in academics and career building? I have never heard that before, and I’d love to hear more why you think this is true. Everyone I talk to expects a PhD and finding a good career to be hard work.

      Finally…of course the PhD provides you with lots of skills. I don’t dispute that. My post was primarily about how many PhD students themselves feel about their PhDs, and about the careers issue in particular.

      Even more finally, based on several of our past conversations, I’m not surprised my ordinary, mundane observation – that many PhDs have conflicting feelings about their degree even if they get a job in the end — draws some protest from you 🙂 Maybe your views have changed, but in the past you’ve been credulous when I told you some people were happy they dropped out of their PhD. You’ve also been reluctant to accept that dropping out *can* be fantastic, brilliant decision.

      Thanks again for the great comment.

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