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This is in reference to my question: How to do a PhD to equip myself for a job as assistant professor.

I was told in the answer of the above linked question that chances of landing a job as an assistant professor in Mathematics are quite slim. Very few people will actually get a permanent position in academia.

An article of 2014 shows only 0.5-3% of PhD graduates will actually get a job as an Assistant Professor.

But I have two questions:

  1. Why do so many people still apply for a PhD in some reputed institutes in India even knowing the harsh reality? I found there are 1500 applications for four PhD scholarship positions.

    • One answer says that people move to industry, but I still don’t understand how after doing a PhD in suppose differential geometry or algebraic geometry one can do a job in industry if he/she gets no position as an assistant professor.

    • Will one be satisfied to do some managerial work in some Consultancy firm after doing a PhD in Mathematics?

  2. Are people jobless after a PhD? Completion of a PhD requires so much effort. So why is there no value after doing it?

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13 Answers 13

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Some of my observations:

  1. They don't know what they're going into. Most PhD students have some idea of how hard it is to get a job afterwards, but don't actually know. It's similar to how one can imagine what skydiving is like, but don't actually know until after trying it.
  2. They're confident they can succeed. PhD students are some of the smartest of their generation. They were top of their high school class, top of their undergraduate class, they've never met an obstacle they can't overcome. Why can't they also top their graduate class, top the postdoc chain, and top the applicants for tenured positions?
  3. The process worked for their supervisors, which makes them think it'll also work for the students. The supervisors are probably the people most influential in convincing undergraduates to do graduate studies. These are the people who've already did all of the things in #2. If they can do it, so can their students, and hence they encourage their students to try.
  4. They don't know what they want to do. They haven't really thought about future careers and only have a vague idea of how their studies enable them to find a job if the academic path fails. The hidden reason they did undergraduate studies is because that's what everyone who did well in high school went on to do, and the same applied for graduate studies. "The best undergraduates do PhD studies, so I'll do it too".
  5. They have romantic ideas about what people with PhDs do. When scientists talk about what they do, they don't usually say "I write funding proposals". The not-exactly-accurate answers propagate and influence the next generation of students to try to become scientists themselves.
189

The issue is that the frame of your question is wrong. You’re assuming that the purpose of a PhD is to get an academic job, when that is not the case: Many people who get PhD’s have no desire for an academic job, even from the time they apply!

The number of academic positions is indeed insufficient to absorb all the PhD’s. But there are lots of other “landing spots”:

  • Industrial research and development
  • Start-ups
  • Non-university government research institutes (like the US NIH or DOE lab system, or the Max-Planck-Instituts in Germany)
  • Finance and consulting
  • Administrative and Supervisory positions in other disciplines.

Overall, PhD’s have a lower unemployment rate than non-PhD’s. It’s all a question of where they want to go.

As for doing a PhD, the basic skill it teaches you—the one that makes you valuable to lots of people—is the ability to learn new fields quickly and become an expert in those fields. You don’t always need specialized knowledge in your PhD topic to get into an area.

But ultimately the reason for doing a PhD is the love of research and discovery. People pursue research careers because that’s what they want to do.

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Because it's fun!

No, really. I went to do a PhD because I thought it was fun. It allowed me to live in an awesome location, travel around the world to conferences and summer schools, to spend years doing exciting research with nice colleagues, and even getting paid for all of it (and in Sweden, the pay is not bad at slightly above the national median salary, plenty for a large apartment where I did my PhD).

I postponed growing up and thinking about the future for after the PhD, which means now, 4½ years into a couple of postdocs.

  • 13
    It really is fun! After 8 years in industry, i went to do a PhD. And I can tell you, I haven't had as much fun working ever in industry! – Attila Kinali Feb 12 '18 at 13:18
  • @Attila Kinal: Same here, except about 3X as long in industry. – jamesqf Feb 12 '18 at 19:52
  • I understand that it is really fun but you need to do a job at some point for yourself to survive – Learnmore Feb 19 '18 at 3:13
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    @New_User I don't have any numbers on the proportion of PhD holders among rough sleepers and street beggars, but I don't personally know any. As far as I know, a PhD does not reduce the likelihood of getting a job. But see also this question. – gerrit Feb 19 '18 at 12:47
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    @New_User And, although for some career paths the total career earnings may be higher if one skips the PhD entirely, those differences are hardly the ones where survival is at stake. – gerrit Feb 19 '18 at 18:57
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A personal anecdote. Your mileage may vary.

For me, entering the PhD program meant:

  • Stay in the same city as my girlfriend
  • Continue the sport I loved, with my team
  • Sufficient funding to become financially independent of my parents (just...)
  • Automatic deferment from military service (draft)
  • Work with smart people, a camera that could shoot 10M frames per second, and an interesting / challenging project

In contrast, "trying to get a job" would mean:

  • End of studies --> return to home country for military service
  • Girlfriend now "far away", in the days when international phone calls were expensive (and letters took a long time, and email had not been invented)
  • 18 months later, see if I could pick up life where I had left off

The PhD was fun, led to a postdoc, then to a role in industry. 27 years later I am still with that company, leveraging the systematic and critical thinking skills that research taught me. My sports team did well at the national level. I married my girlfriend, and we have raised four children.

An academic career was never the goal. There would have been no money in it. I'm still dreaming of winning the lottery; then I might "endow a chair and sit on it". My PhD training tells me that it's statistically unlikely.

24

I did a PhD and was hired for my master's degree, not for my PhD. Financially it did not (yet) pan out, but personally it did.

Why I still think it was a great time: I spend five more years on campus, had great colleagues, contributed to the community (published articles, gave talks, wrote some open source software), taught several courses, traveled to conferences, could deeply study a couple of topics, and was afterwards still hired for a ok-payed industry job.

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    Same; I really enjoy being a PhD student, but I don't think I would enjoy being a professor. I'm sure I could've made more money becoming a software engineer seven years ago, but I don't think maximizing my bank account leads to happiness... – nengel Feb 12 '18 at 10:16
15

I discovered that in Fine Art a lot of people do a PhD later in life, aged 40 plus or even 60 plus. These people have mostly been artists for a long time, and have returned to study to deepen their understanding of art and to rethink their practice. The ones I met mostly supported themselves by teaching something related to art, in trade or technical institutions, not universities. For one or two, the PhD might lead to a job in a university or a public institution, but the main motivation was simply to help their personal development as artists.

As far as I know, doing a PhD later in life is rare in the science and technology fields. It is true that PhDs in Fine Art are fairly recent (at least in my country), and so these older artists didn't have the opportunity to do a PhD when they were younger.

  • 1
    I know some engineers who do a PhD after their retirement. Either for their personal joy or that they have a topic in life for decades and want to give it a try finally. – usr1234567 Feb 12 '18 at 6:34
10

It is a definite problem with no easy answers. A partial solution is that a STEM PhD can provide a gateway to related fields. Going from a Math PhD to a job in computing or data science is a well-worn path. If you have the skill-set to get a PhD in differential geometry then you have the skill-set to e.g. rebrand yourself as a data scientist (if need be). Since a fundamental problem in data science is trying to find solutions to the curse of dimensionality, having a deep understanding of geometry is actually relevant. A graduate-level knowledge of mathematics linked with an ability (but not necessarily expertise) in programming can go far in industry.

  • Great advice. Also going the other direction MSc engineering -> applied math phd can also be quite fruitful. Lots of linear algebra and some probability and calculus and you can suddenly design your own algorithms with rune-like equations which seems like wild magic to most BSc and MSc. :) But really the feeling of suddenly actually being able to build your own versions of the stuff all on your own that the cool professors inspired you with some 5 years ago. I would say working hard to get that feeling is worth a Lot of money. Money can't quite buy that feeling. – mathreadler Feb 12 '18 at 17:24
10

In my opinion, there are people that opted for PhD for their own personal achievement. There are people who take the title that comes with PhD very proudly. And there are also people who want to prove themselves that they can achieve that. It is the experience that counts, not much about the career.

EDIT : It is from my personal experience. I had few bad grades in my undergraduate study, but I managed to finish it and I am one of the few people around me that went for Master and completed it.

Pursuing PhD had never been something I want to do but I do to prove to myself that bad grades and CGPA won't hold you back. I never thought about pursuing career in academic.

  • Could you back your answer up with statistics, facts, personal experience? – Julien Lopez Feb 12 '18 at 14:08
  • @JulienLopez - see my answer for "personal experience" not unlike that described in this answer. – Floris Feb 12 '18 at 22:23
10

I'm surprised what I see as the most important reason for doing a PhD isn't mentioned.

I did PhD because I love the subject. I'll work on a subject that no one has ever done. I'll increase the knowledge base of humanity. If I'm lucky (and work really hard), there might be a theory named after me. Even if I didn't, I'll probably provide a shoulder for the next Newton to stand on.

  • This might be seen as assuming that a PhD is both sufficient and necessary to advance the subject you love. Some think that it takes more time (i.e. a career within the subject), which is probably why the question is about building a career. – Nemo Feb 14 '18 at 20:57
7

There is a big difference between getting education for Vocational reasons and Academic reasons.

Vocational training is training that you can apply immediately to a job; it tends to be somewhat practical. For example, plumber, electrician, MBA, accounting, automechanic, physician, nurse, computer programmer. For Vocational training, you go to school to learn how to do something in particular, so that once the training is done, you are qualified to go and do it. I think most people view undergraduate degrees as something vocational.

Academic education, in contrast, is learning for the sake of learning; perhaps "advancing human knowledge" is the best way to say it. For someone who views life with a utilitarian philosophy, most PhD's, like poetry and video games, are not at all useful.

So in summary, your questions:

Why do so many people apply for a PhD even when chances of getting academic jobs are slim?

Answer: Because a PhD is not a vocational degree; it is an academic degree

Why do so many people still apply for a PhD in some reputed institutes in India even knowing the harsh reality?

Answer: If someone is unhappy with reality, perhaps advancing human knowledge is a means to fix the dismal reality many people face. And particular institutes, IIT for example, are reputed because they have contributed much to the improve human condition. There are people who work not for material reasons but instead to improve society as a whole.

Are people jobless after a PhD?

Just like people everywhere, joblessness can indeed effect PhDs. There certainly isn't a 100% employment rate in any group of people, is there?

Likewise, most people who have a PhD are able to find a job. However, I am willing to wager that on the whole, people who get vocational degrees earn more money. For example, MBAs, Physicians, and CS people will earn more than most PhDs. In the end, many PhDs get a job in a field that can use their skills vocationally; for example, many physics PhDs go into computer science when school is done.

Completion of a PhD requires so much effort. So why is there no value after doing it?

There are many things in this world that require a ton of effort for which very little remuneration is received. For example, child rearing. Raising kids is a thankless task that most people do anyway. If society paid more money for what it values, shouldn't being a mother pay the most of any profession? In truth most mothers raise kids for a variety of reasons; sense of fulfillment, love, etc.

Likewise with PhDs, people pursue these degrees for reasons not related to remuneration. Perhaps we should re-organize society so that those we value the most receive the most money? Moms will get the most money, followed by poets, and everyone will pity the impoverished health insurance company executive?

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    Just for the sake of the argument: In the group of employed people, there is an 100% employment rate. And in the set containing nobody, too. – usr1234567 Feb 13 '18 at 11:33
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    @usr1234567 Ha! You are 100% right – axsvl77 Feb 13 '18 at 11:59
4

Because it is a way out of poverty!

While many people will do a PhD because they love research and discovery and also the intellectual challenge, there are other important factors too.

Getting a PhD is a way out of poverty for some people. If someone is poor and they live in a country with declining living standards, getting a PhD from another country can help them in two ways:

1- They will be paid for their PhD research. In some countries if you are lucky you do not pay university for your PhD, otherwise you pay to get a PhD while you are enrolled full-time! Doing PhD and having a job (if you could find it and if it would pay enough) is not easy for everybody.

2- If someone wants to immigrate to another country with better living standards, the easiest way is to be educated and to be highly skilled. Getting a PhD from another country makes it possible either to settle in that country or immigrate to another one easier.

Many people live in less developed countries and finding an academic job after their PhD or their job satisfaction is their least concern!

2

It's cool :-) I would get a Ph.D. just for fun if I had time and money. It's fun (for many people including me nothing is more fun than getting to understand new things), it feeds you dopamine (some people use gambling for this, some do sports, some prefer to explore), and makes it much easier to get people respect you which is extremely ego-pleasing :-) And there is nothing wrong in pleasing your ego as long as you do this consciously and don't let it cloud your reason.

1

One might as well ask why artists paint, why poets or writers write, why people pursue professional sports. In each case, the chance of "success" is quite small. People who do these things have passion for what they do, they don't mind making great sacrifice, and they all hope that one day all the hard work will pay off.

I was lucky to get out of grad school when it was still possible to get a job. Nonetheless, each time I looked for a new position, there was a certain amount of fear that I might not get one.

At the end of the last class I taught before I retired, I played the song "What I did for Love" from "A Chorus Line." It summed up my feelings for my career, and probably would for many others who "dreamed the impossible dream."

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