This article — which I picked up off of a friend’s facebook.com feed — would make you think so. It reports on a study comparing a set of “elite white-collar fields” with respect to “which jobs offer the best chance at balancing work and family life”, and while it spends most of its time dissing finance and consulting as being family-unfriendly, it includes this summary of the study’s findings:

One set of statistics neatly summarizes the findings. After surveying Harvard College alumni 15 years after graduation, Ms. Goldin and Mr. Katz estimated the average financial penalty for someone who had taken a year and a half off and then returned to work. In medicine, that person earned 16 percent less than a similar doctor who had not taken time off. Among people with no graduate degree, the gap was 25 percent. For both lawyers and Ph.D.’s, it was about 29 percent.

Now, while these statistics are certainly interesting, there’s a serious problem with their analysis: while you might be able to argue that most (not all) students that obtain a M.D. become doctors, that most (not all) students that obtain a J.D. become lawyers, this is definitely not true of Ph.D.’s. At least a significant percentage of students earning Ph.D.’s leave academia. I found various references online, with this article the most germane to my own chosen field.

The above graph shows that at its peak my field was sending roughly 60% of people into academia. This is probably higher than many other fields, and has fallen sharply since then to less than a majority in 2004-2005. While the graph is missing a few years, I’m guessing that the downward trend has continued.

Even just arguing from first principles it’s clear that academia cannot absorb most of its newly-minted Ph.D.’s. This is due to the nature of research advising which is, in it’s own way, a two-level pyramid scheme. Assume an academic serves, conservatively, at the median, 20 years as a professor. Now assume, again conservatively, that they graduate on average one student per year. Now clearly, assuming no growth in the number of tenured positions, this means that by the time they retire the professor in question has trained 20 replacements for one position. Clearly this is unsustainable.

Obviously my analysis is simplistic and leaves out two significant ways of absorbing Ph.D.’s into academia: growth in the number of tenured (or otherwise) positions, and positions at teaching or liberal arts colleges that do not grant Ph.D.’s and hence where faculty do not supervise graduate students. I have always been curious about finding a more well-done analysis of the changing career paths of (particularly Computer Science) Ph.D.’s, but at least the CW around these parts and the people I talk to is that as the growth in CS slows the number of available academic positions will fall, competition will become more fierce, post-doctoral work will become more critical to obtaining employment as a tenure-track research academic. My feeling is that other fields — chemistry, biology, many of the humanities — are already farther down this curve, but our progression down this path should probably auger large-scale changes in the way we teach graduate students, as the paucity of academic positions erodes the apprentice-like nature of graduate school further and further.

Returning to my critique of the NYTimes article, I guess my main point was that it’s unclear whether tracking Ph.D.’s really amounts to a verdict on academia, given that so many are likely to have to go and do other things (industry, probably) post-graduation. I was interested to read a discussion of the many freedoms and structural advantages of a career in medicine, but I would love to see a more accurate comparison with the equivalent benefits the actual academic profession.