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A Doctoral Degree: Worth It In Today's Economy?

Oct 17, 2012 Jennifer Williamson, Distance Columnist | 0 Comments

Doctoral degrees are expensive. According to the National Center for Education Statistics*, the average total price of tuition for graduate school was approximately $24,700  to $53,700 per year—depending on the type of degree and the type of institution. Because a doctoral degree can take as many as five years to earn, students can easily find themselves incurring over $100,000 in student loans over that period.

The National Center for Education Statistics also notes that approximately nine in ten students receives some kind of financial aid. And stipends are more common for graduate students than they are for undergrads—these are grants, usually from the university, that pay for a student’s room, board, and tuition, as well as a small amount for living expenses, in return for teaching and research assistance. The National Center for Education Statistics states that approximately 56% of PhD students receives some form of grant aid, and it’s usually given at the college’s discretion instead of based on financial need. However, this type of aid is not available for all degree programs.


If you’re considering earning a traditional or online PhD degree, it’s best to do some research into job opportunities both inside and outside academia before making the decision. 




See Also: Online Ph.D. In Education Programs

In addition, during the debt limit compromise in 2011, President Obama eliminated subsidized loans for graduate students in order to preserve Pell Grant funding. Previously, interest on government-subsidized student aid would not begin accumulating for graduate students until they graduated. Now, it will start to add up while students are still in college. So graduate school just got even more expensive for millions of students.

See Also: Online PhD & Doctorate Degrees

A doctoral degree is usually designed to qualify students for positions in academia—and most students who earn a PhD are hoping to land a research and teaching position at a university. However, the job market for PhD students in this area is not promising.

More than 60,000 doctoral degrees are awarded in the US every year. That number has gone up dramatically since the 1960’s. At the same time, the frequency of hiring for tenure-track positions has gone down. In 1980, full-time tenured or tenure-track professors made up 55% of the faculty in US colleges. In 2007, that number has gone down to 31%--and colleges continue to cut tenure-track opportunities.

Postdoctoral students are taking the place of tenure-track positions at many institutions—including the exclusive Ivies. Postdoctoral students may earn $20,000 to $30,000 a year to teach—whereas a full tenure-track professor may earn as much as $100,000 per year. The benefit to the college in terms of savings is obvious.

But do PhD students earn more outside of academia? It’s possible, especially for those who have doctoral degrees in the sciences. However, the path to private-sector employment isn’t always easy. Many students feel pressured to stay in academia by advisors—and are reluctant to try to talk to them about opportunities in this area. And many professors have little knowledge about non-academic career paths. In addition, while some PhD programs can translate well into private-sector jobs, others are extremely specialized and not an obvious fit—and other degree programs, such as those in the humanities, are not as useful in the private sector.

Not every postgraduate degree leads to a difficult employment situation. For example, employment of medical scientists in the private sector is expected to increase 36% in the next decade according to the Occupational Outlook Handbook**—and the median pay is around $76,000 per year according to 2010 statistics. Economist positions*** are expected to grow only 6%, but the Occupational Outlook Handbook predicts the demand to be higher for those with a PhD working in the private sector. And the job outlook for psychologists****, who usually need a PhD to practice, is expected to grow 22% in the coming decade.

If you’re considering earning a traditional or online PhD degree, it’s best to do some research into job opportunities both inside and outside academia before making the decision. It’s possible your best-paying and most fulfilling opportunities can be found off the college campus.



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