Are you thinking about applying to a PhD program? Are you already a doctoral student? PhD is a huge investment of time and money. So make sure you spend 15 minutes of your time reading this blog devoted to PhD program success and survival tips. I'm confident that these tips can save up to 10 years of your life, up to $1,000,000 of your money, and, most importantly, your physical and emotional health.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Jobs for English Majors

From what I know, having a PhD degree in English is the worst kind of degree to get in terms of employment. I personally met a PhD in British Literature driving a wrecker in New York City. I also met a couple of people with PhDs in English getting a second, more marketable PhD degree (can you imagine spending 8-10 years in a graduate school????).

So if you were stupid enough to get a degree like that, here's a tip for you. If you are not a pussy and don't have a family, you may be able to get a well-paying job abroad. There are many countries out there who would love to have an native speaker teaching English and would pay quite well for your work. Here were are probably talking about such countries as China, Japan, Russia, United Arab Emirates, etc.

You can probably make quite a bit of extra money if you do some private tutoring on the side. For example, I know some native speakers charge like $40 per hour of one-to-one tutoring. This is probably more than you will make as a tenured faculty member. Plus, you will get to see the world...

So don't be stressed out! You still have a shot at a semi-decent life ;) But watch out for Mormons! Those folks will steal your business a lot since they offer free English lessons as a bait.

EndNote Software

I wish someone gave me this tip during my first year in the PhD program. As soon as you get into a PhD program, make sure you get yourself a copy of EndNote.

The software has a bunch of functions that you probably will never need. But one of its useful features will save you days of work: automatic in-text referencing and automatic generation of bibliographies.

Start using it as soon as you get your first reading assignment. Enter information about every paper that you read into Endnote. It may require some time to learn the software and get into the habit of entering everything you read into EndNote database.
Most of the online research databases have a feature that allows you to add EndNote entries into your database automatically, so that you don't have to do this manually.

Trust me - you will never regret investing this time into the software. I remember sometimes it would take me the whole day to make sure all the references in a paper are correct.

I think the software is sold for like $100 if you try to buy it on your own. But most likely your school will have a site license which will allow you to get the software for much less than that. I think I bought it for like $10. One of the best investments you will ever make - that's for sure.

Monday, March 30, 2009

It's all about the money!

Many professors like to preach to their PhD students that being a professor is not about money. One of my advisers once told me after a few glasses of wine: "You know, I didn't go into academia because of money... I could be a millionaire if I wanted to! Yet I chose to do research and help young fellas like you instead".

Don't be so naive my friend... It's all about money. In fact, since there are so few opportunities in academia to make good money, most profs would step over their mom's dead body to pick a few bucks from the floor. I was once assigned to crunch survey data which contained responses from faculty members at a big school. Guess what was number one concern among the altruistic profs? Yep, money! Virtually every prof was whining about money and asking for salary increase.

Cash, Rules, Everything, Around, Me
Get the money
Dollar, dollar bill y'all

Professors are greedy

Many of the professors I met suffer from greed. Of course, there are fields where professors don't make much money and they are simply forced to live a frugal lifestyle. But the ones that I met were making well above 100K a year for sure and yet were driving old rusty cars and wearing washed-out 3 dollar t-shirts to school.

I think the roots of this problem lie in the PhD program. Most professors have to undergo years and years of poverty before they become profs. So being frugal becomes a permanent trait.

If you don't speak English....

If you don't speak English, it doesn't mean you cannot be a PhD student or even a well-known prof. Your language skills are especially of no importance if you are in a technical field like Computer Science or even Accounting. I had a friend - a guy from China who was majoring in Accounting. He was a friendly and fun person. But after more than ten years in the United States he could barely put a coherent sentence together. Yet he was teaching 1-2 courses every semester. I once read one of his student evaluations and it went something like this: "Great guy. Knows Accounting. Does NOT speak English!". What the heck, I even met well-known profs who I could barely understand. What counts in academia the most is doing research. Everything else is secondary (of course, I'm talking about research schools here).

Writing the Doctoral Dissertation by Gordon B. Davis

Here's a book that might be useful to all PhD students.

The advantage of this book is that it's fairly brief (I think it's like 100 pages), yet touches on some of the important factors that you have to keep in mind while working on your dissertation.

The disadvantage of this book is that it's overly positivist. While most of the ideas in this book make a lot of sense, they don't work well in practice. PhD life is just so much more complex than portrayed in this book....

How to deal with emotions while doing research

A good article on how to deal with emotions why working on your dissertation from MIT AI Labs.

Research is hard. It is easy to burn out on it. An embarrassingly small fraction of students who start PhD programs in AI finish. AT MIT, almost all those who do not finish drop out voluntarily. Some leave because they can make more money in industry, or for personal reasons; the majority leave out of frustration with their theses. This section tries to explain how that can happen and to give some heuristics that may help. Forewarned is forearmed: mostly it's useful to know that the particular sorts of tragedies, aggravations, depressions and triumphs you go through in research are necessary parts of the process, and are shared with everyone else who does it.

All research involves risk. If your project can't fail, it's development, not research. What's hard is dealing with project failures. It's easy to interpret your project failing as your failing; in fact, it proves that you had the courage to do something difficult.

The few people in the field who seem to consistently succeed, turning out papers year after year, in fact fail as often as anyone else. You'll find that they often have several projects going at once, only a few of which pan out. The projects that do succeed have usually failed repeatedly, and many wrong approaches went into the final success.

As you work through your career, you'll accumulate a lot of failures. But each represents a lot of work you did on various subtasks of the overall project. You'll find that a lot of the ideas you had, ways of thinking, even often bits of code you wrote, turn out to be just what's needed to solve a completely different problem several years later. This effect only becomes obvious after you've piled up quite a stack of failures, so take it on faith as you collect your first few that they will be useful later.

Research always takes much, much longer than it seems it ought to. The rule of thumb is that any given subtask will take three times as long as you expect. (Some add, `` even after taking this rule into account.'')

Crucial to success is making your research part of your everyday life. Most breakthroughs occur while you are in the shower or riding the subway or windowshopping in Harvard Square. If you are thinking about your research in background mode all the time, ideas will just pop out. Successful AI people generally are less brilliant than they are persistent. Also very important is ``taste,'' the ability to differentiate between superficially appealing ideas and genuinely important ones.

You'll find that your rate of progress seems to vary wildly. Sometimes you go on a roll and get as much done in a week as you had in the previous three months. That's exhilarating; it's what keeps people in the field. At other times you get stuck and feel like you can't do anything for a long time. This can be hard to cope with. You may feel like you'll never do anything worthwhile again; or, near the beginning, that you don't have what it takes to be a researcher. These feelings are almost certainly wrong; if you were admitted as a student at MIT, you've got what it takes. You need to hang in there, maintaining high tolerance for low results.

You can get a lot more work done by regularly setting short and medium term goals, weekly and monthly for instance. Two ways you can increase the likelihood of meeting them are to record them in your notebook and to tell someone else. You can make a pact with a friend to trade weekly goals and make a game of trying to meet them. Or tell your advisor.

You'll get completely stuck sometimes. Like writer's block, there's a lot of causes of this and no one solution.

Setting your sights too high leads to paralysis. Work on a subproblem to get back into the flow.

You can get into a positive feedback loop in which doubts about your ability to do the work eat away at your enthusiasm so that in fact you can't get anything done. Realize that research ability is a learned skill, not innate genius.

If you find yourself seriously stuck, with nothing at all happening for a week or more, promise to work one hour a day. After a few days of that, you'll probably find yourself back in the flow.

It's hard to get started working in the morning, easy to keep going once you've started. Leave something easy or fun unfinished in the evening that you can start with in the morning. Start the morning with real work-if you start by reading your mail, you may never get to something more productive.

Fear of failure can make work hard. If you find yourself inexplicably ``unable'' to get work done, ask whether you are avoiding putting your ideas to the test. The prospect of discovering that your last several months of work have been for naught may be what's stopping you. There's no way to avoid this; just realize that failure and wasted work are part of the process.

Read Alan Lakien's book How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life, which is recommended even by people who hate self-help books. It has invaluable techniques for getting yourself into productive action.

Most people find that their personal life and their ability to do research interact. For some, work is a refuge when everything else is going to hell. Others find themselves paralyzed at work when life is in turmoil for other reasons. If you find yourself really badly stuck, it can be helpful to see a psychotherapist. An informal survey suggests that roughly half of the students in our lab see one at some point during their graduate careers.

One factor that makes AI harder than most other types of work is that there are no generally accepted standards of progress or of how to evaluate work. In mathematics, if you prove a theorem, you've done something; and if it was one that others have failed to prove, you've done something exciting. AI has borrowed standards from related disciplines and has some of its own; and different practitioners, subfields, and schools put different emphases on different criteria. MIT puts more emphasis on the quality of implementations than most schools do, but there is much variation even within this lab. One consequence of this is that you can't please all the people all the time. Another is that you may often be unsure yourself whether you've made progress, which can make you insecure. It's common to find your estimation of your own work oscillating from ``greatest story ever told'' to ``vacuous, redundant, and incoherent.'' This is normal. Keep correcting it with feedback from other people.

Several things can help with insecurity about progress. Recognition can help: acceptance of a thesis, papers you publish, and the like. More important, probably, is talking to as many people as you can about your ideas and getting their feedback. For one thing, they'll probably contribute useful ideas, and for another, some of them are bound to like it, which will make you feel good. Since standards of progress are so tricky, it's easy to go down blind alleys if you aren't in constant communication with other researchers. This is especially true when things aren't going well, which is generally the time when you least feel like talking about your work. It's important to get feedback and support at those times.

It's easy not to see the progress you have made. ``If I can do it, it's trivial. My ideas are all obvious.'' They may be obvious to you in retrospect, but probably they are not obvious to anyone else. Explaining your work to lots of strangers will help you keep in mind just how hard it is to understand what now seems trivial to you. Write it up.

A recent survey of a group of Noble Laureates in science asked about the issue of self-doubt: had it been clear all along to these scientists that their work was earth-shattering? The unanimous response (out of something like 50 people) was that these people were constantly doubting the value, or correctness, of their work, and they went through periods of feeling that what they were doing was irrelevant, obvious, or wrong. A common and important part of any scientific progress is constant critical evaluation, and is some amount of uncertainty over the value of the work is an inevitable part of the process.

Some researchers find that they work best not on their own but collaborating with others. Although AI is often a pretty individualistic affair, a good fraction of people work together, building systems and coauthoring papers. In at least one case, the Lab has accepted a coauthored thesis. The pitfalls here are credit assignment and competition with your collaborator. Collaborating with someone from outside the lab, on a summer job for example, lessens these problems.

Many people come to the MIT AI Lab having been the brightest person in their university, only to find people here who seem an order of magnitude smarter. This can be a serious blow to self-esteem in your first year or so. But there's an advantage to being surrounded by smart people: you can have someone friendly shoot down all your non-so-brilliant ideas before you could make a fool of yourself publicly. To get a more realistic view of yourself, it is important to get out into the real world where not everyone is brilliant. An outside consulting job is perfect for maintaining balance. First, someone is paying you for your expertise, which tells you that you have some. Second, you discover they really need your help badly, which brings satisfaction of a job well done.

Contrariwise, every student who comes into the Lab has been selected over about 400 other applicants. That makes a lot of us pretty cocky. It's easy to think that I'm the one who is going to solve this AI problem for once and for all. There's nothing wrong with this; it takes vision to make any progress in a field this tangled. The potential pitfall is discovering that the problems are all harder than you expected, that research takes longer than you expected, and that you can't do it all by yourself. This leads some of us into a severe crisis of confidence. You have to face the fact that all you can do is contribute your bit to a corner of a subfield, that your thesis is not going to solve the big problems. That may require radical self-reevaluation; often painful, and sometimes requiring a year or so to complete. Doing that is very worthwhile, though; taking yourself less seriously allows you to approach research in a spirit of play.

There's at least two emotional reasons people tolerate the pain of research. One is a drive, a passion for the problems. You do the work because you could not live any other way. Much of the best research is done that way. It has severe burn-out potential, though. The other reason is that good research is fun. It's a pain a lot of the time, but if a problem is right for you, you can approach it as play, enjoying the process. These two ways of being are not incompatible, but a balance must be reached in how seriously to take the work.

In getting a feeling for what research is like, and as inspiration and consolation in times of doubt, it's useful to read some of the livelier scientific autobiographies. Good ones are Gregory Bateson's Advice to a Young Scientist, Freeman Dyson's Disturbing the Universe, Richard Feynmann's Surely You Are Joking, Mr. Feynmann!, George Hardy's A Mathematician's Apology, and Jim Watson's The Double Helix.

A month or two after you've completed a project such as a thesis, you will probably find that it looks utterly worthless. This backlash effect is the result of being bored and burned-out on the problem, and of being able to see in retrospect that it could have been done better-which is always the case. Don't take this feeling seriously. You'll find that when you look back at it a year or two later, after it is less familiar, you'll think ``Hey! That's pretty clever! Nice piece of work!''

A whole lot of people at MIT

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Fear of Failing Comprehensive Exams

Many PhD students have a fear of failing comprehensive exams. I think this fear largely has to do with the fact that most PhD students have never failed an exam in their entire life. In fact, there are many students who have never gotten anything below B+ on an exam.

Now hear me loud and clear! Failing comprehensive exams can turn out to be the luckiest thing that has ever happened to you. If you fail comps, you will probably spend a few months grieving and trying to figure out why this happened. Then you will find a job and move on. Trust me, you will live a much better life than 80% of those who pass comprehensive exams. So if you fail your comps, go to mosque and praise Allah!

Prestige of Academic Profession

I think many potential PhD students have a misconception regarding the prestige of academic profession. They think that being a professor is a prestigious and rewarding career because professors have a chance to impact individual lives and society as a whole in a positive way.

Several things should be said regarding this belief.

First, if you become a professor, your chances of changing the world are no greater than chances of people in other fields. Just think about some of the most famous and influential people in your country. How many of those are professors?

Second, I just don't see why being a good professor presents more opportunities for impacting others' lives. For example, if you are a chef - you have just as many opportunities to helps others. Feeding people with good food can be just as important (if not more important) than feeding people with often useless knowledge.

In fact, I think the nerdy types who apply to PhD programs are the only ones who admire professors (this usually changes towards the end of their PhD studies). Most normal, mentally healthy people have a certain level of disgust towards the academic types. So while there is nothing more important than being a professor and doing research in the minds of professors themselves, I doubt this view is widely shared by the population as a whole.

Online PhD Programs

On-line PhD programs is a relatively new phenomenon in education. Your probably see those ads from the likes of University of Phoenix all the time. While the industry of online education seems to be plagued by numerous problems, even very conservative academics cannot help but think that this is where the education industry is goings (or, at least, its substantial chunk).

The strength of online education is in its economics: it provides a very cost effective alternative for dumping loads of useless knowledge into students' heads. With online arrangement, a school doesn't have to spend money on facilities. Moreover, because of the inherent scalability of information products, an instructor is usually capable of teaching a few hundred students in one online "class". A lot of money is saved by the instructor by not commuting to the school.

From a student's perspective online education offers a good opportunity for working adults, "stay-at-home" moms, or people who live in remote locations and simply cannot commute to a school.

Even for more traditional students online education can be a great deal. In my own career as an undergraduate and then graduate student, I was able to get very high grades in classes which I didn't really attend. I had a very good rationale for not coming to class: "What's the purpose of coming to class when all the instructor does is retelling chapters from the book?". I'd rather stay at home and read the chapter myself. Of course, this depends on your learning style. Some people require individual attention from instructors. I, on the other hand, figured out very early in my career as a student that in order to learn material I need to sit down and read the book myself. For some reason, I didn't have good in-class comprehension. I usually came to classes just to to get hints regarding what was going to be on the test. But, of course, not everyone may have the discipline to study independently. Some people need an instructor not as much as a source of knowledge, but more as a source of prodding.

I do think that online education is likely to win some market share from traditional education because of its strong economics, but at the present moment online education suffers from numerous problems. The most important issue is that, just like all new things, it has many skeptics.

Look guys, even PhD graduates from legit brick-and-mortar academic programs have serious difficulties finding employment in academia. A department chair from any school slightly above community college wouldn't even look at a CV that lists online PhD degree in the education section.

Moreover, in academia, just like any other field, networking is very important for getting jobs and publishing papers. As an online PhD student you are not likely to acquire that kind of contacts. So even if you have the mindset and discipline learn the academic trade on your own, you chances of being employed in academia after you get your degree I very slim.

So with these issues in mind, I just don't see why would anyone want to get a PhD from an online program. Unless, of course, he or she wants to have a semi-bogus (in the mind of many industry employers and probably 99% of academics) attached to his or her name. But even if you don't intent to be an academic and just want a PhD attached to your name, I doubt it's a good idea. This semi-bogus degree can potentially do more harm to your reputation than absence of thereof.

On the other hand, I must admit that I saw a few profs working in brick-and-mortar schools with online PhD degrees. Those were usually crappy teaching schools in remote locations. I think those schools have problems attracting faculty or even temporarily lecturers from the industry because no one wants to live/commute there. However, I think that at least some of those people were already employed by the school as adjunct lecturers and decided to get a PhD in order to move to a permanent, full-time position. And you can probably land a job with one of those online schools, where the pay is in the vicinity of $1000 per course. So in my mind, this is the only people for whom an online PhD degree may be a good deal.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Not being rude to people is a rare quality in academia!

Reading this passage from another blog will give you a good idea on the type of personalities you will have to deal with in academia. I think a story similar to the one below can be told by ANY graduate student. NOTE: "larger-than-life historian", "big name" usually means "known to a few hundred grad students and faculty members". Your local high school band may have a much larger fan base than one of those big names in academia.

John Hope was a "larger-than-life" historian. Many will laugh, but in the historical profession, John Hope was a rock star. He attended two of the same professional conferences that I regularly frequent--the Southern Historical Association and the American Historical Association. At annual meetings he was always mobbed. There would be throngs of historians coming up to say hello, a sort of "kiss-the ring" moment.

And John Hope always took the time to stop and talk to them. Always. Regardless of what he was doing, this famous person, famous historian, always took some time to give some words of encouragement to the newer generation of historians.

Not everyone is like that. I remember one conference when I was a graduate student. I had approached a historian--let's call hir Professor Doe--whose work I greatly admired. I walked up to hir and said "Ah, hello, Professor Doe. My name is AndrewMc, I'm a graduate student. I've read your [well-known book] and really enjoyed it. It's really shaped how I think about the subject."

Professor Doe looked at me as if I were a bug and said [with no small amount of scorn] "That's nice," and walked away. OK, whatever. Grad students can be a pain in the butt. Historians can have big egos. I didn't take it personally.

For John Hope, though, there was always time to speak to everyone. Around the time he got the Presidential Medal of Freedom I asked him about this. I said "You know, you can hardly make it across a room without getting mobbed. And yet you always take time to speak to everyone. How do you have the patience?"

Here was what he told me.

Decades ago, he was the second African American ever to enter graduate school at Harvard University. The first was WEB DuBois. One day John Hope was on campus--I believe it was the library--and he saw DuBois at a table, working. So he went over to speak to him. John Hope walked over (nervously, as he described it) to DuBois and said "Um, hello Mr. DuBois. My name is John Hope Franklin. You were the first black grad student at Harvard. I'm the second." He said that DuBois never looked up to acknowledge him, mumbled something, and then ignored him.

John Hope told me that at that moment he decided that he would never ignore anyone, especially grad students, who wanted or needed a moment of his time. And there were many conferences where I saw that vow in action. As I said, he was always mobbed, and always patient.

I thought that was a great story, and a great example of professionalism on the part of John Hope Franklin. Always take time to talk to people. Never let your ego get in the way of your encounters. My work in the professional is minor, and not well known. But John Hope's example is one that I hope I can always follow.

Friday, March 27, 2009

PhD Program Rankings and Employment

Friends, there's a ugly truth profs don't like to talk about. Unless you graduate from a top program, your chances of finding decent, tenure-track job may be very slim. Here's a hypothesis, which tends to be significant at alpha = 0.05

H1: Students from top schools end up getting jobs at second-tier schools; Students from second-tier schools end up adjuncts or simply unemployed

Don't believe this? Read "Professor of Desperation" (see the "References" section to the right)

I was once shocked when I visited an online forum for PhD students in economics. Kids from top schools were praying to land a job at the University Middle of Nowhere.

So if you have scholarly ambitions, you shouldn't even bother applying to mid-level schools and below. Getting rejected by top schools and not going to academia may be your ticket to a much happier life. The only people who should consider attending a PhD program in a second-tier school are retired and financially secure folks who just want something to do between now and their death.

Academic Types

Folks, in a way, I'm a nerd myself. I have a lot of respect for bright, inquisitive minds. However, I often feel uncomfortable being around academic types. I've met some academics I really liked, but those were rare cases. I once realized, to my great surprise, that I feel much more comfortable and happy around a group of uneducated, drunk, and cursing dockers from Louisiana than around professors at a conference.

In my mind, there are two archetypes of academics.

Type I: "Loser"

  • Nerdy-looking
  • Bold
  • Looks exhausted
  • Likes to talk, but doesn't like to listen
  • Divorced/never had sex
  • Doesn't even look like a man
  • Works at a teaching school

Type II: "Harvard Business School Professor"

  • Tall
  • Good looking
  • Successful with women
  • Smiles a lot
  • When you talk to him he smiles and acts very polite yet you read "I don't give a fuck about you" in his eyes
  • Doesn't look like he is full of himself, yet he really is

Type III: "Imbecile"

  • Seems to be very exited about the useless things he works on
  • Looks and acts like he is on Prozac
  • Laughs a lot
  • Despite his cheerful ways has a bad sense of humor: laughs at things which are not funny
  • After returning from a conference in an exotic country, all he talks about is his hotel accommodation and food he had eaten
Type III: "Teenager"

  • Somewhat of a rebel, i.e. does very fuzzy qualitative stuff in a field dominated by quantitative research
  • Very critical to the corporate world
  • Has a sober and cynical judgment
  • A bit intoxicated by his "coolness"
Type III: "Satan"

  • Seems to enjoy torturing PhD students
  • Is obsessed with power
  • Very manipulative
  • Will not tolerate anyone disagreeing with him
  • Full of himself
Type III: "Senior Scholar"

  • Seems to be very happy with his life
  • Has a good sense of humor
  • Very hard to surprise or impress: he has seen it all!
  • Achieved a lot mostly due to his good personality and excellent people skills

The Ph.D. Glut Revisited

Folks, this may look like a blunt case of content theft, but I just don't want this article to disappear from the web one day. This article should be read by anyone before applying to a PhD program
The Ph.D. Glut Revisited
by Gary North

The economist rarely uses the words "glut" and "shortage" without adding: at some price. Other scholars are not equally wise.

A free market theory of pricing rests on the supposition that gluts and shortages are temporary phenomena. Prices adjust so as to clear a market. If this does not take place, the free market economist goes looking for evidence of state intervention.

Consider the problem of excess inventory. It is better to get something for unused and unwanted inventory than to pay for storage. So, selling prices adjust downward. This eventually eliminates the glut. The unpleasant experience also warns the producer not to do this again.

Why does a glut exist? Because of an error in prior forecasting. Suppliers believed that there would be buyers at a specific price. It turned out that there was an insufficient number of buyers at that expected price.

Then why does a glut persist? One answer: ignorance on the part of suppliers. But why should this ignorance persist? Why don't suppliers get the picture?

Experienced sellers do get the picture. The problem is a continuing supply of new sellers who are unfamiliar with the market and ignorant of the past supply-demand conditions. Or, as has been said so often, there's a sucker born every minute. There is no evidence that P. T. Barnum ever said this, but it is nonetheless true.

In the worldwide suckers' market, gamblers are the only people who are slower to learn than young adults with masters' degrees. Bright graduate students possess a pair of non-marketable skills: the ability to write term papers and the ability to take academic exams. They are also economic illiterates and incurably naïve. So, they become the trusting victims of the professorial class.


No one ever sits down and tells a newly minted college graduate about the economics of the professorate. No one tells the student about the crucial and neglected work of the person who first blew the whistle on the economics of the Ph.D., David W. Breneman. He is the Dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. He wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on the economics of the Ph.D. It was accepted in 1970 by the University of California, Berkeley. It was based on research completed in 1968, the year prior to the beginning of the Ph.D. glut. Its title: "The Ph.D. Production Process: A Study of Departmental Behavior." Of all Ph.D. dissertations ever written, this is the only one that one that should be read by every college student who is contemplating graduate school. Of course, no one tells him. Few people have ever heard of it.

I read it in 1970. I do not recall how I came across it. I was completing my Ph.D., so I was facing the Ph.D. glut personally, which had begun in the fall of 1969. It had been predicted for the sciences by Allan Cartter of New York University in 1964. Sometime around 1966, Clark Kerr, President of the University of California, had mentioned this looming problem to a group of us in an elite student organization called the California Club. But I was naïve. I figured, "It won't happen to me." Ha!

As they say in those late-night Ronco ads, "Here's how it works!" Academic departments grow in terms of the number of students enrolled. We know from Parkinson's Law that growth is an institutional imperative. Administrators advance their careers by expanding the number of subordinates in their department. So, every academic department wants more students – students of a special kind.

Students are not of equal value to a department. The lower-division student (freshman or sophomore) does not rate highly in the currency of academic resource allocation: the full-time enrollment, or FTE. The FTE figure is what justifies the hiring of a full-time faculty member. The lower the ratio, the better. It may take 15 lower-division students to generate one FTE. It may take only eight Ph.D.-level graduate students to generate an FTE.

The more Ph.D. students a department can attract, the faster the growth of that department. This is the iron law of academia. All other economic laws are sacrificed for it, as the economist says, other things being equal.

This fact of academic economic life creates an incentive for departments to enroll lots of graduate students. It also rewards those departments that persuade M.A. students to go into the Ph.D. program.

Also, the brightest graduate students may be asked to do unpaid or grant-paid research for senior professors. The professors then publish the results of this research under their own names, thereby advancing their careers. It's the division of labor at work.


The Ph.D. glut has existed ever since the fall of 1969. The number of entry-level full-time professorial positions has remained stagnant. Few new universities have been constructed. Legislatures have resisted additional funding.

This has led to a reduction of the number of tenure-level positions. Universities and community colleges have been able to staff their entry-level positions with inexpensive instructors.

Those few Ph.D.s who receive a full-time position at a university find that they are paid much less than tenured members of the department. They are assigned the lower-division classes, which are large – sometimes 200 to 1,000 students. These mega-classes require lecturing skills that most professors do not possess. Those untenured faculty members who perform well in mega-classes are kept on until the day of reckoning: the decision to grant them tenure, usually eight years after they go on the payroll. They are usually not re-hired unless they have published narrowly focused articles in professional journals. But mega-class professors do not have much time to do the required research.

The assistant professor is now 35 years old or older. He has not made the cut. He is now relegated to the academic underworld: the community colleges. But here there is fierce competition. Community colleges hire part-time instructors at $10 to $15 an hour. These people seek a full-time position at the community college. They need that initial foot in the door: night school courses for worn-out adults who are trying to earn an A.A. degree. Their natural enemies are the newly dismissed assistant professors from universities.

Who gets an entry-level position at Boonsdocksville State University, which in 1960 was a public schools teacher training college? New graduates with Ph.D.s from the two-dozen major universities.

Then what happens to graduates with Ph.D.s issued by Boonsdocksville State? They go straight into the community college circuit.

This has been going on ever since the fall of 1969. It is great for community college administrators, who have a never-ending supply of optimistic Ph.D.-holding graduates of all but the top two-dozen universities, plus a never-ending supply of burned-out, terrified assistant professors from top universities who did not receive tenure.

If you want to understand this process, watch Ghostbusters: the scene after the parapsychology team has been dismissed from the university. Dan Ackroyd speaks for tens of thousands of Ph.D.-holding rejects who did not make the cut.

For over three decades, all it has taken to generate 1,000 applicants was this ad in a professional journal in the humanities:

Tenure-track position

Ph.D. required
Teach 12 hours of the freshman course

The salary has been almost irrelevant: not more than the average salary of the average American worker with a high school diploma.

If the ad said "Ph.D. or ABD required," it would generate 2,000 applicants. ABD stands for "all but dissertation."

Graduate students do not learn about supply and demand, and it does not pay senior professors to teach them. Here is evidence. In response to the ever-growing glut of Ph.D.'s, the American university system turned out about 30,000 Ph.D. graduates per year, 1969 to about 1975. Since then, it has increased the output. In 1980, it was 33,615. In 1990, it was 38,371. In 2000, it was 44,808. In 2003, it was 46,024. (Statistical Abstract of the United States, 2006, Table 290.) Despite this, we read on a website devoted to selling "how to get higher learning degrees" materials,

The Bureau of Labor Statistics currently predicts that the job outlook for postsecondary teachers (a job commonly sought by Ph.D. graduates) should be much brighter than it has been in recent years. Employment in that area is expected to grow by almost 40 percent by 2012, whereas overall employment is expected to grow by only 15 percent! So, if you're just starting down the track to a Ph.D. and hope to take root in the world of academia, your timing may be just right!

There's one born every minute . . . and two who will relieve him of his funds.


Most degree-granting universities are funded by taxpayers. A university used to be an institution of higher learning that was authorized by a college-accrediting agency to grant the Ph.D. Employees of all but the most prestigious four-year colleges want to be called a university. So, title inflation has matched degree inflation and grade inflation over the last 35 years.

The supply of college graduates with ever-lower academic abilities is funded by money coerced from taxpayers. The American higher education system is structured by the professorate to reward those professors who teach small classes of graduate students. So, year after year, decade after decade, the supply of Ph.D.-holding students increases, despite an academic market that does not hire most of them, and hires a minority at wages that do not compensate them for the money and time invested in earning their degrees.

They cannot teach at the high school level because their advanced degrees force the school districts to pay them too much. A teacher with a B.A. is paid a fraction of what a Ph.D. or Ed.D. is paid. The teacher unions have negotiated payment so that existing employees who attend night school and summer school at Boonsdocksville State can work their way up within the system. Being tenured, they cannot be fired. Earning a graduate degree is a guaranteed way to earn a larger salary. But no district goes looking for Ph.D.s to hire. That financial affliction is entirely generated from inside the union-dominated, tax-funded public schools.


Ph.D. students are a lot like gamblers. They expect to beat the odds. The gambler personifies odds-beating as Lady Luck. The Ph.D. student instead looks within. "I am really smart. These other people in the program aren't as smart as I am. I will get that tenure-track job. I will make the cut. I will be a beneficiary of the system."

If wishes were horses, beggars would ride. Also, if ego were marketable, all Ph.D. graduates would get tenure.

Why does any Ph.D. student at any but the top graduate schools believe that he will get tenure at any university? The odds are so far against him, and have been for a generation, than he ought to realize that he is about to waste his most precious resource – time – on a long-shot. Investing five or more years beyond the B.A. degree, except in a field where industry hires people with advanced degrees, is economic stupidity that boggles the imagination. Yet at least 200,000 graduate students are doing this at any time. Of the 46,000 who earned a Ph.D. in 2003, an equal number (or more) got to ABD status and quit. Probably more than half of the others quit before they got to ABD status.

At $20,000 or more per year in tuition and living expenses, plus the $35,000+ not earned in the job market, trying to earn a Ph.D. is a losing proposition.

In some departments, the years invested are horrendous. Breneman's dissertation went into the grim details, department by department. Anyone seeking a degree in philosophy was almost doomed to failure, yet the Ph.D. degree took on average over a decade beyond the B.A. to earn. There were almost no college teaching jobs when they finished. That was before the glut.


Earning a Ph.D. may pay off if your goal is status, although I don't understand why anyone regards a Ph.D. as a status symbol that is worth giving up five to ten years of your earning power in your youth, when every dime saved can multiply because of compounding. If the public understood the economics of earning a Ph.D., people would think "naïve economic loser" whenever they hear "Ph.D."

Novel research

I think that many bright, ambitious PhD students have a misconception that any kind of research has to offer new ideas. This kind of PhD students usually do not graduate.

Look guys, it's extremely hard to come up with something new, especially in social sciences. The only scholars who had the luxury to create new ideas were the likes of Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates. Research is not about creating break-through ideas. It's about reshuffling and repackaging what has been done in the past and then persuading others that your stuff is new. A good case in point is Clayton Christensen's theory of innovation. His theory seems to be a blunt application of the punctuated equilibrium theory from biology to the context of innovation. There's nothing new about his theory, yet he has received a lot of credit for it. Many of Michael Porter's ideas seem to be a blunt repackaging of ideas from "industrial organizations" area of economics. This seems to be true for hard sciences too. I once attended a presentation by a Computer Science professor. In his presentation he made a very strong case that there was nothing new about things like World Wide Web or relational databases. All those break-through ideas were based on decade-old ideas from the past.

If you try to create something new, you will drive yourself into a mental hospital. At first, you will you will be struggling with the fact that no matter what you come up with - you will find it in other people's work. Even if you succeed in creating something new, you will be terrorized by skeptics with questions like "what is your theory?", "how did you come up with this?".

So don't even bother. Your goal is to graduate, and not to change the world.

How much does it cost to get a PhD degree?

A very common misconception is that getting a PhD degree is free. There's a saying that goes like this "free cheese is only only found in the mousetrap". Why would something valuable be offered free of charge?

It is true that most doctoral programs offer full tuition waiver and some sort of a stipend (usually around $20,000 per year). Before you accept an offer from a PhD program, you have to consider some of the factors that don't seem to be obvious. First of all, you really have to "read the small font". Just like car saleswoman, your prospective school may be playing dirty tricks with you. For example, full tuition waiver may not include "other fees". So you may still end up paying 1-2K for tuition per semester. Also, there may be a "as long as the student is in a good academic standing". This may mean that you will get the support for up to four years. Since most PhD students do not graduate withing 4 years, you may be facing a very real possibility of paying full, "out of state" tuition for the last year or two of you studies.... In the worst case scenario, this may be around 6K per "long" semester. Usually, there are ways to get around this. But it will cost you a lot of time and nerves to extend your financial support beyond what is considered by the school a "normal" length of a program.

Even if you don't take into account this dirty financial tricks, $20,000 (or even $30,000) per year may not be enough to live a decent life. You will need money for vocation (if you are planning to live 5 years without a vacation you are a prospective candidate for a mental house). You need money for textbooks. You need money to go to conferences (some departments provide some sort of support for graduate student travel, but this may not be enough). To get a feel of how it is like to live on 20K, you have to talk to folks working at McDonald's. But keep in mind that they are likely to be making more money on per hour basis than you. I have two friends who got out of graduate schools with debt pushing the $100,000 mark. As for me, after living a quite frugal lifestyle, I spent around $50,000 of my own money after 5 years in a PhD program.

Also, don't forget to factor in the opportunity cost. Let's assume that before you get into a PhD program you have a job paying around $50,000 a year... Let's say you manage to save $10,000 a year for the next five years. If you put invest this money at 5% a year, you will end up with roughly $140,000 in 20 years. This is the difference you may never be able to make up even if you end up having a decent academic job after you graduate (see this post). I've know a person, a former mid-level executive, who decided to become a professor after many years in the industry. After more than 6 years in a PhD program, he estimated his opportunity cost at around $1,000,000.

From an economic perspective, a "free" graduate program may be a good deal only to a guy from a poor Indian, Chinese, or Russian village. This, in part, may explain why there are so many foreign students in graduate programs.

What are my chances to succeed in a graduate program?

What are my chances to succeed in a PhD program? This seems to be a very reasonable question to ask before you start applying to graduate schools.

Answer to this question depends on how you define success. I think most new PhD students define success in terms of chances to graduate. If you define success in this way, then you chances to succeed are around 50% (this is the number frequently reported in all kinds of sources). In other words, you have a 50% chance to graduating and a 50% of dropping-out. Of course, it can vary by field and schools. For example, in my program drop-out rate was closer to 70%, according to my estimations.

Now, a PhD student who is close to graduating or has recently graduated would probably laugh at this definition of success. You see, there's no point in having a PhD unless it can lead to some sort of reasonable employment (working as a taxi driver after you graduate doesn't count as a reasonable employment for a PhD holder). I cannot recall any hard numbers for the chances of finding an employment after you get a PhD, but let me just through some numbers at you that I've found out from personal experience. A job add for a tenure-track position at a research school (not a top-tier school, but just a school with a PhD program) mat generate a few hundred applications.... Of course, many of those applicants are applying to several schools. But this should give you an idea of how competitive it can be. Again, no hard numbers here, but getting a position at a teaching school may not be easy as well. Also, here you have to factor in that some jobs are posted just because schools are required to do so by law. In reality, faculty already has candidates for this job and interviewing numerous applicants is just a formality. So let's be very conservative here and estimate that only 50% of those who graduate with PhD are able to find decent employment in academia. So, if you incorporate this addition to the definition of success, you chances of succeeding climb down to roughly 25%.

Now, an Assistant Professor would probably disagree with this definition of success. According the Assistant Professor, there is no point in getting a PhD degree unless it can lead to a tenured position. Just think about this from his perspective: he is 40-45, he has family and kids, he has no skills and experience outside of academia. If you don't have tenure, you will get fired, most likely. What are you going to do then? You will be lucky to step down into a community college or some sort of visiting/clinical/adjunct post. If not - McDonald's may be the only only possibility. So let's just assume that 50% of Assistant Professors get tenure. This brings you chances of success down to 12.5%.

Again, we used very conservative estimates. I suspect that you chances to get tenured may be around 5%.

If you are wondering how come the chances are so low, you should read a seminal article by Garry North titled "PhD Glut Revisited" (see the "References" section to the right). He gives a very sober economic perspective on why succeeding in academia is so hard. Just keep in mind one thing while reading his article: if you think this won't happen to you - you are gambling!




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