Are they bored or just grad students?

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Nice Ph.D. Think It Was Worth It?

Noah Smith is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.
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As you may have heard, the job market has been tough for the last decade and a half. Median wages have flatlined. One way to shelter from the economic storm -- at least, for those with the talent -- has been to get an advanced degree. Now, you could get a medical or a law degree, but those cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Why not get paid to go to school? Why not get a doctoral degree?

An increasing number of people have been taking that option. The number of doctorates rose steadily throughout the 2000s:

Most of those Ph.D.s were in science, engineering and the social sciences. I was among those in the latter category.

So the question is: Should you (or your son or daughter) go the Ph.D. route? Thinking about the costs and benefits of a decision like this isn't easy -- many of the costs are hidden, and not monetary in nature.

First, let’s look at the economics. The wage premium for Ph.D.s is pretty substantial. The median Ph.D. earned at least $20,000 more than the median worker with only an undergraduate degree. Since graduate school usually gives you free tuition plus a stipend after the first year, the vast majority of the financial cost is opportunity cost. You will be giving up five to seven years of earnings. If you would have earned $80,000 a year in the working world, then the Ph.D. will cost you anywhere from $400,000 to $560,000 in forgone earnings. With those numbers, the cost and benefit just about balance out.

Now, not all Ph.D.s are equal. Those with doctorates in science and engineering make a much higher wage premium than humanities Ph.D.s -- almost $40,000 a year. Financially speaking, that looks like a good deal. Of course, humanities Ph.D.s may also be a good deal, since the people who get advanced degrees in humanities probably have less lucrative outside options (since STEM majors will tend to earn more in the private sector).

So from a financial standpoint, the Ph.D. doesn’t look so bad. But what about those nonfinancial costs and benefits?

The main benefit of a Ph.D. is the lifestyle. A lot of your time in a doctoral program will be spent learning and thinking about the deepest, most complicated, advanced ideas in the world. You basically get to be a low-paid professor for a few years. If you’re the type of person who loves using your brain, a doctorate will give you a more pleasing mental workout than most jobs.

But the other aspects of graduate-school life are not so enticing. Here I speak from personal experience and from the experience of many friends. Many people think a Ph.D. program will be like five more years of college. Well, if you think that, you’re headed for disappointment.

First, college students are often subsidized by their parents, or by the jet fuel of student loans. In graduate school, though, you’re on your own, receiving your $15,000 to $20,000 annual stipend. When you’re 19, sleeping on dirty couches and wearing the same shirt five days in a row is romantic and bohemian; when you’re 29, it just makes you feel like a poor person. Your friends with jobs will be buying houses and cars; you will be living with roommates. The grad student is the modern equivalent of the impoverished scholar of times past; even back in the 1500s, Cervantes had Don Quixote give a speech comparing grad school to being in the army.

Nor is grad school the same kind of social environment as college. In college you meet people from all walks of life; in a Ph.D. program, much of your social scene consists of a small, insular group of highly competitive people who all do the same thing that you do. In a way, graduate school is more like high school than college.

Then there’s the work. After the first two years of classes and tests, you’re on your own. Your one job is to do some good research. Lots of people flounder here. George Mason economics professor Alex Tabarrok writes on Quora about how hard it is for many people to adapt to this new reality:

After their course work ends, many students find themselves at a loss. They have done a lot of learning and not much creating or discovering–skills that not only are different than learning but that may even be at cross purposes…[A] dissertation writer without enough skepticism will never advance beyond previous knowledge and never discover that something previously learned was false.

It’s crucially important to get a good adviser in graduate school, but in many fields -- such as economics -- that alone won’t do the job for you. You have to make up research projects on your own. Every day, you will be working on those projects, not really knowing whether you’re making great progress or spinning your wheels. It’s a little like being an entrepreneur, but without the camaraderie of the team. No wonder about 60 percent of grad students say they feel “overwhelmed, exhausted, hopeless, sad, or depressed nearly all the time.”

Then there’s the job market. Although Ph.D.s can, and sometimes do, go into all kinds of jobs, they are systematically steered toward academic work. After all, as a graduate student, your main adviser is someone who chose an academic career -- naturally, they’re going to steer you in the same direction. Dan Drezner of the Washington Post warns of the subtle danger that this attitude produces. The academic job market has little growth, is highly competitive and doesn't pay very well. Getting a Ph.D. means putting yourself in an environment where many people think that if you don’t throw yourself into that barren market, you’re a failure. That kind of social pressure can be hard to take.

So make no mistake: graduate school is no picnic. Yes, there are modest financial rewards. But unless you’re one of those people who absolutely loves being a scholar, you’re probably going to pay heavy costs in terms of your lifestyle and mental state. These are things I wish I had known about before I did my own Ph.D. Think twice before jumping on the grad school train.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Noah Smith at nsmith150@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net