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Every day for 20 years, PhD students would come into employment counselor Melanie Sinche’s office and ask the same question: Would their doctorate degrees actually contribute anything to the economy?

A new study suggests that those years spent doing research and writing dissertations are not wasted.

Researchers looked at where PhD students from eight large Midwestern universities ended up in the few years after they graduated. They found that nearly 40 percent landed in industry and that the firms that hired these graduates often paid significantly more than the average American business.


“They’re high wage earners and they’re working for some of the biggest employers in the country,” said Sinche, director of education at the Jackson Laboratory Center for Genomic Medicine in Connecticut. Sinche, who previously offered career advice to graduate students at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and at Harvard University, was not involved in the study.

Read more: Don’t call me a dropout: Why science needs more people to quit the lab

To understand how the federal funding of PhD students impacts the economy, a team led by Bruce Weinberg from Ohio State University turned to social security-like numbers that the Census Bureau assigns to each graduate upon joining the work force. The students in the study cannot be identified, but they can be individually tracked, almost as if they were migratory birds with radio transmitters on their backs.


The researchers found that 57 percent of the nearly 3,200 PhD students in the study stayed in academic research, usually to pursue a postdoctoral fellowship, a type of temporary research position that is meant to prepare scientists for more permanent faculty appointments. “Academia consumes a lot of its own,” said Weinberg. “It’s fuel for the system.”

Of the rest, 4 percent went into government, 17 percent found work at companies that do research and development, and 22 percent were employed by other kinds of firms. Weinberg and his colleagues published the findings Thursday in the journal Science.

“It’s an antidote to the anecdotes about PhDs driving taxis,” said Michael Teitelbaum, a demographer at Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program, who was not involved in the research. “This is saying that a substantial fraction are indeed making use of their advanced levels of education in productive employment.”

Engineers, mathematicians, and computer scientists were the highest earners, pulling in an annual salary of more than $65,000 on average straight out of their doctorates — and often another $10,000 to $20,000 more if they pursued careers in industry.

Life scientists, however, made substantially less. Biologists and researchers in health disciplines were more likely to do postdocs — and this was reflected in their average salaries: only about $40,000, but another $10,000 or so in an industry job.

For Teitelbaum, the findings underscore the need to train young scientists for the actual kinds of jobs they will have after graduate school. “PhDs should have access to education, knowledge, experience that is not only academic, because the largest group of them are not going to be in academic positions,” he said.