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OLIVER: Are Ph.D.'s worth pursuing?

Column: Curiosity Corner

Unless your dream is to have a Ph.D., it may not be worth the cost and limited employment opportunities.  – Photo by Joshua Hoehne / Unsplash

Like many college students, planning for the future can be a daunting and overwhelming task. The mere mention of post-undergraduate planning often brings about a chorus of groans and grimaces from my fellow students.

For those of us preparing for graduation and the looming shadow of the 'real world' lurking beyond the confines of our Rutgers bubble, the question of what our futures hold remains.

It is at this time that we must ask ourselves the most basic of questions: Why college? What prompted each and every one of us to enroll at Rutgers?

If you take the cynical view of Bryan Caplan, an economics professor at George Mason University, the primary purpose of attending college is not to improve one's skills and knowledge but rather to act as a signal that they have the most desired characteristics by potential employers (punctuality, conformity, intelligence, etc.).

Due to the supposed signaling function of a bachelor's degree, many positions that previously did not necessitate more than a high school diploma now demand applicants to hold bachelor's degrees. This shift in the preferred qualifications by employers has essentially elevated the four-year degree to an unofficial minimum standard for educational prerequisites.

This trend is reflected in the significant underemployment rates among college graduates, with approximately 41 percent of recent graduates working in roles that do not mandate a college degree. As a result of the competitive job market, where most candidates hold bachelor's degrees, recent graduates often struggle to set themselves apart from other job seekers, leading them to accept low-paying positions.

So, what is the solution?

As future graduates, it is imperative that we take these circumstances into account when contemplating the path of our educational careers. For those who have the financial resources and time to consider graduate studies, it may be the optimal path. 

But, it is important to note that not everyone has the privilege to pursue these opportunities. It is not always possible to devote oneself to additional studies and forsake the income that would come with pursuing employment post-graduation.

Even so, between 2010 and 2021, the aggregate enrollment of students with bachelor's degrees engaged in further education increased by approximately 10 percent.

Although master's programs may be a viable option for some, the extravagant costs of such a degree are prohibitive for many. In the U.S., the average cost of obtaining a master's degree is more than $65,000.

This, compounded with the fact that these programs are typically run full-time (thereby preventing students from earning any other full-time source of income), is a significant deterrent. With this in mind, the path of the hallowed Ph.D. is what remains.

But what exactly is the payoff of earning a Ph.D.? And, in the end, is it worth it?

Ph.D. students are often willing to work for low pay, thereby benefiting the universities that employ them as teaching assistants. Consequently, universities benefit as they can conduct more research and fill classrooms with instructors with less financial expenditure.

This willingness to accept lower pay is partly due to the belief that pursuing a Ph.D. is a pathway to an academic career in the face of challenges and uncertainties associated with the acquisition of the degree.

But, it is important to consider if these uncertainties outweigh the prospect of success. The oversupply of Ph.D. graduates compared to open positions in academia is a growing concern among prospective Ph.D. students. Between 2005 and 2009, the U.S. produced more than 100,000 doctoral degrees, but only 16,000 new professorships were available during the same period.

Consider the field of engineering in the U.S. On average, a professor in this field, over the entirety of their career, will guide the degree completion of approximately 7.8 new Ph.D. students. But, it is important to note that only one of these newly minted degrees can effectively fill the professor's position.

Based on this example, merely 12.8 percent of Ph.D. graduates can secure academic positions in the U.S. The critical observation here is that in many regions, the system is oversaturated, unable to accommodate the influx of new doctors in academia at the current production rates.

Furthermore, as a consequence of the elimination of fixed retirement ages, the average length of a faculty member's career has extended, leading to a simultaneous reduction in the number of new positions becoming available.

Numerous Ph.D. graduates who are unable to secure tenure-track positions opt for careers outside of academia. Meanwhile, those who believe they might find better prospects in the future often accept lower-paying academic roles, such as postdoctoral positions, and remain within the academic job market for an extended duration. 

Unfortunately, many business leaders claim Ph.D. graduates do not always possess the skills needed in the job market. Taking all of this into account, it is still unclear whether pursuing a Ph.D. is a possible solution to the decline in the value of a bachelor's degree.

On the other hand, if one possesses the intellectual curiosity and passion for their field of expertise, the achievement of this degree can lead to both financial and scholarly fulfillment. Although these numbers can be discouraging, we must not let this deter us from chasing our dreams.

Jamie Oliver is a sophomore in the School of Arts and Sciences majoring in cognitive science and linguistics. Her column, "Curiosity Corner," runs on alternate Sundays.

*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

YOUR VOICE | The Daily Targum welcomes submissions from all readers. Due to space limitations in our print newspaper, letters to the editor must not exceed 900 words. Guest columns and commentaries must be between 700 and 900 words. All authors must include their name, phone number, class year and college affiliation or department to be considered for publication. Please submit via email to by 4 p.m. to be considered for the following day's publication. Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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