Why you should consider applying for grad school (but make sure you’re aware of the potential drawbacks of attending!)
Table of Contents
Last updated: Aug 2018.
Application deadlines for US PhD programs are coming up over the next month (as of Nov 2017). We think many of our readers who are considering grad school at some point in the next few years should apply this year.
We’re writing this informal list of pros and cons now because a number of people we’ve recently given career coaching to have been much more reluctant to apply for grad school than we think is justified.
Why should they take the option seriously?
- You have to plan far ahead of time. If you apply now you will only begin the program late next year. Even if you don’t feel ready to start a PhD today, you should consider whether you will be in a year’s time. If you aren’t sure, applying keeps that option open. We’ve spoken to many people considering grad school who intended to work for a few years first, but then had their situation change and grad school suddenly seem like a much better option. Early in your career, your plans can change more often than you expect.
- An increasing number of the paths we recommend, especially in research and policy, are much easier to pursue with a PhD. For example, if you want to work on improving our ability to control pandemics, the best options appear to be research (most likely in academia but perhaps also foundations or the private sector), or policy reform (in think tanks, government agencies, Congress, or elsewhere). Some of the best roles are only open to people with PhDs. Even where they aren’t, you’re likely to advance faster and have more impact with a PhD in a relevant area, such as epidemiology or synthetic biology.
- There are a number of graduate programs we often recommend, such as economics, machine learning and data science. There are a number of others that can also be good if they are the right personal fit for you, such as philosophy, mathematics, computer science, physics, public policy, and some areas of biology or medicine such as biomedical research.
- Our readers are sometimes under-confident. They can get into top programs, even though they don’t think they can.
- We are concerned about untrained amateurs going directly into trying to solve very difficult and pressing global problems. They can then cause harm overall, by lowering the average quality of analysis or launching ill-considered projects due to a lack of experience or understanding. A PhD reduces the risk you’ll accidentally do this.
- Even if you probably don’t want to enrol next year, if you apply this year you can learn the process and put in even stronger application next time. Being declined this year often doesn’t hurt your chances when applying next year (though you should check with particular programs you’re applying to).
- Professors can usually write a stronger letter of recommendation if you’re recently out of college, just because they remember you better. It’s hard to write a good letter for someone you’ve only talked with a handful of times in the past 5 years.
- Top programs often weight recent research more heavily than research you did a number of years ago. If you spend more than 2-3 years without doing relevant research in that time, this can significantly hurt your chances.
- There are a growing number of donors in the effective altruism community (such as the Technology Policy Fellowship) willing to fund PhD graduates to conduct research into our priority problem areas, both inside and outside academia. As a result the job prospects for PhD graduates who see themselves as part of the effective altruism community look better than they used to.
In the past we have been more pessimistic about the value of doctoral programs, and worry readers may see us as discouraging them more than we do today.
Of course applying for grad school involves substantial costs – the time taken to compile writing samples, take standardised tests, contact references, and of course the application fee itself. If your chances of accepting an offer for the coming year are low enough, then it wouldn’t be worth this up-front cost.
On top of that many of our past reasons for being cautious about starting PhDs remain correct.
Reasons for caution
- PhDs take a long time. In the US, “the average student takes 8.2 years to get a PhD” and graduates at the age of 33. This time can be reduced by studying in the UK or continental Europe – 57% of full-time UK PhD students finished within 5 years and 71% within 7 years, as of 2005 – though fewer of the very best programs operate there.
- PhDs are intellectually demanding, and not everyone will be able to finish. In the US between 41 and 78% of people who start PhDs have finished them after ten years, depending on their sub field. Computer and Information Science has the lowest graduation rates (41%), Economics is in the middle (52%) and life sciences has among the highest (63%). A PhD can also require a particular set of skills, and may turn out to be a bad fit for you if you haven’t checked this first. It’s usually a bad idea to start a PhD if you expect to drop out.
- On top of this, we think attention to solving many problems is required urgently. A year’s work now accomplishes more than a year’s work in a decade’s time, even if you’re doing very similar things (read more about the justification for this: intro and advanced). Given a PhD will delay your productive work, you have to think you’ll be substantially more productive after completing it, or your thesis itself very useful, for it to be worth the up-front time investment. In one plausible model (an 8% discount rate on work per year, and a PhD student who takes 8 years to complete, finishes at 33, and retires at 70), someone would have to be more than twice as productive in each remaining year as they would have been if they just started work right away, in order for the PhD to be the better option. This seems quite possible, but it won’t always be the case.
- In most fields – with the notable exception of economics – competition for limited academic positions is fierce. If you plan to go into academia, you need to know what fraction of graduates successfully make it into research roles. For example, only 3.5% of people who complete a PhD in biomedical research in the UK end up with a permanent research role at a university. A study by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that in 2010, less than 15% of new PhDs in science, engineering, and health-related fields found tenure-track positions within 3 years after graduation. Don’t just assume you’re better than everyone else and can beat the odds without strong evidence. We’ve written a lengthy footnote that goes into the evidence on how strong this competition is:1.
- There’s a risk you commit to a field, work for 8 years to finish a PhD, and then find the work is a bad fit for you and you have to quit. Imagine completing a medical degree and then finding you hate practising medicine! To avoid this you should i) do a PhD with a range of potential career options, and ii) find ways of testing your personal fit before you start a PhD.
- PhDs in some fields (e.g. history) seem to shrink your career options more than expand them, or are not viewed as great credentials. Some PhDs almost only lead to academic careers, and if you fail to secure one of those, you’ll be in trouble. However, note that we would like to have some people from these fields as part of the effective altruism community in order to bring in knowledge from a wider range of areas.
- While PhDs can offer students free time, and an opportunity for intellectual exploration, many report finding them detrimental to their happiness and mental health. Some key challenges appear to be the lack of structure (which encourages many people to procrastinate), low levels of teamwork (which creates social isolation), and insufficient feedback on how you’re performing (which is one of the key things required for job satisfaction). In addition, many students face financial stress and uncertainty about their future prospects, especially if they want to enter a highly competitive path like academia.
- PhDs can be expensive both in terms of tuition and living costs, though most US students receive scholarships that substantially reduce these costs.
Despite all of these considerations, we expect many of our readers are well positioned to do PhDs as a way to advance their career. If you think you’re one of those, consider starting an application today.
That’s not to say you should necessarily accept if you get an offer – properly evaluating that would take a far longer piece.
To help you decide whether a PhD is a good idea for you, here are our most relevant articles and interviews with people who attempted or completed a PhD:
Relevant articles to help you decide whether to do a PhD
- Our article about career capital
- Our article on the most impactful general career paths and our list of top specific priority paths (combination of role and problem focus)
- Why economics may be the best PhD program
- Review of Computer Science PhDs
- Review of Data Science
- Thinking of doing a machine learning PhD? Read this first.
- If you want to make a difference should you become a philosopher?
- A list of AI policy grad school funding options. And a list of places to apply if you want to do an AI policy related PhD (put together in 2017). Both compiled by Rox H.
- Why I’m doing a PhD by Jess Whittlestone
- How to Get Your PhD by Gavin Brown, which gives helpful suggestions on process and mindset when doing a PhD.
- How to do high impact research
- List of other potentially promising career paths
Podcast episodes in which the pros and cons of different PhDs are discussed
- Math: Owen Cotton-Barratt on optimal PhD thesis strategy
- Machine learning: How to train for a job developing AI at OpenAI or DeepMind
- Machine learning: A machine learning alignment researcher on how to become a machine learning alignment researcher
- Economics: Economist Bryan Caplan thinks education is mostly pointless showing off. We test the strength of his case.
- Economics and philosophy: You want to do as much good as possible and have billions of dollars. What do you do?
- Economics: Dr Eva Vivalt’s research suggests social science findings don’t generalize. So evidence-based development – what is it good for?
- Economics: Why we have to lie to ourselves about why we do what we do, according to Prof Robin Hanson
- Economics and psychology: Is it time for a new scientific revolution? Julia Galef on how to make humans smarter, why Twitter isn’t all bad, and where effective altruism is going wrong
- Health security and public policy: The careers and policies that can prevent global catastrophic biological risks, according to world-leading health security expert Dr Inglesby
- Various medical, biological and security paths: We aren’t that worried about the next pandemic. Here’s why we should be – and specifically what we can do to stop it.
- Various medical PhDs: Dr Cameron fought Ebola for the White House. Now she works to stop something even worse.
- Various: The world desperately needs AI strategists. Here’s how to become one.
- Philosophy: Katja Grace on why she left her Philosophy PhD to go found a nonprofit
Notes and references
- Academia is highly competitive. A study by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that in 2010, less than 15% of new PhDs in science, engineering, and health-related fields found tenure-track positions within 3 years after graduation. For PhDs in the life sciences, the figure was a grim 7.6% percent.
However, this varies a lot by institution – a 2015 study of 19,000 faculty members in business, computer science and history found that 25% of institutions produced 71-86% of all tenure-track faculty depending on the field. This means that if you’re able to do your PhD at one of the most elite universities, your chances of getting tenure will be substantially higher than 15%. (If we assume that all these universities produce the same number of PhD graduates, and 15% on average get academic roles, then around 47% of graduates from the top 25% of universities would be successful but only 4% from the remaining universities. If the top 25% of institutions graduate twice as many students as the rest, then the figures move to 29% and 5%.)
Over the last 20 years, it’s become increasingly common to do one or more ‘postdocs’ – non-tenure-track research positions, normally lasting 1-3 years each – before getting a faculty appointment. According to the National Research Council’s report, “Bridges to Independence”, the share of recent PhDs in postdoc positions rose from 13 to 34 percent between 1994 and 2014. Scientists doing postdocs in the US spend an average of 3 years in this holding pattern and only about 17% ultimately land tenure‐track positions. A typical postdoctoral research associate salary is only $45-55,000.
This seems to be a result of the fact that the number of PhD graduates has dramatically increased – in 1994, 7,800 people received doctorates in the life sciences in the US, whereas by 2014 there were 11,335 – while the number of tenure track and tenured professorship positions has stayed constant.
One way to measure how competitive an academic field is to look at its “reproduction rate”: what is the mean number of new PhD students a typical faculty member will graduate during his or her career? One study found that there is roughly one tenure‐track position in the US for every 6.3 PhD graduates in the biomedical sciences. Another looking at engineering finds that “a professor in the US graduates 7.8 new PhDs during his/her whole career on average … This implies that [barring growth in academic positions], only 12.8% of PhD graduates can attain academic positions.”
The NSF estimated that, in 2010, only 11% of PhDs in the biological sciences held tenure-track positions 3 to 5 years after graduation, down from 55% in 1973. Given that 26% of life sciences PhDs drop out, overall less than 8% of life sciences PhDs eventually land tenure-track positions.
The situation seems similar in other countries. For instance, in the UK for example, only 3.5% of people with a science PhD make it to permanent research positions in academia and just 0.45% of STEM PhD holders in the UK become tenured professors (though note that the title “professor” is awarded about 10-times less often in the UK compared to the US) and only around 20% end up in any sort of research roles.↩