Back in October I asked why universities continue to produce so many humanities PhDs in the face of the abysmal humanities job market. The flip side of that question is to ask why young scholars are willing to invest so much of their lives in earning a humanities PhD. I hope the answer is that it’s their love of the subject, because it surely isn’t because of the economic return.
Let’s begin with the economics of getting that PhD. The NSF surveys new PhD recipients and asks them how much debt they acquired in graduate school. The figure below shows that humanities (and art) PhDs fare worse than STEM students. Just over half of humanities students escape with a degree without having acquired more debt in graduate school. In physical sciences, math and computer science, and in engineering about 80 percent avoid graduate student debt. Probably more important, more than a quarter of humanities PhDs end up with over $30,000 in new debt. For life sciences the percentage is about half that and in other STEM fields the fraction with large debts is a quarter of the rate for humanities and arts.
There is also the “opportunity cost” of being in graduate school. Graduate school stipends are a lot lower than pay after earning the degree. Humanities degrees take longer to get than do STEM degrees. On average, one to two years longer. That’s a lot more foregone earnings for humanities students.
How about employment on graduation? Unsurprisingly, humanities PhDs are less likely than STEM graduates to have post-graduation plans lined up. But the difference is not all that large. In the humanities and arts, 43 percent of students reported to the NSF that they had no definite commitment. In math and computer science that fraction was only 27 percent, and in engineering the same number was 36 percent. The NSF also asked doctoral recipients who had definite plans whether the next step was a job or postdoctoral study. Of the humanities grads who had plans, the next step was overwhelmingly employment—only 21 percent were headed to post-docs. In the physical and life sciences, 3 out of 5 students went the post-doc route.
The real difference after graduation? Among humanities and art students who do have jobs lined up, the vast majority are going to work for colleges and universities. In contrast, STEM doctorates very often go to work for business or industry. Working for a university is not a bad outcome (I mention in case my employer is reading this), but industry certainly pays better. Here’s a figure with the breakdown from NSF data.
For those new PhDs with an employment commitment after graduation, the NSF surveys expected annual salaries. In life sciences, the median is $80,000. (I report male salaries here; salaries for women are 15 percent lower.) Median salary in physical sciences is $86,000. Math and computer science is $113,000. Engineering is $100,000, and in economics the median salary is $100,000.
In humanities and arts, the median expected salary is $52,000. So it’s the salary levels that make the biggest difference between the humanities and STEM fields.
The NSF data is informative about the very beginning of a career. To learn more about economic returns over a lifetime, we can turn to the American Community Survey. (One caveat here: The ACS identifies fields by undergraduate degree, so there is no doubt some minor error in classifying degrees.) Here is a graph of median income in the humanities and STEM at both the BA level and the PhD level.
The basic message is that a student with a humanities PhD earns about the same salary as a STEM BA. Some of this is because of the different employment venues, but even within colleges STEM PhDs earn more than do those in the humanities. Humanities PhDs working at a college or university have a median income of $72,000. The STEM figure is about 13 percent higher.
I’ve made a graph of the distribution of salaries for PhDs who work at colleges and universities (Wonk note: the picture is from what’s called a “kernel density” estimate.) What you can see is that that humanities PhD salaries in higher education are mostly between fifty and a hundred thousand. In contrast, about a third of STEM PhDs earn over 100K.
The salary difference is much more noticeable in industry. Here’s the picture:
About a third of humanities PhDs employed outside of higher education earn over $100,000. For STEM grads, the number is more like 60 percent.
Putting it all together, getting a doctorate in the humanities doesn’t seem to be a great dollars-and-sense investment. If it’s a labor of love—and if students heading into these doctoral programs are fully informed—then it can still be a perfectly sensible career choice. I’m not so sure about whether prospective students are “fully informed,” but on that there’s no evidence other than anecdote. What I am sure about is that the rest of us continue to benefit from the young scholars who choose to sacrifice financially to transmit understanding of poetry and history and philosophy to the next generation.