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.

Friday, March 27, 2009

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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