Both in my own personal experience and in my experiences around other grad students, there is no one in the world more cynical about the value of grad school than grad students themselves. I myself harbour a cynicism so caustic it borders on unhealthy. So when the Conference Board of Canada (CBC) released a report saying that a PhD isn’t worth it, my reaction (and the reaction of many of the people I know) was a mixture of “what else is new?” and “Oh piss off”.
To summarize briefly, the CBC studied the earning potential of those with PhDs versus those who don’t have one. What they found was that PhDs do earn a bit of a premium, but not that much more than those with a Masters, especially when the lost earning potential is factored in. Turns out that taking 7 of the most productive years of your life and using them to do a PhD means you have to do a fair bit of catch-up once you do get into the workforce.
So the story that got reported out of this was that doing a PhD wasn’t worth it. The suspicious side of me suspects that many people read that with a sense of “Ha, not so smart now, are you?”
Anyway. Is doing a PhD worth it? For me, the verdict is absolutely still out on that. In my case, I lean towards yes, but it’s not a clear-cut thing. And my case was the best-case scenario in terms of funding as well. I competed for and was able to get significant bursaries, which means I was way better off than a lot of other people in PhD programs. So from the perspective of finance and debt, there haven’t been outright negatives, and in fact there have been positives.
In either case, for me, whether a PhD was worth doing is not a question that is answered by turning to earning potential. And it bothers me when that’s how we reduce a five to seven year span of people’s lives:
“I spent five years learning and three years exploring an issue which no one had ever explored. I have developed my skills exponentially and have an encyclopedic knowledge of my sub-field. In a modest way, I expanded my discipline and the scope of human knowledge.”
“Well, sure, but you lost like $7500 a year in earning potential. Loser.”
Whatever the benefits of doing a PhD, in no way can they be reduced to a plus/minus on a column of numbers. A simple example: I know that had I not done a PhD, I would always have wondered whether I was capable of it. I now know I am, and the experience of having done it is firmly a part of me. I have a complicated relationship with my education, but it’s not one that you can simply summarize with dollar signs.
I’ll admit, this is a bit personal. Hearing a PhD isn’t worth it is sort of like hearing that I’ve wasted my time. And maybe someday I’ll realize that it was a waste of time. But that’s a personal realization, not something that occurs to me because the Conference Board said so.