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, July 3, 2009

Don't Jump into a Hot Field

Many prospective PhD students are lured into PhD programs, at least in part, as a result of them thinking that their field is very hot right now and there are plenty of employment opportunities inside and outside academia.

For example, when I was thinking about joining our PhD program, I was told by a PhD program coordinator that in 4 years I will have a six-figure job. This prediction was based on some of the recent graduates getting several offers well-above $100K.

Another example is my professor, who told me that one of the reasons he decided to join a PhD program was because a PhD student he knew got a $95K job offer at a very good school.

But here's the trick. Even if these numbers are accurate, you have to keep in mind that it will take you 4-6 years to get your PhD. The fact that your field is so hot right now is most likely a sign that a peak has been reached and decline is on the horizon. So it may be too late to exploit this opportunity. By the time you get your PhD, the market will be saturated and you will have great difficulties finding ANY employment, unless you are in the top 5%.

Another interesting implication of that theory is that students who fail to complete their PhD programs are usually the winners. They may find industry employment with a masters in that hot field and enjoy at least a couple of years of good earnings. When the market cools off, they will either keep working at their jobs or have enough savings sail through the decline.

So don't go into a field just because it is hot right now. It may be very cold in a few years from now.

In my personal experience, some of the most successful professors jumped on board when a field was not hot - it was in an emerging state. Because the field was so immature, they published a lot of low-quality papers in newly created journals in the field. After several years, the field reached its peak and these journals became top-journals. So they were the ones to exploit the opportunity, and not the students who decided to enter the field at that time. Their success may be a combination of insight and luck, with luck probably playing a much greater role than insight.


  1. Interesting, quite true.

    Luck plays....


  3. Depends on the field. Just because a field is hot now doesn't mean it won't be hot in the foreseeable future. It's a matter of supply and demand. Depends on whether the universities with PhD programs in the field have caught up with the increased demand. A glut cannot be created by students rushing into a field unless there are spots for them in programs, it must be created by universities responding to the demand and increasing the size of graduate programs. And knowing how slow things move in academia--I've been a professor for the better part of a decade now--that may take some time. Accountancy, for example, is a very hot field (new hires starting out @ $120+), and it has been so for some time and is projected to continue being that way for a long time. It is very easy to do the math of professors being graduated given the size of PhD programs and professors retiring and determine that there will be even a more severe shortage in the coming decade (by the way, I'm in biz academia at a state AACSB univ, but am not in accounting). It's also a matter of supply of people capable of doing what's necessary to succeed in a given field, and there are not a lot either able or willing to run the gauntlet in a number of fields, such as finance and accounting. Therefore, the shortage and the high salaries.