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Side effects of PhD programs

Some recent articles 12 bemoan the oversupply of PhDs, and poor prospects of future doctorate holders. But, at least in the special case of technical doctoral programs in the US, these articles miss two important side effects.

PhD students are the labor pool from which teaching assistants are drawn. It is these teaching assistants that do most of the grunt work required to take undergrads through their education — holding office hours, designing assignments, and most importantly, grading assignments and papers. The professor gives lectures and sets the curriculum, and the teaching assistants are left with everything else. And they do it for dirt cheap rates. The typical teaching assistant, handling one class with anywhere between 50 to 100 students, makes approximately $20,000 a year. There is absolutely zero chance of professors supporting a reduction in doctoral program enrollment, because it would directly translate into more work for them, and that too of the kind they despise — dealing with undergrads, and grading their papers.

The second side effect: it is these doctoral programs that attract the brightest foreign students from all over the world into the US, who in turn feed the demand for technical talent in the US (even if many “drop out” after a masters’ degree). In this sense, these programs are the best immigration filters the industry could wish for. In Silicon Valley, most immigrants have a prototypical story: came to the US as a graduate student, then started working here.

1The PhD Factory

2What is a Phd really worth?

Update: Interesting comments on this over at Hacker News.

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