Is Getting a PhD Worth It? On Jobs, Salaries and the Market

by Fred Siegmund

I continue to see articles describing the grim job market for those pursing and finishing PhDs.

A recent article from the Washington Post (“U.S. pushes for more scientists, but the jobs aren’t there”) describes a surplus of science doctorates looking for research positions. The article uses examples of four people: a new neuroscientist yet to find work, two chemists laid off from pharmacy research, and a geneticist who spent 7 years as a low-paid post doctoral research apprentice before leaving research entirely.

It makes for sober reading, especially when the politicians still talk about a future with new jobs in “high tech.” However, the bigger picture of jobs for doctorates in all fields gets worse day by day.

The accelerating growth of new PhDs in all fields is the first source of job problems for new graduates. In the year ending June 2000, 44,800 people finished doctorates. The number increased every single year until 70,200 finished degrees in the year ending June 2010*, according to the National Center for Education Statistics at the U.S. Department of Education. In the years from June 2000 to June 2010, 599,100 new PhDs were added to the supply of existing PhD holders.

No one pursing a PhD can afford to ignore the college teaching market, which has over 80% of the jobs certain to require a PhD. From the years 2000 to 2010, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that college faculty increased from nearly 1.31 million to 1.46 million, or about 150,000 new jobs. A job market with potentially 599,100 new PhDs looking for 150,000 new jobs guarantees some very difficult job hunting. Retirements in any field can help generate job openings even if job growth is slow, except that tenured college faculty have a well earned reputation for retiring later rather than sooner.

Any American thinking of a PhD should remember that up to a third of science and engineering PhDs in selected years are foreign nationals, especially over the last 20 years. Many foreign nationals started careers in the United States, but more and more they return home to start new companies and incorporating using a service like LegalZoom and work in research and teaching in their native universities. Americans with doctorates need to accept that the job market for doctorates looks more and more like a global market.

Optimists and pessimists both know that some fields are better than others. Take chemistry, a field where chemistry faculty in postsecondary education increased from 16,000 in 2000 to 21,100 in 2010, or 5,100 thousand more faculty jobs. Nearly 2,500 finished chemistry doctorates in 2010 alone, with over 20,000 new chemistry doctorates reported from 2000 to 2010.

As a science field, it helps that chemists have more opportunities outside of teaching than other fields in social sciences and literature. The chemical manufacturing industry, the pharmaceutical industry and also the plastics, rubber, paint, and fertilizer industries hire chemists. Firms specializing in engineering services and firms doing basic research also employ chemists. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports jobs for just over 80,000 chemists and 27,000 chemical engineers in 2011.

Some of the jobs for chemists in research and manufacturing need a PhD, but the credential itself is not as important in business and research the way it is for academia. Management decides which jobs can be done without PhD skills, which puts PhD holders in competition with a plentiful supply of chemistry baccalaureate and master degree holders. Worse, jobs for chemists and chemical engineers are both down since 2000.

The decline is small, but there are thousands of new BA, MA as well as PhD degrees in chemistry, and similarly in other fields.

The surplus of doctorates and their dominant employment as college faculty has generated a dual job market where established faculty with tenure operate separately from new PhDs. New PhDs might find post doctoral research in the sciences or adjunct positions with a course by course salary or a temporary appointment, but those positions go for expansion or to replace retiring faculty. Tenured faculty do not lose their jobs or accept lower salaries to hire and pay new faculty. The burden of the surplus falls entirely on new PhDs to accept low salaries for an indefinite period.

Dual markets and the risk of long delays working at low wages make it difficult to forecast a rate of return to funds invested in a PhD. Where people leave their chosen field for other work the return drops to zero, but long delays on top of four to seven years in a graduate program suggests minimal returns on a large investment of tuition, time and effort. Those thinking of a PhD should think carefully.

*The total excludes law, pharmacy, medicine (MD) and veterinary degrees.

About the author: Fred Siegmund covers America's jobs as part of work doing labor market analysis and projections for a client base of recruiters, trainers and counselors. Visit him at

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