Friday, October 30, 2009

Statistics on Grad School and Getting a Job

When I (someday) graduate from CU and receive my doctorate, I will be the first person in my family to do so. We have had a small army of Nelsons with Masters degrees and one law degree that I know of, but as far as I know no one before me has gone for a PhD. Since this career path is something I have never seen in my family, I am always very curious to know more about it. I would like to know things like what kind of job I'm likely to have after I graduate and what the job market is like. I imagine that anybody reading this blog as a grad student or undergrad wants to know the same thing.

To answer these questions, I recommend talking to people who have done it. Their experiences cannot be reduced to data, so get them in verbal form. However, as a physicist, I much prefer looking at data over trying to average people's life-stories. Luckily, the American Institute of Physics has a wealth of statistical information on their website. So here's what I have found by running my own little analysis of their data. All of these conclusions will be drawn from data from 1998 to 2008 (or 2006 in some cases). I used a decade worth of data because I felt it was a good compromise between getting trends that are valid today and giving enough averaging time to make this valid for the next 4-6 years (when I hope to be in the graduating/job finding phase). Here's what I've found (in no particular order):
  1. For physics PhD programs in the US, on average, per year, there have been 2,519 incoming students, 12,358 enrolled students, and 1,222 PhDs awarded. If you assume a constant dropout rate per year, that means that it takes on average 7.6 years to graduate, 10.01% of students dropout per year, and on average only half of those who start a PhD program will finish it. Those numbers vary by about plus or minus 10% on any given year, except the graduation time, which varies by plus or minus 2 years.
  2. The number of incoming graduate students in American programs is growing by an average of 3.3% per year, while the number graduating is growing by 1.0% per year. By comparison, the percent growth in full-time equivalent (FTE) physics faculty has done the following:In on average, the number of FTE faculty is growing by 0.67% per year for PhD-granting departments, and roughly twice that (1.36% and 1.38%, respectively) for Masters and Bachelors departments. The general trends look like this:
I was thinking about drawing some conclusions, but instead I think I'll let you draw your own. Comment away on what you think this all means.


  1. My neighbor was just awarded his PhD after nearly 20 years working on it. He already had a job at BYU and I don't know if this means he'll get a raise.
    Isn't the achievement of a PhD in Physics its own reward? Do you need to demean your degree by getting a job? I mean, you're just going to end up getting a programming job anyway right? =:) btw, it took me 12 years to get my bachelors. I was on the 'special ed' track. Not a degree *in* special ed, but *for* special eds.

  2. I am a little shocked if the numbers are saying it takes on average 7.6 years. I would have thought it was more like 6. (I mean, many programs, I have been told, cut you off at 8 years so an average of 7.6 seems high.)

    My family is in the same boat: Masters degrees and Law degrees, but no PhDs.

    "I mean, you're just going to end up getting a programming job anyway right?"

    A lot of people are.

    Here in Irvine I found a new job for physicists: consultants for patent attorneys. There are people in my ward with science PhDs who charge, and I'm serious, like $600-700 dollars an hour to help patent attorneys make their case.

    Let's just say they all live in multimillion dollar houses along the beach and play golf half the time.


  3. Just to put that money in prosepective. Let's say being consulting work, they only find on average 10 hours of work every 40 weeks a year making the lesser of those two numbers:

    600*10*40 = $240,000.

    Seriously. These people can work like a 10 hour week with months of vacation and still be making basically a quarter million a year.

  4. Joe,
    For my calculation of the average time it takes to graduate there are a couple assumptions made. First, I assume that the drop-out rate for PhD program is constant (e.g. if you have 10 first year grad students and 10 5th year grad students one of each will leave the program). That's probably not right as far more people leave (in my experience) in their 1st or 2nd year than their 4th or 5th. That would tend to lower my number. Additionally, the 1-sigma error bars on that are 7.61 +/- 2.87, so my result is consistent with an average of 6 or 6.5 years, which is what is generally reported by surveys (which have their own issues with self-selection effects and such). However, the most shocking thing for me is the high drop-out rate. On average only half of those entering a PhD program will leave with a PhD. I would have guessed the success rate was closer to 75%. The question then is what is driving so many people out of PhD programs?

  5. Additionally, I was fascinated by fact that the growth rate for Masters and Bachelors granting departments is growing at twice the rate of PhD departments over the last decade. I'm encouraged by that since I am seriously considering going for a faculty job at a university where I would primarily be in a teaching role. Additionally over the past decade the growth rate for new PhDs has been considerably lower than the growth rates for faculty at any type of department. The growth rate for incoming grad students, however, is 3.36% per year, which is double the growth rate for Bachelors and Masters faculty and 4 times that of PhD faculty - so we may have a lot of competition when we're looking for real jobs.

  6. I wonder what the statistics would look like if we were able to break them down a little further. When are people dropping out? (Is it 1st or 2nd year? or is it later?) How long does it take students to graduate? Why are they dropping out? (Failed quals? Couldn't find a research group? Failed out of classes? Found another job? Decided it was too hard? etc.) Do top-ranked universities / departments show different trends then lower-ranked programs? (i.e. Do more established programs weed people out more, or do they know the ropes on how to support grad students and get them through a PhD?) Are there different trends for theoreticians and experimentalists? (As the lone experimentalist in this group, I must confess I wonder about this type of thing.) What do PhD "dropouts" do after leaving their program? (Do they try again at a different school? If not, where do they get a job?)

    I think that you're right, Nick, there really is no substitute for personal experiences. I also like to look at aggregate statistics, but I find that this leaves a lot of questions unanswered.

    BTW, Joe, if you're in this line of work for the money, then yes, your plans would definitively prove that there is a real difference between education and wisdom (no surprise there). However, I don't really know of anyone who does go into teaching for the money.

  7. Bill,
    In my department over the past couple years we've had a handful of people leave the program without a PhD. I'd say half have left due to issues with comps, a quarter left due to changes in career plans, and another quarter due to problems with their advisor. However my department has a graduation rate of roughly 70% over the past 10 years, so somwhere else must be having greater problems retaining students than we do.

  8. I'm in the same boat. No one in my family has a PhD and I am beginning my PhD program (but in Aerospace Engineering). Right now I work at Lawrence Livermore National Lab. We have whole boat load of PhD's and my neighborhood, ward, and city are filled with them. People at the lab make pretty dang good money, and get to do research without fighting for funding all the time (well in most cases).

    Like Joe, I have considered the academic route, but I cannot recommend enough the National Laboratory route. It's a great job, great environment, has an academic bent, and there's nowhere in the world nicer to live than Livermore, CA (IMHO).

  9. jmb275,

    I spent a summer at Los Alamos National Lab(LANL) and have to agree with how great national labs are. I really liked LANL and amd sure Livermore is similar.

    I liked the envirnmemt, people and the pay was nice too. Furthermore, it seems the national labs, (and I'll throw in things like JPL in this mix too) work on the really big/interesting/takes a lot of money to do scientific projects.

    I really like universities and they are still my #1 choice of a career path. However, universities don't seem to be able to tackle science problems that require the involvement of dozens if not hundreds of people and hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars.

    Universities dodn't pull of things like the manhatton project, getting us to the moon, etc... but places like national labs do.

  10. jmb275 and Joe,
    I'm sure that somewhere there is data on the growth-rates for national labs and research-only facilities (in astronomy two of the big ones are the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and Carnagie Observatories), but I don't have it. Still, the growth rate at more teaching-oriented departments for faculty is much higher than the growth rate for PhD departments. I think that positions that feature significant teaching responsibilities are going to become more prevalent as time goes on.

  11. One other thing to note in these numbers: there has been a trend this decade toward slower growth rates in faculty in general. This means that either there was an abnormal hiring blitz in the first part of this decade or those hires have been put on hold due to recent economic pressures. If the latter is true that would be a good sign for those of us that hope to be getting faculty jobs in 4 to 6 years.


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