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Science and math PhDs earn about $65,000 — more than double what arts majors do

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You may know people currently grinding through a PhD program. Job prospects at their university are likely terrible. The pressure to publish is great. And there's a good chance that they will never work in the academic field they've spent nearly a decade contributing to.

The journal Science just published a study that gives a clearer picture of the fate that awaits doctoral students in the United States. The researchers gathered data on 3,000 US PhD students who were given research grants, examining their careers and earnings after graduation, in order to see whether the public investments in doctoral research programs contribute to the economy.

phd final

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Within a year of graduating, 38 percent of PhD students went to jobs in industry. Another 57 percent stayed in academia, and 4 percent went to work for government.

Overall earnings varied a lot by field. Those who graduated from programs related to math, computer science, and engineering earned the most, averaging about $65,000 per year. On the low end, biology students' average earnings were only $36,000. (The researchers noted this may be because only about one-third of biology PhDs went into industry, and many took postdoctoral positions, which aren't typically lucrative.) Arts and humanities majors fared the worst, earning closer to $25,000.

Unsurprisingly, the PhDs who went to work in industry made more than these averages suggest. Computer science and math students who went into the private sector earned about $90,000, while those in engineering earned around $80,000.

So did these doctorates contribute to the economy?

The researchers think so. Many PhDs found jobs in areas near their universities or labs, contributing their knowledge to the local economy. They also disproportionately worked "at establishments with high payroll per worker and in high-tech and professional service industries," the researchers wrote.

But the data was only descriptive. It didn't test, for example, whether areas with a higher concentration of PhDs had more robust economic outlooks, so the researchers could not establish a causal relationship between PhD output and economic growth. The data was also limited, representing only eight universities in the Midwest (Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio State, Purdue, Penn State, and Wisconsin) at one snapshot in time (2009 to 2011).