Graduate education is not for everyone

By Nicholas Milstrey
On August 30, 2011

College graduates entering the work force today are facing unprecedented challenges when seeking employment, leaving many wondering about the merits of graduate education.

According to a poll conducted by consulting firm Twentysomething Inc., 85 percent of college graduates plan to move back in with their parents this year. Likewise, unemployment among adult men and women over the age of 20 for July was 9 percent and 7.9 percent, respectively.

For many, graduate school may seem like the next step toward landing a career. A Ph.D is a degree meant for those entering academia, while a master's degree is tailored for professional work. Though, when applying for jobs, a Ph.D is considered superior to a Master's degree in terms of pay grade and meeting job requirements, the degree may not be beneficial to all.

According to a 2009 study by the University of Warwick, males with bachelor's degrees earn 20 percent more than high school graduates, while women earn 35 percent more. Males with master's degrees earn 29 percent more while women earn 55 percent more, and males with Ph.D's earn 31 percent more while women earn 60 percent more.

While it is clear that graduate degrees confer a significant increase in earnings, the case for getting a Ph.D over a master's degree is less clear. According to an analysis of University of Wisconsin-Madison students conducted from 2004 to 2009, the average time to obtain a Ph.D is seven years, while a master's degree only takes two and a half years. Every year spent in school is a year that a student can't be working full-time and earning money.

For most students, unless they intend to enter the academic field, it doesn't pay to go to school for an extra four and a half years to earn an additional 2 to 5 percent more than a high school graduate. According to glassdoor.com and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for Ph.D students while obtaining their degree is between $20,000 and $30,000 - on par with the average yearly pay of a construction worker.

An article published in The Economist last year focused on the plight of Ph.D candidates and outlined what these students already know - it's tough work for little pay. According to the article, it is not uncommon for Ph.D candidates to work 10-hour days, seven days a week, and the evaluated earnings premium of a Ph.D degree over a Master's was only 3 percent.

The relatively low salaries of Ph.D students have inspired some to organize into unions. Though those efforts were stopped by the National Labor Relations Board in 2004, according to the New York Times, the matter has not been put to rest. In June, graduate students from New York University protested for the right to unionize and are still hoping to overturn the 2004 ruling.

For the moment, students deciding on education beyond a bachelor's degree need to carefully consider the motives and possibilities of graduate education. Being unable to find a job is not necessarily a good reason to start graduate school. It is expensive, time consuming and not worth a half-hearted commitment.

Nicholas Milstrey is a graduate student studying economics.

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