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The Ph.D. degree: what it is and where it takes you.

The Ph.D. Degree: What It Is and Where It Takes You

Diane, a college senior majoring in electrical engineering, enjoys studying engineering and does well in school. One of her professors is urging her to get a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degree. Although the thought of continuing her studies is appealing, she has many questions about what obtaining a Ph.D. entails. How does it differ from other postgraduate education? Why do people seek Ph.D.'s? How long does it take? How are graduate studies financed? What kind of work do people with a Ph.D. do? And, most importantly for Diane, will appropriate jobs for people with Ph.D.'s in her field be available? This article answers some of these questions.

What Is a Ph.D.?

The Ph.D. is the most common doctoral degree. Although Ph.D. stands for doctor of philosophy, the degree is granted in most academic subjects: Engineering, humanities, life sciences, physical sciences, and social sciences. It is primarily designed to develop research skills, unlike the M.D., for example, which is designed to develop the skills needed by a practitioner. Doctoral degrees are the highest given in academic sugjects, although further study beyond the Ph.D., called post-doctoral study, is becoming important in some fields.

The total number of Ph.D.'s awarded in recent years has declined. Almost every discipline has experienced a decline, though some--such as the humanities--have been hit harder than others. Among the few disciplines in which the number of degrees rose between 1973 and 1983 are computer science; earth, atmospheric, and marine science; biological sciences; health sciences; agricultural sciences; psychology; anthropology; music; and communications.

People may have a combination of reasons for obtaining a Ph.D. Many obtain a Ph.D. because it is a prerequisite for some careers--college teaching in particular. Also, in some occupations--physics or mathematics, for example--a Ph.D. is needed to reach full professional status. Other people just enjoy learning about a particular subject. Driven by intellectual curiosity, they want to continue studying the subject and perhaps add to the knowledge of the subject through their own research. Others are motivated to be among the best and to be regarded as a member of an elite learned group. These motivations are so strong that some students in recent years continued to pursue a Ph.D. even though they knew that they would have difficulty finding a job in their field.

In general, obtaining a Ph.D. involves taking 20 or more increasingly specialized courses, conducting research on a very narrow subject, and writing a dissertation that describes the research and its results. The course-work usually takes several years to complete even though it is equivalent to 3 years of academic credit. Classes are usually smaller than undergraduate classes and seminars are common. Typically, students must study articles in scholarly journals as well as textbooks; research papers are usually required. Graduate students have closer contact with their professors and other students in their departments than do undergraduates, but usually have less contact with other parts of university life. They tend to live off campus, are often married, and, in many cases, have jobs or assistantship duties in addition to their studies.

Doctoral students usually specialize in a subfield of their discipline. In physics, for example, the student may concentrate on acoustics; in history, on the American Civil War. However, because a doctoral recipient must have a good knowledge of all aspects of a field, comprehensive examinations on all core or major areas of the discipline must be passed. The nature of these exams--whether oral or written, the sequence in which they are taken, the number of times that they may be retaken in case of failure--differs significantly from school to school and from department to department. These exams, together with the requirement that at least a B average be maintained (rather than the C average of the undergraduate school), make doctoral coursework more demanding and challenging than undergraduate courses. Most graduate students gladly spend the additional time required studying and conducting research, however, because the material is so directly related to their major interest.

The dissertation poses a difficult obstacle for many doctoral candidates. The dissertation is a report of original research conducted by the candidate to answer some significant question in the field; it sets forth an original hypothesis or proposes a model and then tests it. In order to test the hypothesis, the student in the sciences or engineering must usually undertake laboratory work, and the student in the humanities must embark on an extensive study of original documents or published material. While conducting the research and preparing the dissertation, the student is guided and advised by a faculty member.

Completing the dissertation usually takes the equivalent of 1 or 2 years of full-time work. The amount of time required varies depending on the candidate's other obligations, the subject of the dissertation, and the diligence of the student. Some students find shifting from the structured environment of classrooms and examinations to the uncertainties of research difficult. As a result, many candidates who have completed their coursework don't complete their dissertation. Colloquially, they are called ABD's (All But Dissertation). Although an ABD is not a degree, many employers view an ABD holders as having a semi-official status between that of a master's degree and doctorate holder.

Although a Ph.D. program can be completed in 3 or 4 years of uninterrupted study, it almost always takes longer. For doctorate recipients in 1983 (the latest data available), the median time spent as registered students after receiving a bachelor's degree was 6.6 years (see table 1). However, the time varied by field. Students in the natural sciences and engineering took less time on average than students in other fields. Because few people pursue a doctorate nonstop after leaving college, the median age of those awarded a doctorate was almost 33.

Is a Master's Degree Required?

Contrary to what many believe, a master's degree is not required for entrance into most Ph.D. programs. Although about 80 percent of those awarded a Ph.D. in 1983 had obtained a master's first, some students--especially in chemistry and biochemistry--go directly from the bachelor's degree to the Ph.D. and never receive one.

The master's degree is awarded in its own right. Most are awarded to students who do not intend to go on for their doctorate; however, normal progress toward a Ph.D. usually involves fulfilling the requirements for a master's degree as well. For example, acceptance as a candidate for the doctorate may require completion of a certain number of courses and passing certain tests; completion of these same requirements may warrant the award of the master's degree.

Earning a master's degree might necessitate completing projects that do not contribute directly toward progress in a Ph.D. program, however. For example, a master's thesis representing 500 or more hours of research may be required; while writing a master's thesis is often of general benefit to the student, the content of the thesis may not be useful at later stages of a doctorate program. Therefore, students who are sure thwy will continue their studies up to the doctorate in the same institution may save time by enrolling in a Ph.D. program at the start rather than first starting out in a master's degree program.

Postdoctoral Study

Although the Ph.D. is the highest academic degree awarded, obtaining it does not necessarily mean the end of one's studies. It has become increasingly common for new Ph.D.'s, especially in the natural sciences, to spend a period of time--often 2 years--doing postdoctoral research and study. Postdoctoral fellows usually perform research, often on a topic of interest to an institution, in return for financial support in the form of a postdoctoral fellowship. In some fields, postdoctoral research is becoming almost a necessity because these areas have become so advanced that the regular doctoral program doesn't afford enough time to become fully knowledgeable about the field and proficient in research. Some recent Ph.D.'s hold postdoctoral positions while they search for a permanent job that suits their interests.

Financial Support

The cost of obtaining a Ph.D. is considerable because of the long period involved. Tuition, housing, travel to a distant university, and child care must be paid for somehow. A substantial cost of graduate education in addition to out-of-pocket expenses is the income that students would have earned had they sought employment immediately after college. Because new employees typically receive fairly rapid promotions and salary increases, the amount of this lost income rises every year the student remains in graduate school.

A complex system of financial assistance has evolved that provides some or all of the tuition and living expenses for most graduate students. As table 2 shows, the sources of financial assistance vary greatly. Most students rely on a combination of types of financial support, including savings, loans, earnings from part- or full-time jobs, family contributions, and their spouse's earnings. Assistantships and fellowships are the most common sources of income other than earnings.

Assistantships. Basically, an assistantship is a part-time job. The student provides services to the university in return for a small salary and reduction or elimination of tuition. Because the job is in the student's own field, there is some educational benefit to the student from this work. The work experience can also be important when the student seeks full-time employment. There are two kinds of assistantships--teaching and research. The number awarded and the standards for the award vary widely from institution to institution and from department to department.

A teaching assistant teaches one or more courses, usually lower level undergraduate courses. Sometimes, duties are restricted to grading tests or providing tutorial services. Other times, the assistant might conduct the laboratory sessions of a course taught by a professor. In many cases, the assistant has almost all the duties of a regular faculty member, including preparing the syllabus, developing lectures, designing assignments, and evaluating the class's progress. Teaching assistantships are common in most fields.

Research assistants work in laboratories, libraries, or offices, assisting the faculty in performing research. Duties can range from preparing bibliographies to conducting experiments. The availability of these assistantships varies by field; they are common in science and engineering, less common in social sciences, and relatively rare in the humanities. (See table 2.)

Fellowships. Fellowships are similar to scholarships in undergraduate school in that there are usually no work requirements. Fellowships, which can cover tuition and living expenses, are primarily awarded by universities but are also available from other sources, notably the National Institute of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF), both of which are Federal agencies. NSF and NIH also award traineeships, which are similar to fellowships except that the funds are not awarded directly to the student but are distributed by the universities. NSF and NIH fellowships and traineeships are concentrated in engineering and the physical, life, and social sciences.

Ph.D. Employment Conditions

Most Ph.D. programs are designed to prepare one for college or university faculty employment by providing a thorough knowledge of a subject and the skills to do research. Until recent years, the major--and, in some fields, almost the only--employers of Ph.D.'s were colleges and universities. Therefore, trends in college enrollments have had an important effect on employment opportunities for Ph.D.'s.

During the 1960's, undergraduate enrollments grew rapidly from 3.6 million in 1960 to 7.9 million in 1970 as the post-World War II baby boom generation reached college age. College enrollments also were inflated during this period by an increase in the percentage of the college-age population who attended college. Growth in enrollments was considerably slower in the 1970's, and it is expected that enrollments will decline beginning in the mid-1980's because of fewer births after the mid-1960's.

The large expansion of college enrollments in the 1960's created a high demand for new faculty. Enrollments in Ph.D. programs responded to this demand, and many of the new bachelor's degree holders who were available continued into graduate school. In addition, Federal and other support for graduate studies increased. However, when growth in enrollments started to slow around 1970, colleges and universities greatly reduced their hiring; and new Ph.D.'s in many fields have had difficulty obtaining permanent academic employment since that time. Natural scientists, partly because of opportunities in industry and government, have had better employment prospects than social scientists and humanities Ph.D.'s, who have historically had fewer opportunities outside colleges and universities. The situation has been different for Ph.D. engineers and computer scientists. They have been in such high demand in industry and other areas in recent years that they have often been lured away from the classroom by much higher salaries in industry. This has resulted in a shortage of college faculty in engineering and computer science even though surpluses existed in other fields.

Life as a Faculty Member

Teaching or conducting research is the primary work activity of most Ph.D.'s (table 3), and more than half work in colleges and universities (table 4). The teaching of undergraduates and course preparation are important parts of faculty members' duties; although 4-year college and university faculty members spent less than half their time in instruction and course preparation (see chart 1), additional time was spent on duties closely related to teaching, such as advising students. These estimates are only averages, or course. Some faculty may spend most of their time doing research, and others--department heads, for example--may devote a considerable amount of time to administration.

Although research consumes less than a fifth of the average faculty member's time, it is typically a very important factor in a faculty member's career. He or she must produce research findings of sufficient quality to be published in scholarly journals. The publication of research results is taken as evidence that the faculty member is staying abreast of and contributing to progress in his or her field and adding to the reputation of the institution. "Publish or perish" is the rule in many institutions.

Many faculty members obtain grants or contracts--often from the Federal Government--to support part or all of their research. In some institutions or academic departments, grants and contracts are an important source of funds. Professors who are able to obtain contracts because of their prominence in a field are highly regarded; their efforts bring greater recognition to the school.

An important part of the traditional academic career is the attainment of tenure. In the traditional academic career, a new Ph.D. is hired with the rank of instructor or, more usually, assistant professor. After a certain period (usually 7 years), the faculty member's teaching record, research projects, and overall contribution to the school are reviewed; tenure is granted if the review is favorable.

Once granted tenure, a professor cannot ordinarily be fired and is likely to continue with that institution for the remainder of his or her career. A faculty member who is denied tenure usually must obtain a job elsewhere. The purpose of tenure is to protect the faculty's academic freedom; that is, it enables the faculty member to teach and conduct research free from the fear of being fired for advocating unpopular ideas. It also gives both faculty members and their institutions the stability needed for effective research and teaching.

In recent years, however, there have been many pressures on higher educational institutions and their faculty that have forced career system. As noted earlier, enrollments, which ave leveled off, are projected to decline, which will result in lower tuition income. Inflation increased costs faster than tuition and fees could be raised, and Federal and State funds to support higher education were greatly reduced. Government funds supplied 62.5 percent of costs in public 4-year institutions in 1970-71; this was reduced to 57.6 percent in 1981-82. In private 4-yer institutions, the reduction was from 24.9 to 19.9 percent over the same period. Furthermore, a large proportion of most institutions' faculties already have tenure, which compounds these problems. In 1983, 62 percent of science, engineering, and social science faculty and 70 percent of humanities faculty had tenure. Because much of the faculty was hired during the 1960's, the rate of deaths and retirements is relatively low. Therefore, college administrators often find themselves under pressure to reduce costs but have little maneuvering room when some fields--engineering and computer science, for example--become more popular at the expense of other fields, such as English literature or foreign languages. When this happens, tenured staff in the less popular fields cannot be shifted to the more popular ones.

Many of the strategies adopted by colleges and universities to cope with these pressures have had adverse consequences for new Ph.D.'s. The major strategy has been to restrict the hiring of new faculty members, especially in the humanities and social sciences, which has resulted in intense competition in some fields for the few available openings. Colleges and universities have also chosen to create temporary, nontenure-track positions for many of the new faculty members they do hire. Because faculty members holding temporary positions must often leave when their contract expires, many have had a series of temporary jobs at colleges and universities all across the country, becoming what have been called academic nomads.

Another strategy used by colleges and universities to reduce costs is to increase the use of part-time faculty, who usually cost the college less per course taught than full-time faculty. Some part-timers are new Ph.D.'s unable to obtain a tenure-track position. Many others work full time in industry or government jobs and teach a course or two on the side.

Even if a new Ph.D. obtains a satisfactory tenure-track faculty position, a variety of changes in campus life caused by cost pressures and steady or declining enrollments have made the faculty in many institutions less satisfied with their jobs than in the past. Academic salaries have not kept up with inflation, the pressure to produce publishable research results and to obtain research grants and contracts has increased, laboratory equipment has become increasingly out of date, and, in some cases, working conditions have been adversely affected by buildings that are deteriorating due to inadequate maintenance or by students who are unprepared for college-level work.

Opportunities Outside Academia

As table 4 shows, a large proportion of doctoral degree holders do not work in higher education. Although doctoral programs have traditionally concentrated on preparing their students for life as a faculty member, Ph.D.'s in some fields are in demand by employers other than universities. Scientific and engineering research is an essential activity in industry and government, and large proportions of Ph.D.'s in science and engineering have always worked there. Growth in industrial research and development spending since the early 1960's has resulted in more Ph.D.'s than ever who work outside academia.

Many scientists and engineers with doctorates prefer nonacademic work for several reasons. The pay is usually higher--often much higher--in industry than in colleges and universities. Of perhaps more importance to many, industrial research labs often have more up-to-date equipment than universities. Another advantage to those who with to conduct research is that, in industry, without teaching and administrative duties, one can spend full time on research.

Prior to the early 1970's, many employers in industry and government were reluctant to hire Ph.D.'s in the social sciences and humanities. It was assumed they would not be satisfied with their jobs and would leave when a faculty facancy became available. Some new Ph.D.'s, after experiencing the disappointment of being unable to obtain a faculty job, became even more distressed when they found they almost had to hide the fact that they had a Ph.D. when looking for a nonacademic job. However, in recent years, things have changed. Many employers have found that humanities and social science Ph.D.'s are valuable employees. They are bright, are trained in research methods, and have excellent communications skills. Similarly, the attitudes of new Ph.D.'s have also changed. Because many new Ph.D.'s are well aware of the poor prospects of academic employment, they are more receptive to nontraditional types of employment.

What Ph.D.'s Earn

Average annual salaries for Ph.D.'s in 1983 varied considerably by the field of doctorate, from around $30,000 in humanities fields to over $46,000 in engineering. Salaries paid by business and industry were higher than those paid by educational institutions for most fields, but not for the humanities. The salaries in several other occupations can serve for a comparison: Secondary school teachers in public schools earned an average of $21,100 during the 1982-83 school year; experienced engineers, most of whom have a bachelor's or master's degree, earned average salaries of about $36,700 in 1983. Others with at least 3 years of postbaccalaureate training earned more. Experienced salaried lawyers averaged from $40,000 to $50,000 in 1983. The average income of dentists in 1982 was about $55,000 and the average of all physicians' net incomes in 1982 was over $100,000.

Future Employment Opportunities

For at least the next 10 years, employment prospects for college and university faculty, which already are poor in most fields, probably will worsen as college enrollments decline. The number of 18- to 21-year-olds, the age group that traditionally has supplied most undergraduates, is expected to decline over the period because of fewer births after the mid-1960's. Until after the mid-1990's, there are likely to be few tenure-track openings, at least outside of engineering and some of the sciences. In fact, there are fears that lower enrollments might force some colleges to lay off tenured professors, something that has been almost unheard of in the academic world. However, opportunities in business and government for Ph.D.'s in science and engineering fields should be favorable.

There is some good news over the long term for those presently thinking of pursuing a Ph.D. By the late 1990's, employment conditions for Ph.D.'s should improve. Although this seems like a long time away, the average doctorate recipient earned a bachelor's degree some 10 years earlier. The improvement in employment conditions would therefore take place by the time today's high school seniors become Ph.D. candidates.

Employment prospects for Ph.D.'s are expected to improve in the late 1990's for several reasons. First, the children born to the baby-boom generation will be old enough for college by then; the college-age population and, thus, enrollments, are expected to start to increase from the low point around 1995. Second, demand for people with doctorates is likely to continue to increase in nonacademic areas because of the increasingly higher levels of technology and complexity of industry and government. Third, and perhaps most important, the very large number of college faculty hired during the 1960's will begin retiring by the late 1990's.

Currently, most retiring faculty members were hired before 1960. Faculty members hired during the 1960's will begin retiring in the mid- to late 1990's. This will create a very large number of openings because the number of faculty more than doubled between 1960 and 1970. Chart 2 shows how many Ph.D.'s could be expected to retire assuming differing retirement ages. Conditions may improve sooner in some fields than in ohters, depending on the age of the faculty, the number of students choosing a field as a major, and nonacademic demand.

Because the employment outlook for Ph.D.'s will vary considerably by field, The Occupational Outlook Handbook should be consulted for employment outlook information on specific fields. The Handbook will also provide information on the nature of the work, working conditions, and earnings for many occupations that Ph.D.'s enter.
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Author:Braddock, Douglas
Publication:Occupational Outlook Quarterly
Date:Jun 22, 1986
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