While postgraduate study can pile on debt, employment prospects are usually good
While postgraduate study can pile on debt, employment prospects are usually good © REUTERS

Even in good times, the qualification known as a “Panic Masters” appealed to graduates unnerved by the question “what next?” Now the pandemic has upended the job market. More university students may stay on to do an MA or PhD. Postgraduate study has been rising in popularity. The number of doctoral degrees awarded across the OECD increased by 80 per cent between 2000 and 2017.

Just over two out of every hundred young adults embark on a doctorate at some point, though many give up. The proportion is double that in countries such as Switzerland and the UK, which attract a lot of international students. If only the domestic market is considered, Germany, Spain and South Korea have the highest proportion of PhD candidates, at about 3 per cent of the total.

Is it worth it? While postgraduate study can pile on debt, employment prospects are usually good. In 2018, 92 per cent of PhDs were employed in OECD countries, compared with 84 per cent of holders of bachelors degree. Note, though, that only the top graduates are eligible for advanced degrees.

Charts showing that higher degrees are increasingly common and some boost earnings significantly

A PhD is worth an average of £97,000 (the present value of enhanced after-tax earnings, taking account of costs), according to research published by the Russell Group of 24 top UK universities. Yet many will not achieve their goals. Most of those surveyed by Nature said academia was their first choice of career. Finding secure, well-paid jobs in higher education is increasingly hard.

This year, universities are braced for a big drop in the numbers of international students, normally 28 per cent of new doctoral candidates on average in OECD countries. That makes vice-chancellors all the keener to promote postgraduate opportunities to home students. In some cases, they are dangling “loyalty” discounts to alumni. Those unenthused by their subject should resist. Dropout rates for PhDs are high. But economic disruption makes extended study easier to justify. When recession looms, the opportunity cost of staying in education falls. 

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