I am a reformed and rehabilitated ex-academic. In my previous life, I aspired to be a professor of Cognitive Psychology and Cognitive Science. I described my experiences in the academic stream in a series entitled The Grad School Gospels. In The Grad School Gospels I have been pessimistic about the value of most Psychology graduate degrees. I argued that the tenure-track job market for Psychology PhDs is devastatingly competitive and that for most Psychology sub-fields non-academic career paths are limited. That is, there often aren’t many jobs to go around that reflect one’s training and interests and that offer an income that duly compensates the massive investment that goes into earning a PhD.
A friend of mine, David Barner, who is a tenure track professor of cognitive psychology at the University of California at San Diego was sympathetic to the perspective I was offering, but provided credible evidence that Psychology PhDs were actually doing better than I thought. Most notably, he cited a blog post by Patrick Schnarrenberger Forscher (who, out of laziness, I will refer to as PSF), a Psychology PhD student at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. PSF reviewed National Science Foundation (NSF) science, technology, engineering and mathematics PhD employment statistics from 2006.
The numbers for Psychology PhDs looked better than I would have guessed. The unemployment rate among Psych PhDs was a mere 1% – much lower than the national average which, at the time, was 4.6%. What is more, only 1.3% of Psych PhDs reported being involuntarily employed outside of the field. Not bad at all. And the average income for Psychology PhDs across employment settings was $75,000. So. There’s that… Nevertheless,
I Remain Pessimistic on the Value of Research-Only Psychology PhDs
Reasons for My Enduring Pessimism:
1. These data were collected before the economic crisis. While it’s true that economic crises have become a regularly recurring feature of society, the crisis of 2008 is often touted as the worst since The Great Depression. This hasn’t been your average crisis. Furthermore, responsive belt-tightening has not spared universities in general or psychology departments in particular.
2. This data appears to include sub-fields of Psychology with established non-academic applications. My pessimism with respect to the value of Psychology PhDs has always made exceptions for such domains as clinical and counseling psychology, industrial/organizational psychology, and human factors.
Looking at PSF’s graphs, it is clear that the overall psychology numbers are being elevated substantially by PhDs in these sorts of fields. 49.3% of employed Psych PhDs’ work included providing professional services. 44.6% of those employed engaged in a significant amount of managerial and administrative work. I have to assume that clinical, counseling and I/O psychologists make up the majority of these subsets. 2.2% of Psych PhDs’ work included a significant amount of work on computer applications. I assume that this subset of Psych PhDs would include human factors PhDs and value-added Psych PhDs who also possess advanced computational skills (perhaps they worked in computational modeling of cognition and/or neuroscience). Excluding statistical software, facility with advanced computer applications is much more of an exception than a rule among Psych PhDs. And if one simply wanted to gain marketable proficiency with statistical software, spending four years on a Psych Bachelor’s degree and then 6 years on a PhD is terribly inefficient way of going about this.
PSF’s graphs also show that those employed in management/administrative, professional service and computer application roles are paid much more handsomely than those in research and teaching. So again, we should expect that clinical, counseling, I/O and human factors psychologists along with psychologists with the additional tool of advanced computer skills are pulling up the numbers. By and large, we shouldn’t expect most people with backgrounds in cognitive, cognitive neuroscience, social, personality and developmental psychology, for example, to be doing as well. I would expect the average annual salary in 2006 of this second group would be a good ten to fifteen thousand dollars less than the $75,000 average that includes all Psych sub-fields.
3. This data includes Psych PhDs at all career stages. Nearly 70% of the Psych PhDs sampled had at least 11 years of on-the-job experience. 25% had been at it for at least 25 years. Only 17% had been working for less than 5 years. $75,000 is not something that most Psych PhDs make fresh out of grad school. It would appear that most of them are starting off a fair bit lower and are improving over the course of protracted careers.
4. Things have gotten worse within academia in recent decades. In order to reduce costs, universities have increasingly moved away from tenure-track hiring. More and more, they have turned to sessional/adjunct instructors, graduate students and post-docs to teach their courses, and fellowship-based research employment. Whereas tenure offers career-long guaranteed well-paid employment with great benefits followed by healthy pensions, these non-tenured alternative service providers are often poorly paid, work on piecemeal (e.g., per course) or short-term contracts, may or may not have benefits, and – like many people across the general workforce – probably view pension as a quaint relic of generations past. What is more, when universities – a major employer of Psych PhDs – make serious cuts to their pay and benefits packages, it frees other types of employers to follow suit. What might have been an insulting package 10 years ago may be an emerging new market standard.
In addition to being paid less than their older peers due to decreased seniority, it appears that new Psych PhDs have entered a market that is not nearly as good as it used to be. Thus, matching for career stage and indexing to inflation, I would expect that the 2013 fleet of newly minted Research Psych PhDs will tend to earn appreciably less their elders of 30 years ago.
5. $75,000 is not that much money. A Psych PhD grad is usually someone who worked hard in high school to get into university, then worked very hard for 4-5 years in undergrad to get into grad school, then worked ridiculously hard for 6-7 years in grad school. Then they may have put in another 1-4 years continuing to work themselves into a fine paste in one or more post-doctoral fellowships. Then, if they were lucky (is lucky the right word?) they were honoured with the privilege of working at least as hard for another 4-7 years in pursuit of the university priesthood – tenure.
Even if we lop off the post-doc and tenure-track stages, we are talking about people who have spent 6+ years working a good 60 hours a week nearly year-round while barely making ends meet, often carrying forward a hefty undergrad debt. In-so-doing, they have foregone at least six years in which they could have made more money for less work while climbing a career ladder.
Alternatively, they could have completed i) medical school and one of several residency programs, ii) dental school, post-grad 1-year dental internship and 1-2 years of fully-paid independent practice; iii) law school, articling and 1-2 years of legal practice, iv) a Master’s degrees in Social Work, Speech and Language Pathology, Physical Therapy, Occupational Therapy, or Counseling Psychology, and over FOUR YEARS of practice. They could have worked in business for two years, completed a 2 year full-time MBA, and then returned to business for 2 years of post-MBA employment.
So, having said all of that, SEVENTY-FIVE THOUSAND DOLLARS?!!? Even if they were all but guaranteed to receive this income in their first year on the job it would still be a fairly poor economic move. But there is no guarantee of $75,000 a year. Not in your first year. Not in any year. If they do get to this point, it could easily take 10 years on the job. My guess is that they’ll be somewhat lucky to get to this benchmark by their 40th birthday.
These are smart, hardworking people. I guestimate that more than half of them could have gotten into Occupational Therapy, Social Work, Speech Language Pathology, or Counseling Psychology. Non-trivial minorities of them could have gotten into med, dentistry or law school.
This Doesn’t Necessarily Mean that You Shouldn’t Pursue a Research Psych PhD
As I’ve mentioned in The Grad School Gospels, I don’t think that Psych PhDs are a universally bad idea. My thinking is that if you love ( L -O-V-E) Psych and research enough to work 60 hours a week nearly every week for the next 6+ years with or without the coveted rewards of status and secure, well-paid employment in your field, then go for it. Otherwise, you may inadvertently be story-boarding your next dozen or so full-on clinical breakdowns.
Opinions and experiences from future, former and current Psych PhDs are enthusiastically welcomed.