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education memo

If your odds of finding a job in the field in which you studied are about 50 per cent would you still go into that field? That's the situation of many PhD students in Canada who know, from watching graduating peers compete for tenure-track or post-doctoral fellowships, that the demand for professors has slowed down much faster than the production of PhD graduates. This mismatch was at the heart of the report released last week by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario which called on students, that powerful constituency, to "insist" that universities keep track of and release graduation, attrition and job placement numbers.

Educational "purists" will argue that more than any other students, those who enroll in PhDs are there for the learning. Yet in a labour market that increasingly sets unreasonable expectations of new entrants, demanding years of experience for entry-level jobs, just as many students see the PhD as a way to linger outside the market a little longer. Still, families will have to be made, houses bought, children educated. Skimpy as it is, the data says that if you're willing to defer earnings for a number of years and expect and want a long career, choosing a PhD is not the worst idea. Here's how I came to that conclusion.

Time to completion: The technical term for "You are still working on your dissertation?" time-to-completion is expected to be a breezy five years in most humanities and social sciences. In reality, the years can stretch to as long as a decade. Universities are now taking steps to make sure that most students graduate well before the seven-year mark. For a variety of reasons, including the structure of a dissertation, degrees take less time in Europe. For five of those seven years, the luckiest PhD students, attending competitive institutions, will receive some income from a university in the form of a teaching or research position ($1,000/month), their fees will be covered by their department and they may also receive a fellowship ($5,000 a year). In total, if they teach or research in the summer as well, their annual income may reach as high as $20,000. That's terrific for just going to school for 50 plus hours a week, but a lot less than the average salary for young male B.A. graduates in 2011 of approximately $47,000 ($43,000) for women.

The back of the napkin is now showing that our brilliant PhD student graduates $161,000 behind a B.A. who went straight into the labour market ($43,000 – $20,000 x 7). That's on fairly optimistic assumptions that university funding will last for seven years (rather than five) and that the B.A. holder is an utterly unremarkable person who will receive no raises or promotions during those seven years.

Yet long-term returns aren't bad. As law and business schools remind us, the dollar amount of the tuition and foregone income doesn't matter if the debt is wiped out after a few high-earning years. A Statistics Canada study of 2005 doctoral graduates found that their median income was $65,000. That year, a recent B.A. holder would have expected to earn about $45,000. Placing each graduate with a stingy employer and in a zero inflation environment, it will take the PhD graduate eight years to make up the lost $160,000. In reality, both will receive raises and the higher educated may even have more bargaining power.

A third way: So in financial returns, two decades after high school, the B.A. and the PhD are in roughly the same spot, a conclusion that seems to lead back to making the choice to stay in school till the first grey hairs sprout, one of personal and lifestyle preference. A third way does exist: that of the master's degree. The 2005 doctoral study reported that the average salary difference between master's and PhD graduates is only 7 per cent, a conclusion still echoed in the HEQCO report. What about those students who are in the increasingly slim minority of finding tenure-track jobs? They can expect to be looking at an average salary of $115,000, the Council says, but that's a number that masks relatively low salaries at an undergraduate institution like St. Francis Xavier University and much higher ones at the University of Toronto.

The most important statistic in all of this? Twenty per cent of health sciences grads may not get their degrees and more than 40 per cent of humanities students don't finish.