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Ph.D. for me? What you should know about graduate school


Rising degrees of education

For decades, the surest path to success was clear. For those with the grades and the means, earning a medical degree (M.D.), law degree (J.D.), doctorate (Ph.D.), or graduate business degree (M.B.A.) most likely meant a life of respect in the community, healthy job prospects, and financial security — and for some, even wealth. Even a master's degree could be the ticket to a significantly improved career track.

Times have changed. While advanced degrees in many fields still bring significant financial rewards, many others have seen diminishing returns. In a trend that has lasted for decades, the cost of a graduate degree has risen sharply while job opportunities have steadily declined.

This trend has given rise to a vigorous debate over the value and wisdom of pursuing an advanced degree, with pieces defending or decrying graduate school appearing frequently in The Chronicle of Higher Education, as well as mainstream publications such as Slate, The New Yorker, and Forbes, on TV news, and on popular blogs such as Lifehacker.

The controversy has not slowed the appetite for graduate education, however. According to an article in the Economist, since the 1970s, the U.S. has doubled the number of new Ph.D. graduates produced each year, reaching 64,000 in 2010.

Meanwhile, the percentage of adjunct faculty members at American universities has increased from 57 percent to 70 percent since 1993, according to a recent New York Times article. The traditional "tenured professor" has traditionally been well paid on average and enjoyed unmatched job stability. By contrast, adjunct faculty members typically receive low pay, no benefits, and very little job security.

In the nonacademic realm, the picture is more mixed. New medical doctors can still look forward to relatively robust career prospects. The legal profession, on the other hand, has seen a drastic slide, with a recent article in The Atlantic declaring a "job crisis," with the market "barren" even for graduates of top law schools. And opportunities for business school graduates have predictably taken a hit as the economy has struggled toward recovery.

So what does this mean if your dream is to earn a graduate degree?

The answer, as with so many things, is that it depends. In this case, it depends on whether you have your heart set on following the time-honored path of becoming a tenured faculty member.

If you don't, the paths are as many and varied as particular degrees and fields. But you should research the success rate of graduates from programs you're interested in, as well as general employment and income trends in your intended career. The Occupational Outlook Handbook published by the U.S. Department of Labor is an excellent resource for this (www.bls.gov/oco).

If your dream is to become a college professor, then you owe it to yourself to go in with your eyes open. Here are some essential steps you should take along this path:

  • Recognize that the road to being a tenured professor can be long, expensive, and very demanding. Many decide it's not for them after they've already started: a recent report estimated the nationwide grad school dropout rate at between 24 and 34 percent. Before you go, make sure this is truly the path you want to pursue.
  • Attend the best graduate program you can get into and can afford. Name recognition and reputation carry a lot of weight in the academic job market.
  • Accept that you may or may not get a full-time, tenure-track position, even if you get into a top school and excel in your program. Recent figures indicate that nearly two-thirds of postsecondary teaching positions are non-tenure track.
  • Find ways you can prepare for the other kinds of jobs while in grad school. Many graduate programs are starting to recognize the need for students to diversify their job prospects, and are working to incorporate that alongside the traditional focus on research and teaching.
  • Consider borrowing decisions very carefully. According to a recent report from TG, the typical graduate degree costs $30,000. (Find the report, Balancing Passion and Practicality, here: www.TG.org/pdf/Balancing-Passion-and-Practicality.pdf‎). Doctoral degrees from top institutions can cost much more. Weigh these figures against your potential earnings after graduation, keeping in mind that you may spend years in lower-paying postdoctoral, adjunct, and other nontenured positions.

Finally, while you should be aware of the realities of graduate education, you should also keep in mind that the outlook is not all bad. Studies show that holders of advanced degrees earn significantly more on average over a lifetime than those with bachelor's degrees and have lower unemployment rates. Careers that start with advanced degrees may not follow the same paths they once did, but, when students make sound academic and financial choices, they can still lead to professional success.