State of the Ph.D.

There is a lot of conjecture these days about the value of pursuing a Ph.D. After all, the time and commitment it takes to earn one’s doctorate could be spent establishing a profitable business or climbing the professional ladder. The question of value becomes even more apparent among Ph.D. candidates who have chosen a field that is not directly related to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), such as the liberal arts.

That said, there still remains a considerable degree of respect and demand for highly educated individuals with Ph.D. degrees. These degrees are often worth their weight in gold, particularly in areas where a robust educational background is required to be successful. This article is meant to provide you with valuable information on the state of the Ph.D. today, as well as some informative resources to help you decide if earning a doctorate may be right for you.

The Most Popular Fields of Study

Over the last 50 years in the United States there has been a steady increase in the number of doctorates awarded to students over time. Between the years 2000 and 2011, this number rose from 41,372 to 49,010, which represents about a 15 percent increase in doctoral recipients over the course of that decade. The New York Times attributes this significant growth in recent nationwide Ph.D. acquisition to an increase in the number of advanced science and engineering degrees earned by women over the last decade.

Of the several fields a student can choose to earn a doctorate degree in, the most popular today are life sciences, physical sciences, social sciences and engineering. These fields alone comprised of nearly 75 percent of all new Ph.D. degrees awarded in 2011 according to the National Science Foundation (NSF). Humanities, on the other hand, comprised of roughly 10 percent of doctoral degrees awarded that year, which represents a gradual decrease in percentage since 1996.

As mentioned above, the increase in STEM degrees have largely to do with the shift in demographics, particularly when it comes to the number of women obtaining doctoral degrees in fields that have dominated by men historically. In fact, the number of science and engineering doctoral degrees earned by women in 2008 was 36.1 percent higher than in 2003. The number of doctorates earned by men over this same period increased by only 25.9 percent.

Other factors that contributed to the rise in STEM doctorates over the last decade had to do with a significant demand for highly educated specialists in these fields, as well as the promotion STEM education has received in schools and communities throughout the U.S. According to this salary study conducted by the NSF, Ph.D. graduates in STEM fields could expect to earn a minimum salary of at least $60,000. Unfortunately, as of 2011, there still remains a significant gap between salaries earned by men and women in these fields.

As the U.S. government continues to encourage students to pursue STEM education (albeit haphazardly), more and more students are taking a step back to consider what an academic career in these fields might be like. Today, the options a student has for finding a specialized niche in science, technology, engineering and/or mathematics are virtually limitless. As of 2011, degrees earned in biology and biomedical science accounted for nearly 17 percent of all doctorates earned across all fields in the United States. The only field to come close was psychology, which represented roughly seven percent of all earned doctorates in 2011.

There are several reasons given for the country’s recent educational focus on the hard sciences. One of the more popular reasons given is that the United States has been experiencing a “scientist shortage" for quite some time now. Some have attributed this to the lack of interest and motivation of American students pursue an education in STEM fields. As the figures outlined above clearly show, however, the number of doctoral graduates in STEM fields is higher than ever before. This number is also significantly higher than in other non-scientific fields, such as the humanities.

The so-called scientist shortage the United States currently faces is not necessarily caused by a crisis of domestic education. Instead, some posit that the “shortage" is spurred on by the practice of hiring Ph.D. graduates from overseas. For decades, the United States had allowed, and in some ways encouraged, companies and businesses to attract foreign talent to fill STEM roles at only a fraction of what it would cost to hire specialists domestically. Not only has this depressed incomes for most, if not all, specialists in STEM fields, but it also has created a job shortage for those who have chosen to graduate with a degree in the hard sciences. While having a robust number of Ph.D. graduates with STEM degrees is important, the actions taken to ensure their value on today’s job market have not always been successful.

Employment by Field of Study

Fortunately for most Ph.D. graduates and candidates today, their prospects for employment here in the United States is steadily improving. According to the NSF, there were 36,269 doctorate recipients in the hard sciences who were able to commit themselves to some sort of work in their field in 2011. Of this number, 11,467 (~32 percent) received doctorates in the life sciences. The total number of doctorate recipients in the hard sciences represents an increase of nearly 5,000 since 2006. This goes to show that more and more people are choosing to pursue advanced degrees in STEM fields and are finding a decent place for themselves in their field following graduation.

Another option Ph.D. recipients can pursue following graduation is postdoctoral work for academic institutions. As of 2011, the percentage of recipients who went on to pursue postdoctoral study was highest in the life and physical sciences, which comprised of 69.3 percent and 58.2 percent of the total doctoral recipients in these fields respectively.

While postdoctoral study is considered by many to be merely a “placeholder" for employment once the job market improves, there is quite a bit of additional knowledge and experience graduates can earn by doing post-doc work. It can also be a great opportunity to master much of what was learned as a Ph.D. candidate, as well as complete projects that could be used to enhance one’s CV.

Entering academia has also proven to be a popular route for doctorate recipients. That said, the percentage of STEM graduates who have gone on to pursue careers in academia is considerably lower than in other fields, such as education and the humanities. In 2011, doctorate recipients in life and social sciences represented the highest percentage of STEM Ph.D. graduates who had gone on to join academia at 49 percent and 60.6 percent respectively. These figures are dwarfed, however, by the percentage of doctorate recipients in the humanities who pursued academic careers. This group accounted for 83.6 of the total employed humanities Ph.D. graduates in 2011.

There are several reasons why the number of doctorate recipients are higher in certain fields than in others. In some cases, such as the humanities and some of the social sciences, employment opportunities in these fields outside of academia may not be as numerous as in other fields, such as engineering and the physical sciences. According to the same NSF source linked above, only 13.5 percent of employed engineering doctorate recipients chose to join the academic field. This informative article written by Christine Kelly, a graduate career consultant for the University of California at Irvine, goes into more detail about the benefits and drawbacks of academic vs. non-academic employment.

Sometimes, when nothing ends up going as planned, there are still those doctorate recipients who remain underemployed, or worse, unemployed. What makes matters worse in some respects is that academic careers are no longer a feasible “standby" option for many Ph.D. graduates who are having trouble launching a career outside of academia. According to Scott Jaschik, this has largely to do with the increasing number of individuals doing postdoctoral work for academic institutions and the ever-decreasing number of tenure track positions available at these institutions. While finding gainful employment for anyone these days can be difficult, the good news is that Ph.D. graduates still have a leg up when it comes to earnings and unemployment rates over time.

Salary by Field of Study

As with any career path, doctorate recipients will find some differences in the salaries they can expect to earn across various industries and sectors. Using the physical sciences as an example, Ph.D. holders in the Earth, atmospheric and ocean sciences earned a median salary of $109,000 when employed by business or industry in 2011. Interestingly, the very same group earned a considerably lower median amount when working for academia, which was determined by the NSF to be $48,400 that same year. Humanities graduates, however, saw their median salaries peak at $76,000 when employed by the government. In other sectors and industries, however, the median salaries for doctorate recipients in the humanities barely made it over the $50,000 mark.

Of the several career options currently available for doctoral graduates, salaries for professors and other postgraduate faculty in the academic field have been on the decline in recent years. Aside from academic positions in the fields of business, economics and life sciences, the median salaries for Ph.D. recipients in academia rarely exceeded $60,000 in 2011. Conversely, salaries for the same fields in different industries and sectors, such as business and government, were rarely less than $60,000. This information, along with the general malaise felt by many professors these days, may lead current doctorate recipients to rethink a career in academia.

A major factor that is currently motivating doctoral recipients to pursue higher salaries is the fact that so many of them are weighed down by significant amounts of student debt. According to the NSF, the median range of student debt held by doctorate recipients in 2011 was $11,126 to $32,980. The low end of the range represents the median student debt held by those with doctorates in engineering, the high end of the spectrum represents those with doctorates in social sciences, with all other fields positioned in-between. When all expenses are considered, the total student debt owed by Ph.D. recipients could make earning a sizable salary all but a necessity following graduation.

Women and Minorities by Field of Study

As mentioned earlier, the number of women who have successfully obtained doctorates has increased dramatically over the last decade. In fact, the percentage of female doctoral graduates in 2011 reached a remarkable 46.4 percent. In fields such as health science, sociology and education, female doctorate recipients made up over 60 percent of the total number of graduates within these fields. There is still some room for women to become involved in engineering, where female doctoral graduates only accounted for 22.2 percent of the total number of graduates in the field.

The number of minorities who currently hold a Ph.D. has been increasing over the years as well. This is especially the case for the number of Asian doctorate recipients, which rose from 8,118 in 2001 to 12,434 in 2011. A majority of the Asian graduates surveyed by the NSF hold their doctorates in the engineering field and comprised of nearly 26 percent of the total graduates in electrical/electronic engineering. Black Ph.D. holders, on the other hand, were heavily concentrated in the educational field. Hispanic doctoral recipients were spread more evenly across the various academic fields, with the exception of industrial/manufacturing engineering, where hispanics accounted for 10.9 percent of the total graduates in the field.

Is a Ph.D. Right for You?

There is no easy answer to this question. Earning a Ph.D. requires a major investment of both time and resources. Oftentimes, students get caught up and enraptured by the wonders of academic life and end up pursuing a doctorate for all the wrong reasons. On the other hand, there are those that have already gone through a great deal of planning to ensure that their Ph.D. will hold its value following graduation.

As the statistics and resources provided throughout this article show, the postdoctoral life may not be very easy in this day-and-age, but the future for doctorate recipients still remains rather bright. The decision to pursue a doctorate results from personal choice, and ideally, the desire to become the very best in your chosen field. In the end, earning a Ph.D. will offer both short-term and long-term benefits to graduates with the right amount of patience and perseverance to see themselves through the hard times. Remember: job markets and economies may change, but a Ph.D. is forever.