Universities Producing Surplus of PhD Grads

It takes a lot of time and money to produce a PhD – unfortunately, the payoff isn’t what it once was. According to an article in Nature, the number of students with advanced degrees has skyrocketed, and universities around the world continue to recruit heavily for their PhD programs, particularly in science. Unfortunately, the degree isn’t taking them as far as they might have once expected.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reported that during a 10-year period, the number of science doctorates issued increased by 40 percent each year. Between 1998 and 2008, nearly 34,000 graduates had earned PhDs.

So, where to put them?

It depends on whether the grad intends a career in academics or research and development; however, individuals with freshly minted PhDs may find they don’t have their choice of numerous eager employers waiting to compete for their commitment. There are just too many brilliant people from too many countries with PhDs looking for work. Given the amount of money and time invested in their education, it’s likely that, had they known this was the case going in, they might have made different career plans or taken a different educational path.

In China and India, where industry growth shows few signs of slowing down, there is plenty of opportunity for graduates with a PhD or post-doctorate education to secure employment in their chosen industry. They’ve emphasized the importance of math and science, and as long as their private industry is booming, they’ll have reason to keep recruiting.

However, in the United States and Japan, employment opportunities are dwindling. Schools are producing graduates with advanced degrees faster than jobs are opening up. While they aren’t likely to join the ranks of the unemployed, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find work that matches their very specialized skills. Universities have their fill of tenured staff; private sector jobs in their fields aren’t scrambling to find workers because downsizing creates an abundance of similarly qualified, highly educated applicants.

Not All Grads are Created Equal

It’s understood that to gain a PhD graduates are expected to have mastered a specific subject area and then expand on it. While China leads in the number of advanced degrees being issued, in this regard the country’s system may fall a bit flat. There’s a glut of advanced degrees being earned thanks to a government push; however, it only takes around three years to secure a PhD and, as a result, some of their most promising research candidates head elsewhere for post-doc education. Many graduates who stay end up in non-related fields despite China’s growing economy.

Also, just because an economy is expanding doesn’t mean there’s room in the private sector for newly-minted PhDs, or even experienced researchers. If companies are cutting back, they may focus on production and redirect resources once dedicated to research. Conversely, just because universities are recruiting heavily for students doesn’t mean they necessarily need staff.

Practical Considerations

It’s important that we consider why we want PhDs in the first place – is an advanced degree required because we’re trying to expand the boundaries of knowledge? Is funding available to support this research? Is the job market competitive enough that the money and time used to educate students for advanced degrees is an investment? Or is it simply a public relations game to show the rest of the country, and the rest of the world, that their schools are producing huge numbers of PhD students in science- and math-related fields?

Whatever the reason, it’s clear that having a doctorate degree doesn’t mean what it once did, and for a number of reasons. Before anyone can say whether it’s a shot in the arm (or a crippling shot in the foot) depends on honesty. How honest are we as a nation before we ask our students to commit years of their lives and massive debt to a field of study they may not be able to pursue?