If you're a grad student, it's best to read the latest report from the National Science Foundation with a large glass of single-malt whiskey in hand. Scratch that: The top-shelf whiskey is probably out of your budget. Well, Trader Joe's "Two Buck Chuck" is good, too!
Liquid courage is a necessity when examining the data on PhDs in the latest NSF report, "The Survey of Earned Doctorates," which utilized figures from the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center. The report finds that many newly minted PhDs complete school after nearly 10 years of studies with significant debt and without the promise of a job. Yet few people seem to be paying attention to these findings; graduate programs are producing more PhDs than ever before.
Getting a PhD has always been a long haul. Despite calls for reform, the time spent in graduate programs hasn't declined significantly in the past decade. In 2014, students spent eight years on average in graduate school programs to earn a PhD in the social sciences, for example. It takes nine years to get one in the humanities, seven for science fields and engineering, and 12 for education, according to NSF. In other words, PhDs are typically nearing or in their 30s by the time they begin their careers. Many of their friends have probably already banked a decade's worth of retirement money in a 401K account; some may have already put a down payment on a small town house.
While most doctoral students rely primarily on some combination of grants, teaching assistantships, and research positions to cover tuition and living expenses, they also often use personal savings, spouses' earnings, and student loans. Consequently, more than 12 percent of all PhDs complete their doctoral programs with over $70,000 of combined undergraduate and graduate student-loan debt. Rates are especially high in the social sciences and education. Those debt levels are alarming, especially because fewer students have jobs lined up immediately after graduation than was the case 10 years ago.
The job market for those with advanced degrees is clearly tightening, according to the NSF study, with many more PhDs in all fields reporting no definite job commitments in 2014 compared to 2004. Nearly 40 percent of the PhDs surveyed in 2014 hadn't lined up a job--whether in the private industry or academia--at the time of graduation.