It costs a lot of money to produce a PhD scientist. A rough estimate, based on my education:
- Primary and Secondary education: For simplification, let’s say I spent all of my k-12 years in Colorado. Colorado ranks roughly 42nd in per-pupil spending, but it still costs $8,600/pupil/year for k-12 education. Therefore, my high school diploma cost roughly $112,000.
- Bachelor’s degree: I went to Colorado State University for my undergraduate degree – a large state university. Colorado State was a great bargain and when I started there, in-state tuition was roughly $2000/year. Most of this was covered by scholarships, so was actually paid by some branch of government. However, CSU spent roughly $20,000/student on undergraduates, with the difference made up from the general fund. I spent five years in undergrad, so just the tuition for my degree was worth roughly $100,000. Fort Collins, CO was pretty cheap to live and I was an overwhelming cheapskate. My cost of living averaged about $10,000/year, adding another roughly $50,000. Additionally, I participated in four summer undergraduate research programs. One program was at CSU and my participation (salary and other expenses, excluding the salaries of my supervisors) cost roughly $4000. One program was at UNC Chapel Hill and I got paid $3,000 plus room and board and transportation to Chapel Hill, so this cost roughly $5,000. One program was in the Netherlands for five months and this probably cost roughly $10,000. One program was in Switzerland for two and a half months and this probably cost roughly $10,000. So the cost of my supplementary training as an undergraduate was roughly $29,000. Therefore the total cost of my undergraduate degree was roughly $179,000.
- Doctorate: The average time in graduate school in physics in the United States is six years. I spent six years and two months in grad school. Grad students in physics don’t pay for their tuition, but tuition is paid to the university by the grant. At Yale, my tuition was about $20,000/year. In addition, my stipend, my supplementary salary from teaching, the cost of my health insurance, and overhead added up to at least $40,000/year. This adds up to at least $360,000. On top of that, I took trips to conferences and to take shifts. My travel for my research definitely pushed the cost of my graduate degree to at least $400,000.
Therefore my PhD cost roughly $691,000. This is not a precise calculation and one could certainly quibble with details. I’m sure that people with more knowledge about grants would say I’m actually underestimating a lot of costs. A PhD at Yale is probably more expensive than at other schools, but it still easily costs well over half a million dollars to produce a PhD. That’s a huge investment for society to make in a person – and I’m very grateful.
I benefited significantly from scholarships and grants. Other than paying taxes like everyone else, my family and I probably paid less than 5% of that cost. Some costs were picked up by private organizations through grants, awards, and scholarships, but most of it was paid for by some branch of the government. My teaching, tutoring, and research does have economic value – I don’t see myself as a leech on society – but I do owe my education and the opportunities I’ve had to the kindness of taxpayers. If we did not live in a society that at least strives to create equal opportunities for all, I would not be where I am. Because of the debt I owe society, I feel it is my responsibility to give back – to use my education to explain what I do to the public and to help inspire and train the next generation.
At the same time, society benefits from having highly educated people. I am doing basic research that will most likely not lead to a marketable product in my lifetime. But basic research is crucial to future economic developments. Research in high energy particle and nuclear physics has led to cheaper and better particle detectors which can be used for medical technologies. CERN played a crucial role in the development of the internet – certainly more than Al Gore – and it still does. All of the experiments at the LHC use a computing infrastructure called the grid and developing the grid took substantial improvements in networking and distributed computing. Studying the Quark Gluon Plasma will not directly feed the hungry or cure cancer, but we move the boundary of what is possible and this benefits humanity.