Why You Should Go to Graduate School in Science

The state of the universe.
Aug. 31 2012 8:15 AM

Is a Science Ph.D. a Waste of Time?

Don’t feel too sorry for graduate students. It’s worth it.

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A mathematician who graduated in 2010 told me he was hired by the investment bank Goldman Sachs after a short search. Many of his colleagues, he said, have doctorates in math, physics, or computer science; his bonus can be a multiple of his salary. A biologist was offered a position as a medical writer seven days before graduating last year. A chemist got a job at a battery company two years ago after a short stint as a postdoctoral researcher, doubling his salary. Even the Economist, despite its disdain for “pointless” Ph.D.s, likes to hire scientists. As the ad for their science-writing internship reads, “Our aim is more to discover writing talent in a science student or scientist than scientific aptitude in a budding journalist.”

The employment rate of science Ph.D.s makes the Washington Post’s claim that “the jobs aren’t there” seem strange, almost as strange as the paper’s statement that a science Ph.D. “can leave graduates buried in debt”—it almost never does. The majority of science doctoral students receive government grants, university stipends, teaching assistantships, or research fellowships through their adviser’s grants that cover living expenses and pay tuition. In a study of people who earned Ph.D.s in 2010, about 75 percent of life sciences, physical sciences, and engineering doctoral recipients had zero education-related debt.

Still, if you pursue a doctorate in the sciences purely for future financial gain, seven years of lost wages—the average amount of time science Ph.D.s spend in graduate school—might not be worth it. This income loss is especially true for scientists who stay in academia after graduating. Postdoctoral fellowship positions pay 30-year-olds with more than a decade of higher education about $40,000 a year, and they don’t guarantee an academic job. And in 2008, the median salary of fully employed science Ph.D.s, the NSF reported, was about $100,000 a year. (Chemical and computer engineers, in case you were wondering, make the most.) That’s a great salary, of course, but much less than what people with MBAs and M.D.s earn.

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But focusing on this hypothetical financial loss ignores why many graduate students pursue a Ph.D. in the first place: intellectual curiosity. The biggest perk of graduate school in science is getting paid to learn. Many of the people I spoke to missed the intellectual and logistical freedom of graduate school—being able to set their own hours and pursue a wide range of academic activities. Nobody expressed regret about working toward a science Ph.D.; graduate school, most said, was a lot of fun. I’d have to agree.

Near the end of writing my dissertation, there were many 80-hour weeks and vending-machine dinners. Much of the time, science is a slog. But there were also the four months I took off in the middle of my degree to intern at a magazine, and the eight months I spent on exchange in a lab in London stimulating brains with magnets. (Not to mention weekday afternoon pints at the grad-student pub, guest lectures by the likes of Stephen Pinker and Daniel Dennett, and paid trips to Europe for conferences.)

You might argue that if I leave academia to, say, teach high school or become a journalist, I’ve wasted my laboratory training. This argument is ridiculous. Since the Ph.D.’s inception in 18th century Germany, the product of a doctoral education has been a dissertation—a body of research that, in a small way, moves a field forward. There’s nothing wrong with contributing to science and then moving on. The work won’t disappear. Dissertations are published, and doctorates last a lifetime.

Daniel Lametti is a Montreal-based writer and neuroscientist.

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