The PhD Scam: Down We Go!



I have said it once and I will say it again: don’t do a PhD if you can try and avoid it! Now this may sound slightly ironic coming from someone who is doing a PhD, but I promise I have my reasons. And one of those reasons is that a PhD is part of a pyramid scheme. I’m not talking a Ponzi Scheme were somehow Madoff pops up again. No I’m talking about several tiers (or levels) of universities, on different ranks, and their inflow and output of PhD students.



Let’s start at the very top of the pyramid, say Harvard, or any Ivy league university. How many PhD students do they take in per year? And how many do they pump out? Admittedly, the difference between those two numbers won’t be very large, but the latter number will be slightly lower. But then the next, and in this blogpost more important question is: how many do they hire? For a PhD student to get hired into a university after they have completed their PhD means to be hired as a post-doc or as an assistant professor. You can also be hired into much higher ranked positions, but this assumes a lot of prior experience or a publishing record which is truly out of this world, so I’m not looking into these cases and will try to generalize a bit more. So, you get hired into an “entry level” position. This all seems fair enough until you realise that the number of PhD students that got hired as PhD students and graduated is a lot higher than the number of these “entry level” positions available. Or, rather, there’s more PhD students than there tend to be academic jobs at the “home” institution to begin with, whether they are entry level or not. So what happens then?




Let’s look back at Harvard (or any Ivy league). So they have hired a minimum of 20 PhD students in a single cohort (in a certain field, or in a certain department) and all of these students will have to compete for the two jobs that the university will offer after they graduate. That means that 10% can get hired at Harvard. So where does the rest go? Well obviously, there’s other Ivy league universities, so PhD students should be able to go there. Issue is, these universities have the same problem. They can only place about 10% of their own students. And if you can only place 10% of your own, are you really inclined to hire “externals”? This also ignores the long held belief that a PhD shouldn’t stay at their “home” institution. It looks bad on the CV. Apparently it signals that only your “home” institution would have you, and you’re actually not competitive enough to secure entry into an “entry level” job at any other institution. So what actually happens is that the most competitive Ivy league PhDs do some type of switcheroo, and end up at each other’s’ institutions. This is often also only for a brief period of time, when a lot of them do tend to “switch back” into a tenure track job, if they even manage to secure it. Again, try picturing it, it’s world’s weirdest musical chairs. Recently graduated Yale PhD students go to Harvard, Harvard’s students go to Princeton, and Princeton students go to Yale (to just take three universities which I’m sure are top tier). But not all students do this switcheroo. Of course not, how could they? There’s only 2 positions available. Only 10% gets placed at the level of the university they did their PhD at. Now when I say level I’m exclusively referring to the university’s global ranking, it’s not a judgement of the quality of either the PhD, the papers published or the PhD graduate themselves. But even when taking quality of those into account, most PhD students don’t “travel up”. Most of them travel sideways (the Yale-Harvard-Princeton example) or they travel down.



Yes, down we go. Because what do the other 90% do? Well if they want to remain in academia they will now have to look at the next tier of universities that might hire them, will is one tier down from Ivy league (again, this is not a judgement on my part, just check the rankings). But what happens now is that PhD students from top tier universities are competing for the spaces of those in the second tier, and if we judge completely biasedly, they will in just because of the name on their degree. So now the PhD students in the second tier universities don’t even get hired into their own level universities, not even the top 10% get hired, because the 90% from the top tier (assuming that all of them want academic jobs) is pushing them out. Now there are surely exceptions to this. But exceptions tend to just confirm the rule. And this wasn't mentioned anywhere in the prospectus. Odd that... So as we go down the tiers we see more and more students competing for positions and more and more students get pushed down from the tier they did their PhD at. If you don’t believe me and this all sounds fantastical, just read this article in Inside Higher Ed. and you better believe this is a real, longstanding and well-documented problem. And this doesn’t start or stop with the Ivy leagues, this issue happens at every university. Let me take a look closer to home. I’m at the University of Warwick, more specifically I’m at its business school. In my cohort, 35 PhD students were hired. Obviously (luckily!) they weren’t all hired in the behavioural science group (can you imagine?!). However, the business school overall offered less than 5 positions for PhD students to take up when graduating. And that was after they business school kindly offered more teaching and research fellowships due to covid-19, as the job market tanked. Are you smelling what I’m cooking yet?


As is also outlined in the Inside Higher Ed. article, which I also warn everyone about who reaches out to about doing a PhD: a PhD does not prepare you for industry (a non-academic job). If you want to go into industry afterwards, the hustling required to do so is all yours. There’s no help there. Why would there be? Or more importantly, how would there be? Your supervisors and your direct environment is all academic. What do they know about doing a PhD and securing an industry job? It’s not like they actually did it. They didn’t! Now some universities are catching up to this (the fact that a lot of people move into industry, not the musical chair analogy). Some are starting to offer workshops, advice sessions and meetings with people who have done this. But this is far and few in between. This is not common. And it should be. It's quite hard, ironically, to sell a PhD as work experience, if it’s unclear what the PhD was about, or how this would translate into industry. Of course, really practical PhDs fair better, and anyone looking to progress into a research job in industry will also have a much better chance. But that’s not everyone. That’s not even remotely the majority. Now there are people fighting the good fight. Chris Cornthwaite at Roostervane gives a lot of advice on this topic and I do suggest you check out his work if you feel like you need help with approaching the PhD in a more strategic manner.

The aforementioned reasons are why I tell people to not do a PhD. I don’t actively tell them “no don’t do it.” They have free will, they can just ignore me. However, what I do is here their story and ask them to outline their motivation for doing the PhD in as much detail as possible. Often, a PhD is I’ve written several articles about the PhD: reasons to do one, reasons NOT to do one, big misconceptions about doing a PhD etc. etc. and I do think they’re really important reads for anyone who is seriously considering doing a PhD. Because I feel like you should be informed about the massive commitment you’re about to make, and at what opportunity cost this commitment may come. The grass isn’t always greener on the other side, and the future isn’t always brighter just because you have dr. as a title. Please let me know on the socials if you’ve ever considered doing a PhD and why. Or if you’re already in a PhD (or have completed one!) what your motivation was, and what you wish you had known before starting!