On whether a Ph.D. or Masters degree is worth it
A rethinking of what to do with your life in regards to graduate education is clearly in order.
I have heard it tell that great rises in the supply of something means there will be some corresponding lessening of demand for that something. The seems intuitively correct. Sadly, it also seems empirically accurate for the value of obtaining a graduate degree. A confluence of events have brought some droll thoughts about higher education to mind. First, I recently sat in a commencement and watched hordes of debt-loaded students accept their degrees. A large percentage of these were students who were planning to go on and get graduate degrees, or who actually had some first-level graduate degree, such as a MS or MA. Second, it's that time of year where I am called-upon to write recommendations for bright-eyed optimists--i.e., those who want to go on to graduate school in hopes of becoming academics. Finally, I've read several articles lately about unfriendly and even grave changes concerning the value and pay-off of pursuing graduate education. Moreover, I also seem to be sensitive to anecdotal accounts of what have been people's job and life prospects after education. I'll scatter-shot a few of my ideas here, since I don't have one deep thesis or analysis about what seems to be broadly bad news for graduate education.
It's always been the case that the journey from a High School diploma to a terminal graduate degree has been a tough haul. In some ways, that's to be expected, since all real learning is painful, and since the institutional filters against undisciplined character are (ideally) there to make the journey pay-off only for those with both some level of natural talent and focused commitment. (I mention the painful aspect of education, since anything else is simply infotainment. These two are easily confused, as when watching a free online college lecture on YouTube fools somebody into thinking they've somehow become properly informed on a topic in question. ) There are always sad stories about people who get graduate degrees and end up working at McDonalds or sacking groceries. Sometimes, unfriendly people gleefully point out that by pursing a highly impractical degree, such as an MA in 5th century BC Attic Greek, such a graduate has gotten what s/he deserved for not making prudent decisions for greater life. Admittedly, I think there is some force in this unfriendly charge.
However, suppose someone accurately assesses what is practical and valuable in modern society, perhaps noting some hot new, well-attested developing area of science. Even here, the supply and demand worry is grave. Consider an empirically based case scenario:
Dr. Ence is now in his late 30s. He has finished 7 years of graduate school and 9 years of post-doctoral training. He has published great articles, attended conferences and given talks. He's putting together his curriculum vitae (CV), so he can start applying for jobs as an assistant professor. What are his chances? According to a forum convened by the National Academies, the chances of a life scientist under the age of 35 getting a tenure-track position fell from 10% in 1993 to 7% in 2003; as the number of life sciences PhD graduates went from 11,000 to 16,000 and tenure-track positions held steady at about 1,200 positions. That means that Dr. Ence has to be one of the top 7 out of every 100 life science PhDs applying for a job as an independent researcher to get the position.Not good news for Dr. Ence, and there's no controversy that the life science are valuable to modern society. The bleak prospect for other less pragmatic doctoral positions would be even further amplified.
In fact, the general trends of academic slots are not friendly, as the chart below indicates, and this does not even show the most recent data for that last couple of years of The Great Recession:
One of the staple strategies of riding-out a recession is to take time-out for more schooling, and many people are pursuing graduate degrees as a way putting this traditional maxim to action, such as aiming toward top-level degrees like Ph.D's. However, where are these people going to be slotted into the system? The U.S. now puts-out about 64,000 Ph.D.s a year, and has put about 100,000 thousand of them into circulation between 2005 and 2009. But there are only about 16,000 new professorship slots at best, and there have been unprecedented cut-backs even over the last year. If you pick an arbitrary student who begins a doctoral program, 10 years later, s/he will have only a 57% chance of having a Ph.D. after s/he begins.  So there are two problems here--the time it takes and the chance of actually getting relevant employment. Normally, one puts in lots of time as a trade-off for securing an advantage later. But the situation for graduate study does not make that rule of thumb a reasonable course of action. Furthermore, for the highest degree, the Ph.D., when compared across all subjects with salaries for Master's degrees, the Ph.D. commands only a 3% premium in salary, definitely not a reasonable pay-off for planning about future life and career situations.
Often the media cites somewhat misleading statics that unemployment numbers hit the best educated last, as this chart shows:
These statics do not seemed controversial, yet such success of keeping the wolf away from the door is predicated on one already having a job. Thus, having a degree while you're in a job is great, but that should not be confused with having a degree which can likely place you in a job. This latter is where I believe the grave news lies for anyone thinking of pursuing graduate education.
One often hears retorts that pursuing a graduate degree, especially a Ph.D., is not about getting a job, but about becoming a kind of person--one who pursues his or her deepest interests. There's no need to deny this laudible motivation; nonetheless, there are some trumping issues to this noble retort.
First, what sort of financial situation can one reasonably hope to manage for decades after the education is complete? The average graduate student carries somewhat over $40,000 in debt, but this can balloon quickly depending on when payments are due and what the employment prospects are for the degree. In fact, more than 40 percent of students are burdened with an "unmanageable" amount of debt - defined as more than 8 percent of a person's annual income. As one researcher realistically summarized it, "spiraling tuition costs and a move to a debt-based financing system make it all but impossible for students to move up and move ahead in life." The slightly older chart below shows the trend, but one can rest assured trends have continued in the same unfriendly way for the last few years, and will continue to do so.
Second, consider the effect upon one's actual or potential marriage. About 7% of undergraduates marry while in college, but this number is far higher for graduate students: 32% of men and 31% of women marry during graduate school, thought not everyone who starts married stays married (7.4% of men and 12.1% of women divorce during graduate school). Furthermore, the majority of students who are married at the start of graduate school have children before leaving (58% of married men and 51% of married women).  Can one justly make the case that a spouse should work for ten years or more in support of the other's "deep interest", and at the opportunity cost of thousands of dollars in debt, and that long with eschewing of other stabalizing social and economic opportunities? Can one successfully hope to manage a child, or the consequence to one's unborn child/children because of such economic impacts?
These are gloomy questions with equally gloomy prospects of being answered satisfactorily in 2010 and for the foreseeable future; therefore, a rethinking, or a bit more optimistically, a careful accounting, of what to do with your life in regards to graduate education is clearly in order.
 "From training to practice: joining the faculty" New voices for Research May 20, 2009. (Accessed Dec. 17, 2010)
 "Doctoral degrees: The disposable academic" The Economist Dec. 16th, 2010 (Accessed Dec. 17, 2010)
 Steven Stoddard "Panel tackles graduate student debt" The GW Hatchet March 5, 2009 (Accessed Dec. 17, 2010)
 "Joseph Price "Does a spouse slow you down?" (Dept. of Economics, Cornell University) (Accessed Dec. 17, 2010)