2014—2015 PAYSCALE
Is a PhD Still Worth It?
by Jen Hubley Luckwaldt, PayScale

Would you take out tens of thousands of dollars in loans to get a graduate degree, if you knew you might not have a job after graduation?

That's the scenario facing many prospective PhD candidates. While 63.1 percent of students in 2012 graduated with no loans, according to the National Science Foundation's Survey of Earned Doctorates (via The Atlantic), the other 36.9 percent subsidize their education by borrowing -- for 12 percent, more than $50,000 total. That's not counting the lost earnings sacrificed from stepping out of the private sector for a few years in order to earn an advanced degree.

All of this wouldn't be so bad, if doctoral degree holders were likely to earn a salary high enough to pay off their debt, but for many PhDs, getting a job at all is far from assured, especially in academia.

"Between 2005 and 2009 American universities spit out 100,000 new doctoral degrees, for 16,000 open jobs," writes Daniel Luzer at Washington Monthly. "No wonder colleges aren't offering tenure to their instructors. They don't have to."

The Rise of the Adjunct Professor

A report from the American Federation of Teachers found that tenure track positions declined from a third of higher-educational teaching staff in 1997 to just over a quarter in 2007, even as the number of instructors as a whole increased.

The sharpest decline was at community colleges, which relied on tenure-track professors for 54 percent of teaching positions in 1997 and 43 percent in 2007. Community colleges also relied most on "contingent" faculty, drawing 80 percent of their instructors from non-tenured positions. In addition, 70 percent of all community college instructors were part-time.

At public comprehensive institutions, the number of part-time, non-tenure-track staff increased from 34 percent to 44 percent, and full-time, non-tenure track faculty increased from 9 to 11 percent. Public research institutions increased their use of graduate students as teachers from 37 percent to 41 percent over the same 10-year period.

Meanwhile, non-instructional staff grew by 24 percent during that time, with administrators growing by 41 percent, or a total of 59,000 jobs, between the years 1997 and 2007.

The bottom line: fewer tenure track positions, fewer full-time positions, and less opportunity to earn a living wage after embarking on a career in academia.

Why Get an Advanced Degree at All?

With the possibility of heavy student loan debt and the uncertainty of a career in academia, a doctorate degree is obviously not a good bet for students who are trying to hide out from a bad economy or buy time to find their direction. On the other hand, some career tracks require a PhD -- and without the (hopefully calculated) risk, there's no possibility of reward.  

"I was teaching as an adjunct with my MA degrees at a proprietary college, but I wanted to obtain a position in a more reputable research-based university, where I'd be able to pursue grants and conduct research studies," says Nicole N. Hanson, Doctoral Candidate in Criminal Justice at the Graduate Center, City University of New York (CUNY). "For that, I needed a PhD."

Hanson says that she would recommend a PhD to a prospective student "only if they can handle it financially and psychologically, and depending on their career and personal goals." She notes that PhDs aren't necessary for many careers, and that career opportunities in academia can be scarce, especially in the humanities and social sciences. For some students, especially those who want to work for a research organization as an entry-level research associate after graduation, a master's degree with a focus on research skills, statistics, and methodological training might be more useful, she says.

Then there's the financial piece.

"The stipend provided is also not enough for many people to live on, and most of us have heavy debt," she says. "I'm not a person who thinks of degrees as things that need to be career-oriented; people getting an education simply to be educated is never a bad thing … but a PhD is a serious investment of time and money, and should be thought about carefully."

Choice of School and Program Matters

If you are thinking of pursuing a doctorate degree, know that the program and school you select will make a big difference to your final outcome. PayScale's College Salary Report shows wide variations in salary potential for PhD programs and fields of study. For example, a PhD from Stanford University, the No. 1 school on the list, provides newly minted PhDs with a median starting salary of $105,700 annually, while a PhD from Capella University, the last school ranked, offers a median starting salary of $65,200.

And it's not all about brand names: finding a school that supports students with the right contacts and skills development is also important.

"PhD programs should be rigorous and provide the student with the skills and contacts necessary to succeed in the field," says Hanson. "I don't think there are PhD subject areas that are more or less worthy (though an engineering PhD of any kind may certainly make a student more money in the long run), but across subject areas, the programs themselves are hardly equal. I'd advise students to do their homework on what the best programs are in their subject, and to work hard to get into the program that will make them the best candidates for their chosen careers. If a person wants to achieve academic or scholarly success, the school from which they get their PhD matters very, very much. "

Advice for Current and Future PhD Candidates

Alison Doyle, About.com's job searching expert, advises students to bolster their resumes with experience, including internships, fellowships, and work experience – and to remain flexible.

"Don't expect to get hired because you have an advanced degree," she says. "Consider a wide variety of employment options – both the type of job and the location where you will work. For example, I know a graduate with an advanced degree who took a job on the west coast even though he would have much preferred to be back east. Another is in the Midwest, but would much rather be in New York. They are successfully employed because they went where the jobs were."

Hanson characterizes the process of getting a PhD as "rewarding, but also a struggle," and advises students to anticipate difficulties and cultivate both their skills and their professional networks, while asking faculty for advice on what it takes to achieve success in their field. She advises getting specific, and asking questions about the number of publications and kind of teaching experience success requires, as well as which faculty they should try to work with on research projects and which training opportunities to pursue.

"Students need an exit plan from perhaps not day 1, but certainly by the end of their first year," says Hanson. "The longer a student remains in the program, languishing, the worse the financial hardship will be. It's best to go in with a plan – what career is desired, which faculty work in corresponding areas, and how finances will be managed in the meantime – and be strategic about decisions and opportunities along the way. The earlier a student can organize their strategy, the more likely it is that they will emerge a solid job candidate."
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