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Christine Nattrass | USLHC | USA

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The cost of a PhD

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.


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12 Responses to “The cost of a PhD”

  1. Terry says:

    PHD is one of best title you can have but it is to expensive…

  2. Kea says:

    Yeah, and most of us are now living below the poverty line, unable to effectively continue our research due to lack of support.

  3. Martin Pavlicek says:

    I totally agree. Even though the research in particle physics may seem too distant from everyday life, and not suitable for anything useful, the applications are actually saving human lives. Particle accelerators are being used to cure cancer all over the world. Anitmatter is being used to diagnose cancer (Positron Emission Tomography), which is like science ficion in real life. We hear about antimatter mainly in Startrek; and voila – it is actually used regularly in practical applications. There are many more examples. I just love it, how beneficial can science be, despite the fact that in the beginning of a research scientists themselves usually have no idea what possible use could their future discoveries bring.

  4. Oded says:

    There is a bit of weirdness in your calculation, saying Yale spent on your education $20k a year, and in addition, payed you (or your expenses) $40k a year.

    Isn’t this counting the same money twice? Money payed to you, is tuition from someone else. You are counting both the money going towards Yale and the money coming from Yale.

    I’m currently a physics/math undergraduate, and I am very unsure of my desire to continue to higher education. I enjoy teaching, and I’m pretty sure I would enjoy research, but I also greatly enjoy my current job (programmer), and I know I currently make more than double what I would make as an academic, at least for the beginning. (My current salary is roughly 5500 usd per month, which from my understanding would take quite a few years in academia to get to)

  5. Ted says:

    “I do owe my education and the opportunities I’ve had to the kindness of taxpayers.”

    You’re kidding, right? You can’t be so naive as to believe that taxpayers donate a portion of their earnings willingly and with kindness in their hearts. Taxes are taken by action of law and, if necessary, by force.

    Maybe you just chose your words poorly.

    I look forward to substantive posts about ALICE and the other collaborations.

  6. Christine Nattrass says:

    Oded – no, I did not double count the cost of my graduate education. When you are in graduate school, you get a stipend and health insurance, but you are also in school so someone pays tuition. I never wrote a tuition check, but Yale asked the physics department for money. It’s an invisible expense of graduate students. It’s typically around $15-20k/year. Stipends cost $17-25k/year, depending on the school and local cost of living. I taught to earn extra money to pay back my student loans and was able to earn an extra $6-8k/year. Health insurance is expensive. Plus, for every grant each university charges overhead to cover libraries, buildings, electricity, support staff, etc. Overhead is often around 1/3 of the grant, so to get the real cost of a graduate student you’d actually have to take the direct costs and multiply by about 3/2. I did not include this in my calculation – I don’t know the overhead charged to my grant.

    Certainly one does not go into academia or grad school for the salary. We accept a (substantially) lower salary because we get to do really, really cool experiments. You certainly would have trouble matching your current salary until you reached the assistant professor level.

    Ted – I don’t think anything I could say could make you change your mind about taxes. I did not choose my words poorly. You are free to disagree with me and to not read my posts. If you like living in a society with an economy based on skilled labor and technology, you need public universities and publicly funded research. Without this, there would be no Silicon Valley, no Google, no biomedical research labs – at least not in the US. And we’d probably still have polio, no computers, no internet, etc. The truth is, as Oded and Kea pointed out, those of us who work in the public sector earn substantially less money than if we were to work in the private sector – on the order of 1/3-1/5 of what we’d get elsewhere.

  7. Ted says:

    I thought I was stating the obvious, how fun that you disagree. My only point is that taxes are not donted with kindness in mind.

    I do disagree that many of the wonders of the last century would have been impossible without government funded research supported with taxes. I don’t disagree that some govenrment funding is needed. But there must be a national interested in mind, not a human interest. Such interests often coincide, as with support for curing diseases. An example to the contrary is the Internet, which sprang from defense research to develop a communication system that could survive a nuclear assault.

    I thoroughly enjoy learning about the LHC and physics in general. But I see no national interest in funding it with money taken forcefully from taxpaying citizens. So, I was surprised that you glibly referred to the kindness of the taxpayers who have supported your education and research. (And, you stand by those words.) If you want another view: I believe that people should donate voluntarily the funds that support the LHC and similar research. (I would contribute!) That said, I don’t have a personal issue with any particular scientist working at the LHC or any other government funded project. I envy the opportunity and training required.

    Thank you for gratuitously acknowledging my freedoms. In return, I acknowledge that you may choose to work for as little compensation as you deem necessary. But I hope you agree that a lower wage, whether voluntary or not, does not give one a higher moral ground.


  8. Christine Nattrass says:

    Well, Ted, there is nothing I would like better than for you to prove me wrong. If you started an organization that gives grants to scientists through private donations (with rules that are condusive to research), scientists will apply. I apply for whatever pot of money I’m eligible for. I applied for a fellowship through a company this year – I didn’t get it, but I gave it a shot. But there aren’t many private sources of funding available to scientists and if I had to call people individually to ask them for money, I would not have time to do science, teach students, or talk to the public about what I do. So, please, prove me wrong. I want to be wrong.

  9. Ted says:

    I think you are arguing in support of my original point — tax payers do not fund your research with kindness in their hearts. In fact, you can’t raise money unless the government takes it and then a committee decides to distribute a little your way. Again, I am not entirely against this process, as I explained in my last post. I can’t prove you wrong because you are correct — few would fund your research because it has no value to most.

  10. Tyler says:

    Ted, money is not forced from taxpayers. Taxpayers elect the government that serves and taxes them. Taxpayers must hold officials they elect responsible for their expenditures. If you would like your government to not sponsor these education and researcher programs, then elect an official that shares your point of view.

  11. Martin says:

    Both parties (Ted and Christine) are right here.

    The main point from Ted is that taxpayers do not pay their taxes with kindness in their hearts. And, most do not think about the LHC, and would probably not fund it if given the choice. That’s not what I would do, but it is reality.

  12. The way some government agencies decide to fund various projects is not too different from the way a record company operates.

    How record companies operate was described by some band members of “Ok Go” in an episode of Planet Money,

    Basically, a record company funds, say, 20 bands. 19 out of those 20 bands lose money, but 1 band out of that group can earn enough returns to pay for the losses of the others.

    Funding research or other projects is kind of like that. The vast majority of those investments will lose money, but by diversifying investments the hope is that a few of them will pay off. Basically, by funding many kinds of research areas, society occasionally gets a great new technology or piece of knowledge that really helps a lot of people.

    And so with research projects, like rock and roll bands, most of them lose money, but it’s hard to tell ahead of time which project is going to produce anything that really hits the big-time.

    As for for the taxes discussion, I think all Ted was trying to say, and I agree, is that taxes are primarily paid for out of “obligation” rather than “kindness.”

    I say I agree, because I know plenty of people in my life who do what they can on their tax forms to make sure they pay the least amount possible. In addition, I can’t say I know anyone that goes out of their way to make sure they pay more taxes than necessary. (Note, I’m a graduate student paid by taxes.)

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