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Luck and the Ph.D.
December 21, 2010 - 9:15pm

The Economist makes a convincing case that pursuing a Ph.D. is, at best, irrational. In "The Disposable Academic" (12/16/10), the author (a holder of a "largely pointless Ph.D. in theoretical ecology") concludes that:

"Many of those who embark on a Ph.D. are the smartest in their class and will have been the best at everything they have done. They will have amassed awards and prizes. As this year’s new crop of graduate students bounce into their research, few will be willing to accept that the system they are entering could be designed for the benefit of others, that even hard work and brilliance may well not be enough to succeed, and that they would be better off doing something else."

Citing statistics from the Journal of Higher Education Policy, it appears that even employed Ph.D.'s do not enjoy much of a wage premium over people with a master's:

"… with a bachelor’s degree earn 14% more than those who could have gone to university but chose not to. The earnings premium for a PhD is 26%. But the premium for a master’s degree, which can be accomplished in as little as one year, is almost as high, at 23%. In some subjects the premium for a PhD vanishes entirely."

This is assuming that one can even complete the Ph.D. once started:

"In America only 57% of doctoral students will have a Ph.D. ten years after their first date of enrollment. In the humanities, where most students pay for their own Ph.D.'s, the figure is 49%. Worse still, whereas in other subject areas students tend to jump ship in the early years, in the humanities they cling like limpets before eventually falling off."

What can we conclude from all these statistics?

My big takeaway is to recognize just how lucky I've been to have a rewarding (if unconventional) academic career. A book I highly recommend to everyone is The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, by Leonard Mlodinow. One of the big takeaways from the book is that we all tend to over-value our skills and our abilities, and under-value the role that chance has in determining our path.

If we are currently making a living as a Ph.D. in an academic institution, (or in ed tech, publishing, non-profit or government), we should all recognize how lucky we are, and understand that it could have (and can go in the future) the other way. If we are struggling to land an academic job, or facing obstacles in our path to complete a degree, we should also recognize the role of circumstances and chance beyond our control.

These days I'm at a particularly exciting part of my career, working with a group of incredibly smart and passionate people to launch an exciting and innovative new program. Days fly by, and although the work is absorbing and seemingly never-ending, the gig is about as good as it gets in academia. I also recognize that getting to utilize my Ph.D. in a way that challenges and invigorates is, in many senses, due to luck. Right place at the right time.

The question whether or not you, or anyone else (say my brother) should pursue a Ph.D. in today's academic job market is an important one. I'm hoping that any of us who have landed, if however briefly, in good academic or ed tech job takes a minute to acknowledge just how lucky we really are.

Happy Holidays everyone.


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