Graduate Life

Let’s kill the taboo of industry track PhDs in Psychology

Contributed by David Barner

By some accounts, there is a dirty little secret in academia, a secret which applies to psychology departments, and most other departments on campus: Most PhD students will not end up on the other side of the desk in tenure track positions, and worse, only the best-of-the-best PhDs, from the best-of-the-best degree granting institutions will even stand a chance of entering the lottery. These facts have percolated into the popular press and into the collective unconscious of graduate students – and surely potential graduate students – everywhere. A 2013 article in The Atlantic describes data from the National Science Foundation, which found that only about a quarter of PhDs in the social sciences had found an academic position by the time of graduation. This is maybe because universities train approximately 7 times more PhDs than needed to fill available academic jobs. Worse still, a 2015 piece in Slate found that most of these positions are filled by students from elite institutions like Harvard, MIT, and Stanford: “the top 10 schools produce three times as many future professors as those ranked 11 through 20″. When Bill Gates leaves the bar, the average wealth of patrons is quite low indeed.

Doom and gloom aside, the data themselves, not to mention the hopes and dreams of actual PhD students, may tell a different, and somewhat rosier story. First, the overall employment rate and salary of PhDs is currently much better than that of individuals who hold only a BA. Whereas in 2009 – near the apex of anxiety regarding unemployment in the US labor market – 20% of psychology undergraduates struggled to find full time employment, a full 100% of PhDs in Psycholinguistics – hardly the MBA of the doctoral world – found full time jobs according to the American Psychological Association’s 2009 dataset. And overall, the data for other domains of psychology were comparable, with fewer than 4% failing to find full time jobs. Further, these jobs weren’t all at Starbucks (though as a rule I do insist that all of my PhDs learn how to pull a decent espresso shot). In 2009, the modal PhD in Psychology (N=175) found themselves working in a clinical setting making a median starting salary of just over $60,000 USD. If you were lucky (or, perhaps, greedy) you ended up making $80,000 working in the criminal justice system (N=16). If you were unlucky, you found yourself in the academy, making around $56,000 as an Assistant Professor.

Yes, unlucky. It’s perhaps unsettling to notice so few PhDs ending up in the academy, since this is chiefly what faculty train them to do in disciplines like experimental psychology, my home turf. The thing is, this is neither a new situation, nor a bad situation, nor does it always reflect a failure on the part of PhDs to fulfill their dreams. There is a twin wake-up call needed in most departments: First, to students: If you want to get a tenure track job, it’s true that it will be hard, but it’s not true that your PhD is a waste of time, nor that prospects for PhDs are substantially worse than they were decades ago (at least relative to all other ordinary, wage-earning folks – we’ll leave aside the fact that almost all of us are sliding into an economic abyss together while a tiny fraction eat Ferrari’s for breakfast). Second, to faculty: about that taboo that we all need to kill: It’s ok to talk about the fact that most of your students will not get jobs.

Let’s focus on the taboo. In the Atlantic piece that signaled dire prospects for current PhDs, it was also noted that, at least in the past, almost half of PhDs didn’t want faculty jobs in the first place. And of those who did want faculty jobs, roughly half – about a quarter of all PhDs – were thwarted in their efforts to find one and ended up elsewhere. Why is this important? Because it suggests that a good many PhDs show up in the lab fully expecting not to be a professor when they grow up, but nevertheless want to write a thesis anyway. They want to read and learn about the brain, learn to conduct experiments, to analyze complex data sets, to master techniques for measuring mysterious latent phenomena like the mind, or information flow. And they want to do this despite the fact that there is no fame or glory to be found. Why do they want to do these activities if they don’t all want to be faculty members? There are likely to be as many reasons as there are students. Many likely don’t know what else to do, and they liked psychology (or literature, or linguistics, or whatever) as a undergraduate. Some may need to redeem themselves in the eyes of their parents (read “debtors”) in any way possible by appending the word “doctor” to their letterhead. Some may just be curious, and think that a PhD is a perfectly legitimate way to explore their curiosity and to figure out what to do in life. I actually fell into this last category, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone. With expectations aside, a PhD can be mighty fun when it goes well.

Faculty members don’t really want to talk about this much. Why might this be? I suspect one reason is that we fear that (1) we think all of our students want to be faculty, and we don’t want to crush their delicate little souls, (2) we think that to tell them this truth, and thus to crush their souls, will irreparably damage their potential for productivity; they will become disenchanted, disengaged, and either drop out with the ominous “terminal” masters degree, or worse, never leave, and become a dreaded “Nth year” PhD, or (3) we fear that we will need to change the structure of our PhD programs, so that they become boutique training institutes – community colleges on steroids, training students to do specific jobs, with specific skills.

I think each of these three worries (and related other concerns) are misplaced. There should be no taboo about talking about the *real* future with our students. Doing so will not crush their souls, damage their productivity, nor require us to change course in how we train students – at least not fundamentally. Instead, a bold prediction: Talking realistically about the future will engage students, warm their souls, make them more productive, and reassure them that, although a faculty job might not be in their future, doing a PhD in experimental psychology is not totally insane, and in fact that doing it well could be both worth their while and fun, to boot.

By sustaining this taboo, we are fueling the problems we seek to avoid. Students begin a PhD with many different visions of what this experience will be, but quickly imbibe the view that anything short of a tenure track job will surely disappoint their faculty advisors. Consistent with this, PhDs are beginning to assemble to discuss their situation, because they “feel they can’t come out and say they want to leave academia, they’re too afraid.” It is this feeling, together with the reality of the academic job market, which – in my casual observations – causes the despair, disengagement, and dropout. In short, faculty members are ruining all the fun: Many PhDs want to show up, do some science, and see where things go, but they quickly come to believe that more is expected of them – impossibly more, and that only the stars will reach these heights.

Faculty: There’s really nothing to fear here. We can preclude this type of neurosis in our students by talking to them, from Day 1, about what they want from their experience. We can start by asking them if they have an idea of what they want to do when they graduate – whether they have a specific vision, or just want to do a PhD and see where things go. If they say they want to ultimately go the academic route, great. We can now tell them what it likely to be required, and work with them to build them the corresponding road map. But the prescription need not be radically different for students who say they want to go into industry. This is because industry wants PhDs roughly in the form we currently produce them: Curious, broad thinkers who can write, crunch data, create new ideas, and reason skeptically about these same ideas simultaneously. We need to understand – and to tell our non-academic track students – that the PhD in psychology is well suited not just to train future professors, but also to train generations of thinkers, leaders, and industry innovators, too, and that burrowing into the depths of the infant cognition or birdsong neuroscience along the way may be a stimulating, useful, way to acquire this expertise.

The PhD is healthy, but increased awareness and openness regarding job outcomes have created a needless taboo, one which creates chasms between faculty and students, thwarting the interests of both. It’s time to kill this taboo.

8 thoughts on “Let’s kill the taboo of industry track PhDs in Psychology

  1. I did a post on the Psych PhD job market a few years ago ( In it I essentially argued that going into a research Psych PhD program is generally not a good idea unless you legitimately LOVE psych *research* (which is miles different from simply loving psych, as you know) so much that you could see yourself spending 5-8 years after undergrad working 60 hr weeks only to, at the end, have to go back to the drawing board and maybe even get another degree, because you can’t get a job that in anyway corresponds to your ambitions, interests or educational investment thus far. Not because this is guaranteed to happen – it’s just a VERY conceivable outcome. And if the person wouldn’t be able to tolerate this, then they could be begging for a serious crisis and years of depression and anxiety.

    I argued that the average income of psych phds is actually really bad. If I recall correctly, the average psych PhD made something like $75 K a year. But this included clinical psych, which surely pulled the average up. It also included people who had been working 20 years post PhD. Lets say you’ve got a background in language acquisition and you don’t get tenure (which is probable), if yiou’re just entering the job market really for the first time at the age of around 30 – after a life-time of being an academic super high achiever and hard worker – and your likely outcome is that one day in like 10 years you’ll make $75K a year. That’s actually awful. I mean, a person who has the intelligence and drive to get a PhD in psych could have – with even less ability and MUCH less effort – have gone into occupational or physical therapy and had been making $75K by their 25th birthday while working 40 hrs a week and being able to work absolutely anywhere they speak the language.

    As for the 80% to close to 100% employability of BAs vs. PhDs. I’m not compelled by that. Because it would take the BA about 6 years worth of 50-60 hr weeks and lost income to get that PhD. Had they not gone to grad school, they could have kept looking for a job, found one eventually, and had 5.5 surplus years to make money and work their way up.

    I get that a lot of people in fields like Psych will say (and earnestly mean) that they aren’t super concerned about money, but w/ simply doing what they love. My guess is that a lot of these people later on end up regretting this mentality. THe impression I get is that for many young people (including myself at the time), it is easy to under-estimate how important money will be to one’s well-being later in life. When one is young, their social status isn’t nearly as tied to wealth as it will be later in life – because you’re not working yet. WHen you’re young, your status depends more on things like looks, social skill, and valued abilities (e.g., athletics, music). But when you’re older it comes to increasingly depend on your title, your house, your car, etc. Further, no longer being able to rely on things like government student loans and your parents, your ability to take care of yourself and have a basic level of self-respect depends on it, too. Whether and to what extent you have serious anxiety about being able to afford your home, your car, the expenses your kids may incur, and also to do the things you want in life (e.g., vacation) depends HUGELY on it. My guess is that many of the 20 year olds who say that they don’t care about money, they just want to do something they love, will eventually grow to eat those words. Especially when, by the age of 30, they realize that their degree in psych, anthro, english or journalism didn’t lead them to a job they loved anyway. They realize that they probably dislike their jobs at least as much as the engineer across the street – if not more so – but at least the engineer gets money, status and career advancement potential – things that can make a job more fulfilling.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Ron. I certainly don’t mean to advocate the Psychology PhD or any other for all individuals. It’s a cost benefit analysis that will hinge on many factors. And certainly if money is a main concern you’re right to factor your years spent studying into the final tally. That said, the data are out there to be crunched – and linked from this article – and they speak for themselves. Over the course of a career there will be substantial financial benefits from doing a PhD in psychology (or perhaps some other graduate training) vs. a BA.


      • There *may* be benefits of doing a psych PhD over a BA. But I think what you said in parentheses is often going to be more beneficial – some other graduate training.

        As a psych and cog sci bachelor’s grad and someone who was briefly in an MS/PhD program, I’m of the opinion that going into psych in the first place is often going to be a mistake. A mistake born of such beliefs as that simply having a university degree is sufficient to have a good professional life (fortunately, I think this illusion has been thoroughly shattered), or the belief that a person is going to ultimately do the best if they pursue what they love. Problem w/ fields like psych, english, journalism, etc., is that lots of people love them and there aren’t that many jobs. So you’ve got hard-working, driven, smart people fighting for limited resources. Of course, I’m not speaking for all psych grads. But I’m definitely speculating on a very sizable chunk.

        I re-read my linked post above and was reminded further of my reasons for pessimism. At least working from the NSF data in my post (that I got from you and cited you in :)), it would appear that certain types of Psych PhDs (namely those w/ clinical psych degrees, I/O, human factors, and levels of computational modeling and analytic software background that exceeds what most Psych PhDs have) are pulling the numbers up. The avg income was $75K/year for all psych phds of all experience levels from all backgrounds. Given that, I’d imagine that your typical social or dev psych PhD is probably not making much more than $50K/year their first few years.

        Relatedly, this led me to do a new post (first in a few years) on my greatly increased skepticism of the value of a Clinical Psych PhD (one of the fields I had made an exception to w/ respect to my pessimism in my previous post):

        Liked by 1 person

  2. This post is spot on. Regardless of what the job market looks like 10 years from now, the called for transparency and open dialogue between advisor and student should be a standard. And I think the responsibility is shared between both parties.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Is it time to overhaul the PhD? | MeaningSeeds

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