How many PhDs Stay in Research?
Getting a PhD is a lot of work. In fact, if you believe the Princeton Review, maybe no one should pursue them at all.
And yet, I have worked with enough people who hold PhDs that it got me wondering about the statistics of PhDs and research. Usually, the people who pursue PhDs really love learning, and are excited about the prospect of making a profession of it. Much of the time, pursuing research is an important component of this learning journey. But how many people globally pursue PhDs, and among them, how many end up staying in academia to conduct research?
How many stay in PhD programs?
It turns out that several studies on this topic have been conducted over the past 10 years. The first thing to note is that there are a significant number of people who start PhD programs that do not complete them. According to the Council of Graduate Schools, roughly a quarter of US science and engineering PhD students leave their graduate program within the first 3 years; other countries report similar statistics for PhD completion across a variety of disciplines.
How many people get PhDs?
Though, despite so many leaving programs, the number of PhDs granted per year have been increasing over time. The US grants the largest number of PhDs with approximately 70,000 degrees granted annually across all fields. According an OECD report, in 2014 approximately 290,000 PhDs from OECD countries were granted globally.
What about staying in research after a PhD?
The question of how many people stay in research after obtaining a PhD is a bit harder to quantify. There have been several surveys done since 2010 examining the job prospects of PhD graduates, and the careers that they end up in. Of those that complete their PhDs, between 23 and 53% globally (varying by country and field) tend to stay at 4-year institutions for their long-term careers. Of course, this is not a perfect estimation for how many PhDs stay in research. Not all PhDs working at 4-year institutions participate in research. And, 4-year institutions are certainly not the only place that research is done. But, this was a journey of curiosity for me, so I deemed this proxy to be good enough for my purposes.
Being a bit of a data nerd, I was super excited to see that there is plenty of data that is available for learning more. Some highlights:
The Humanities PhD Project conducted a study of 8,515 historians who graduated from US universities between 2004 and 2013 to find out what professions they are in. 47% of the historians that they surveyed work in tenure track roles at 4-year institutions. Though, this project was to highlight all of the other careers that are pursued by PhD-holding historians, and the career diversity is significant. (The visualizations of this data are also beautiful and engaging.)
A survey conducted by the UK Higher Education Statistics Agency looked at the job outcomes of more than 4,700 people through the UK who graduated with a PhD in either 2008-09 or 2010-11 academic years. All respondents were surveyed 3.5 years after graduation. Nearly 30% of those with full-or part-time jobs ended up in academia. Of those, about 70% worked as teaching professionals and 30% were university researchers - that’s leaving only 9% of the total respondents pursuing research in universities.
In Canada, the 10,000 PhDs Project tracked outcomes for all PhD holders who received doctoral degrees from the University of Toronto between 2000 and 2015, verifying job titles for 9,583 PhD holders (88% of all graduates). About 23% of respondents have tenure or tenure-track positions, nearly 30% are in industry, and others work for the federal or provincial governments, charities or entrepreneurial businesses. Nearly 60% of life-sciences graduates now working in the private sector ended up in biotechnology or pharmaceutical jobs, while 13% of all physical-sciences PhDs in the private sector work in banking, finance, or investments (big-data specialists).
A survey from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver was conducted in 2016 and tracked graduates who had earned PhDs from 2005 to 2013. It also found that just over half of those graduates has positions in academia.
China (not included in the OECD statistics mentioned earlier) has produced significant numbers of graduates with doctorate degrees in recent years and it is estimated that there were 362,000 doctorate students as of 2017. A report by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) found that the overall employment rate of Chinese doctoral graduates in 2014 was generally high. The CASS report analyzed six prestigious research universities in China and found that around 30% to 60% of graduates went into the academia and science research institutes, while the remaining PhD holders were absorbed into the public sector.
A bit concerning
These numbers did leave me feeling concerned. Yes, getting a PhD is a lot of work, but it seems that pursuing a career in research is even more so. I strongly believe that research is foundational to understanding and improving our lives, ensuring the ability to live on this planet, addressing significant challenges like global pandemics, and understanding how we address the shortcomings of the social systems that we create. And yet, in the grand scheme of things, there are so few people that do this important work as a core part of their jobs. Throw in how research- and evidenced-based knowledge is increasingly challenged by misinformation, and the work becomes even more challenging. I’m thankful to those doing this hard work. What is lost when the obstacles of doing research become too high?