I get this question a lot: "Should I go get a PhD?" (or its variant, “How can I get a PhD in X?”) This is just one small part of my answer to that question (we’ll dig in more in the future, I promise). It’s very important that people see this graph before taking the plunge. This isn’t me telling you no, just something you should know about this game, should you choose to play it. I don’t mean to depress you, but we need to do some Real Talk™.
The chart above details the biggest problem with science and engineering PhD education as it currently stands (via this article). It speaks for itself, but here’s the caption:
Since 1982, almost 800,000 PhDs were awarded in science and engineering (S&E) fields, whereas only about 100,000 academic faculty positions were created in those fields within the same time frame. The number of S&E PhDs awarded annually has also increased over this time frame, from ~19,000 in 1982 to ~36,000 in 2011. The number of faculty positions created each year, however, has not changed, with roughly 3,000 new positions created annually.
If you want to be a professor, or on faculty in any way, then get ready for the Shitty Hunger Games. It’s like the regular Hunger Games, except the odds are in no one’s favor.
There’s certainly lots you can do with a PhD besides be professor (I’m living proof of that). That’s the #1 defense to this kind of data. But I have never seen a convincing case that getting a PhD is something that you need to get if you’re not going to be a prof. Yes, you will be a better thinker/scientist/banker/general human being, but you don’t strictly need to suffer through a PhD to do that. Prove me wrong! I would love to see data that says otherwise because I don’t like this thought!
I don’t think it makes sense for this many people to miss out on years of earning potential and join our magical monkhood for the purpose of receiving some set of special powers and a funny hat. At least not as PhDs are currently designed (and changing that would be something indeed, although yes, please change that).
Because right now, the vast majority of PhD programs train people to be professors, which makes perfect sense because 100% of their mentors decided to go that route. Yes, grad programs are getting better at expanding what PhD students learn and prepping students for alternative careers, but that still strikes me as kind of a joke …
Because faculty jobs ARE the alternative career, people.