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Do We Have Too Many PhDs?

Updated on August 24, 2012

PhD is one of the highest academic degrees that one can attain in universities. After earning a bachelor degree, one can continue on to Master program or directly to PhD program, where one conducts thorough research on a particular topic. Most of the doctorate programmes conforms to the model of universities in the middle ages, where the learning is based on apprenticeship.

PhD program prepare the students to be the experts at one specific field, thus they can further the knowledge in the field. In general, PhD students will get a few years of postdoctoral research experience before they can get a faculty position in the universities. As professors, they will be spearheading the research of their expertise. It is, therefore, very important since knowledge will lead to more innovations and improvements.

Rise in the number of PhD graduates

Education is seen as the factor that promotes economic growth, and hence many countries are promoting the PhD programmes. The annual growth rate of doctoral degrees is increasing dramatically as a result of the major expansion of higher education. For instance, China, India, Japan, UK, US see an increase of 40%, 8.5%, 6.2%, 5.2%, 2.5% respectively. In some developing countries, the sustained economic growth has enabled the industrial sector to absorb these educated workforces. However, in some developed countries, supply outstripped demand. It is a waste of resources to train the students for many years and find that they can't find a job that utilizes their expertise.

If there are too many PhD graduates, why don't the universities start to curb the number of students for admission? Well, they should start doing so, but unfortunately it is not done. Universities want to get as many PhD students as they can, since they are seen as cheap and hard-working labours. If they don't grant scholarship, they even get money from the labours. Indeed, doing PhD without scholarship make little sense if any at all. PhDs, which are supposed to be trained by apprenticeship to their professors, are now not much different from research assistants taking graduate level coursework. Graduate schools should disseminate the real picture of job prospects before they enter the programme.

Furthermore, the average quality of PhD graduates is compromised with the substantial increase of the PhD degree holders. The drive for the growth in the number of PhDs in many countries will compromise the admission criteria and hence getting less capable students into the PhD programme. There is more emphasis on the quantity over quality of the PhD graduates, which will be deleterious in the long run. Just like the industrial revolution, the system of apprenticeship practised in the middle ages is gradually replaced with mass production of PhDs in the universities.

Most of the PhD programmes prepared the students almost exclusively to become an academician, which openings unfortunately are very much limited.
Most of the PhD programmes prepared the students almost exclusively to become an academician, which openings unfortunately are very much limited. | Source

Careers for PhD graduates

PhD programmes mainly prepare the students to enter academia. Some programmes also include non-academic training to prepare them for the industrial sectors. Most of the PhD students, though, enter the programme with careers in academia in their mind. They aim to get a faculty position, which is highly competitive and limited. New openings for academic positions are very limited and even if they manage to get one, they need to overcome the hurdle of getting tenure. As a result to this, more and more PhDs are caught in the postdoc cycle, doing one postdoc after another.

One of the problems associated with the doctoral programmes is that the curriculum and training make the PhD to be highly specialized only in one field, which is often irrelevant to the outside world beyond academics. In support of this, employers in industries often complained that PhD students are lacking in professional skills. There is little if no education about career alternatives during the PhD programme. A solution to this is to redesign the programme to foster more soft skills, thus the students are better prepared if they decide to work outside academics. In addition to this, universities can encourage internship to give the students exposure to the job market and the information that there are alternative careers in industry, where their knowledge can be useful.

Advanced or professional master's degrees can also be introduced to fulfill the needs of specialized workforce that are well trained in communications and business administration skills. Some universities have started to introduce PhD-MBA program, where the students take MBA courses, do scientific research, as well as internship program. PhDs need additional training in interdisciplinary programmes, lest they become one dimensional only in academic skills.


The world is producing PhDs at a faster rate than the relevant job market can absorb. It is quite a waste of resource of bright and educated people. The skills of PhD graduates are tailored for them to enter the academics, where the faculty position openings are either stagnating or declining. Hence, we often find they spend up to decades as postdocs before they can secure a faculty position in a university. On the other hand, if they want to find a job in the industry, their skills are not always applicable for working in the industrial sectors due to specialization and the lack of professional training. Many of those who take PhD may find themselves left out in the middle between academia and industries. Indeed, the PhD programme needs to be reformed.


Reform the PhD system or close it down, Nature 472, 261 (2011) | doi:10.1038/472261a

The PhD Factory, Nature 472, 276-279 (2011) | doi:10.1038/472276a

The rise of professional master's degree: the answer to the postdoc/PhD bubble, Nat Biotechnol.2012 Apr 10;30(4):367-8. doi: 10.1038/nbt.2180.

Fix the PhD, Nature 472, 259–260 (21 April 2011) doi:10.1038/472259b

Broadening PhD curricula, Nature Biotechnology 30, 113–114 (2012) doi:10.1038/nbt.2091


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    • dianetrotter profile image

      G. Diane Nelson Trotter 

      6 years ago from Fontana

      The honorary PhDs drive me crazy. There are PO box "schools" that confer honorary doctorates for a fee. This damages the credibility of PhDs, especially when the purchased honorees insist that they be called Dr. Joe Dokes. I enjoyed your article.

    • Ricksen Winardhi profile imageAUTHOR

      Ricksen Surya Winardhi 

      6 years ago from Singapore

      Hi StellaSee, yes it also depend on the degree you are getting. Getting a PhD in engineering prepare you mainly for entering academics, but you may also branch out to career in industries. On the other hand, people studying PhD in natural science and social science may find more difficulties to work in industry, due to limitation on the job availabilities as well as the nature of science, which is to advance fundamental knowledge regardless of the possible application of the knowledge in a tangible product.

      In my opinion, both natural and social science suffers similar setback as both are science and the number of PhDs are increasing more and more. As a matter of fact, the number of PhDs awarded for natural sciences compared to social sciences in the US is about 5 to 1 (see The PhD Factory, Nature 472, 276-279 (2011) doi:10.1038/472276a). Nevertheless, it might be more true for social science since it is harder to apply the knowledge compared to natural science.

    • StellaSee profile image


      6 years ago from California

      Hi Ricksen, I read another article talking about how most PhD programs prepare the student for a career in academia versus working in industry but do you think that depends on the degree you're getting? I think that might be true more for people studying the humanities versus a science/technical degree.

    • AlexK2009 profile image


      6 years ago from Edinburgh, Scotland

      As always, if it is something you want to do go for it. If you want it to get a better job then, even if it will help, you may end up researching something you dislike then find its commercial value vanishes just as you get the degree. And researching something you dislike is the road to failure or at best mediocre success or a compensation like an MPhil.

    • Beata Stasak profile image

      Beata Stasak 

      6 years ago from Western Australia

      Interesting point of view and very useful:) I have few bachelor degrees and one master and thinking about studying more but I don't see the point to study just for having the you said the supply exceeds the demand and what was once so highly valued and respected is becoming just another 'title to stick to your name to feel more important'....

    • Ricksen Winardhi profile imageAUTHOR

      Ricksen Surya Winardhi 

      6 years ago from Singapore

      Hi AlexK2009. Yes, I couldn't agree more to your points above. Definitely the skills needed for PhDs are different compared to the one that we need to complete a BSc or MSc. In BSc or MSc, we study; In PhD, we work to create and innovate knowledge.

      As for the value of PhD in developing the person, in my opinion, it may vary widely according to the advisor or supervisor. On one extreme, one can get a PhD by merely doing what his or her supervisor asked, without much thinking of their own. In this case, they will develop certain technical skills, but not much of creative thinking, academic writing, communication skills, etc.

      On the other extreme, one get a PhD by formulating his or her own research plan by brainstorming a particular topic. They ask questions and attempt to answer it by doing research, hence advancing the knowledge in the field. Likely they will be the one responsible for writing the scientific paper as well. In this case, not only will they develop technical skills, but also communication skills, innovative and creative thinking, and importantly problem-solving skills.

      Problem-solving skills are highly valuable for both academic world and industries alike. Definitely the majority of employers want to have loyal "ant-like" employee. This will constitute the majority of the workforce in the company. I think that well-trained PhDs are capable of getting the managerial level or higher level jobs that requires more thinking and problem-solving. Of course, these needs to be blended with proficiency in communication and people skills. Nevertheless, the vacancy for these jobs are limited... the supply of PhDs exceed the demand.

    • AlexK2009 profile image


      6 years ago from Edinburgh, Scotland

      Ricksen: What about the value of a PhD in developing the person? The skills needed for a PhD are not those needed for a BSc or MSc or even an MPhil.

      A Phd will have research skills that fit them for a wide range of jobs requiring innovative thinking. Unfortunately 99% of employers do not want thinkers, they want worker ants. Seth Godin points out the value employees who are more than ants bring to the enterprise but I think he runs up against managerial ego.

      However this goes off the topic. I suspect worldwide there are more PhDs produces than the economy can absorb, but that they give far more value to society than the cost of producing them.

      In the UK university departments sometimes set up companies to market their research. Perhaps there should be an expectation that PhDs and Post docs spend some time in these companies learning business skills.

    • Ricksen Winardhi profile imageAUTHOR

      Ricksen Surya Winardhi 

      6 years ago from Singapore

      Yeah, I agree that PhDs are better equipped in their technical and analytical skills, which may help when they want to set up their own business, such as doing market research, data analysis, etc. However, setting up a business also require communication skill and people skill, which are generally unheard of in PhD curriculum.

      I really think that either the universities broaden their PhD curricula, or they limit the intake for PhD students in proportion with the number of jobs that are available after their graduation. Else, their intelligence will be wasted since they hardly find a job of their expertise. It is not surprising then, that many PhD graduates find jobs that are unrelated to their training, not only because they want to switch career, but it's also because they can't find a job in universities and research industries.

    • AlexK2009 profile image


      6 years ago from Edinburgh, Scotland

      Good point DreamerMeg, but as one with a PhD I found the lack of business skills resulted in my business ventures failing. That and the fact that there is pressure against setting up in business: I ended up doing postdoc work for eight years since that was the accepted path for PhDs

    • DreamerMeg profile image


      6 years ago from Northern Ireland

      You know, on further reflection, I think Ph.D.s are more likely to create their OWN jobs. They have the skills, knowledge and credibility. They still need the business skills, but those can be bought in.

    • msann1949 profile image


      6 years ago

      I am thankful for doctors. They are needed. But I find that to many doctors do not know what they are doing. I feel that there are to many that has done it for the money. Which I do not think will be there if the government keeps going. We need doctors that are called doctors, that care about their job/calling. For example. I went into the hospital last year with pain in my stomach. I had two doctors that were working together. One would come in and tell me I need another test. The other one would come in and tell me all my test were showing nothing. Then the first one would come in and tell me I needed another test. They put me on a liquid diet for three days. The third day I finally ask how long was I going to be on it. Their answer was, "Oh your hungry?" And it was the same day that I signed the paper and walked out of the hospital. I went to my church and had the people of God to pray for me. No problems and no bill. They were working my insurance.

    • Eunice Stuhlhofer profile image

      Eunice Stuhlhofer 

      6 years ago

      Useful and thought provoking. I'm planning to do a PHd... voted up and useful!

    • AlexK2009 profile image


      6 years ago from Edinburgh, Scotland

      MarieFlint: Good points. Just to clear things up.

      A BSc gives you the knowledge you need, an MSc gives better understanding and a PhD requires very different skills.

      From the industry point of view BSc and MSc show you are conformist which is what businesses want 99% of the time. A PhD shows, ideally that you can think innovatively and criticise the status quo. Most places do not want that. Government has to tolerate it as otherwise the country will stagnate, bit Government ( and Religion ) really hate it.

      Dan Barfield:

      I have said for a long time that you should not choose a degree on the basis of the current job market, because by the time you graduate it may be worthless.

    • Dan Barfield profile image

      Dan Barfield 

      6 years ago from Gloucestershire, England, UK

      A very good point. I have often wondered about unsustainability of consistent growth in Higher education qualifications. In the case of degrees, they have become devalued because so many people have them. I assume the same is true of MA and PHD figures.

    • Marie Flint profile image

      Marie Flint 

      6 years ago from Jacksonville, Florida USA

      I never finished my bachelor's, so a doctorate seems a little far-fetched for me; however, if I did pursue one, it would probably be in a wholistic health field. I came from a farming background, hence a variety of survival skills were essential: planting, composting, harvesting, cooking, canning, cleaning, sewing, and many do-it-yourself maintenance projects, such as carpentry, plumbing and electrical wiring. If you wanted something, you simply had to do it yourself because skilled human resources were scant. You learned from your mistakes. Life was truly a "learn by doing" experience.

      Ph.D.s are wonderful for people who love academics. And, especially in the sciences, the book learning can enhance the individual's natural desires and curiosities.

      I don't worry too much about whether universities should curb their programs--supply and demand in a free economy takes its course. And, I don't think the internet will completely replace the live classroom environment. I personally enjoyed listening and watching the professor as I took my notes. To be able to speak with him directly and question him on aspects of his lecture I didn't quite understand is something I haven't been able to equate in online learning.

      If I had it to do over, I would have gotten counseling on career options that best matched my nature. Academic degrees certainly aren't for everyone. There are examples in society of persons who successfully pursued their passions and made a difference.

    • AlexK2009 profile image


      6 years ago from Edinburgh, Scotland

      Good points. However a PhD in the UK is meaningless for a professorship and often for a lectureship. A higher degree still, say DSc, is becoming a requirement for a professorship.

      Since a degree/PhD is no longer useful for getting a job I see universities as becoming irrelevant and, with the internet, anyone can become expert in areas that do not need infrastructure such as research labs or, to a decreasing extent, libraries.

      If that happens universities will decline in numbers and become places scholars congregate to exchange knowledge. The career academic is unlikely to survive which will give big business a stranglehold over any lab based field of study.

    • Ricksen Winardhi profile imageAUTHOR

      Ricksen Surya Winardhi 

      6 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks vocalcoach for the comment. Yes, that's very true for PhD students and graduates (including me). People need to think twice before they get a PhD since the job prospect may not be as good as they think. I have also written few hubs about PhD (and will continue to add some more), which is related to this topic.

    • vocalcoach profile image

      Audrey Hunt 

      6 years ago from Idyllwild Ca.

      A very interesting hub on this topic. I have several close friends who have just received their PhD. In talking to them, I first learned that you aren't guaranteed work and may even be challenging to find a job. That surprised me. Thank you for writing this and I will share it. Voted up!

    • ripplemaker profile image

      Michelle Simtoco 

      6 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

      Hi Ricksen. Your hub has been nominated in the hubnuggets. Check the education and science category. This link will take you there Don't forget to read and vote! Cheers!

    • Ricksen Winardhi profile imageAUTHOR

      Ricksen Surya Winardhi 

      6 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks DreamerMeg for the comments. Yes, I think taking a master before PhD can help a lot for the students to ponder about the career path if he or she continue to PhD.

    • Ricksen Winardhi profile imageAUTHOR

      Ricksen Surya Winardhi 

      6 years ago from Singapore

      thanks phdast7 for the feedback. I'll try my best to improve the format and layout to ensure better readability.

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 

      6 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Add more pictures and break long paragraphs into two/ Hubs that are more easily readable get more positive comments. Good information and interesting. There is a surplus of phd's who cannot get academic jobs in America. Sad, but true.

    • DreamerMeg profile image


      6 years ago from Northern Ireland

      That's an interesting point of view! Certainly, at least some universities in the UK have adopted a staged process for Ph.D. students, with assessments in the early stages that ensure the student is (a) working and (b) understands what a Ph.D. is actually about. This helps to weed out any unsatisfactory students in the early stages and ensures fewer dropouts from the programs. For some students, it may be useful to take a Master's degree first, before commencing a Ph.D. The master's degree is more structured and often a taught degree and it gives the student a number of research skills. Plus, if they decide that Ph.D. study is not for them, they still leave with a useful qualification.


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