do black phds make more than black mds?? no, not really

Last week, we had a discussion about academia and social mobility. Is it the case that low SES individuals are well served by a career in academia? My response is no. Graduate education is highly uncertain. Even if you get the degree there’s a good chance that you might be adjuncting. You might have to get work outside of academia that does not require doctoral education. I suggested that if we are really concerned about inequality, we’d suggest that people more seriously consider career paths that have high rewards and low risk, like engineering or health.

Then, Krippendorf wrote a comment that made me seriously question my claim. I quote the entire comment:

 For Hispanic men, Hispanic women, and African American women, the estimated lifetime earnings of a PhD are greater than the estimated lifetime earnings of professional degree holder. The much-touted professional-to-PhD earnings drop is limited to whites, Asian Americans, and African American men. See here:, Table A2

If — and, taking Rory and others’ points, it’s a big if — the goal is to increase the earnings potential of students of color, using group averages as your sole predictor, it still doesn’t make sense to discourage all students of color from getting a PhD.

That being said, I completely agree that the solution isn’t admitting additional PhD students. (And, at my university, students of color are not “add-ons:” they count against the department’s allocation of both slots and funding packages, just like any other student.)

I agree with much in this comment. Group averages are not to be used strictly in all cases. I am also glad that Krippendorf and I agree that we shouldn’t be expanding graduate enrollments. But the core of Krippendorf’s comment made me think: is it really true that black MDs make *less* than black PhDs? If you look at the linked census report,* that is the case (see Table 2-C, for example). So what gives?

I suspect it has to do with the definition of “professional degree.” My hypothesis is that Blacks and Hispanics PhD make more than professionals because Blacks and Hispanics are less likely to be in high paying professions (e.g., MDs) and more likely to be in low paid professions (e.g.,social work a profession). The report does not list what counts as a “profession,” so it’s hard to say.

There is circumstantial evidence for my interpretation. For example, a 2009 article in Health Affairs estimates physician income by ethnic group. Not surprisingly, even Black and Latino MD’s make a bit more than the average for all professors. For example, the *average* Black male family practitioner makes about $159k a year. Hispanics actually earn *more* than their White counterparts on the average. We can also look at engineering. Not much research, but one study by NACME shows that engineering salaries for Black bachelor degree holders in their 30s is about $73k – which is a little above the average for all professor ranks combined in sociology. If you look at life time earnings, even Black engineering BA holders do better than Black PhD because they don’t have to spend a decade getting the degree, paying extra tuition, and loading up on debt.

Bottom line: There’s something fishy in that Census report and other evidence shows professions, at least STEM/health, are a better path for mobility for minorities.

Adverts: From Black Power/Grad Skool Rulz

* One of the authors is a former student, so I claim credit for all excellence in the report.


Written by fabiorojas

May 7, 2013 at 12:44 am

5 Responses

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  1. Quick question: What are retention rates in engineering programs, medical schools, and other professional programs? Part of your earlier argument was about uncertainty about Ph.D. completion, but what is the level of certainty of completion in these other fields.


    Scott Dolan

    May 7, 2013 at 2:38 pm

  2. Scott: MD students graduate about 90%+ of the time. MBA’s and JD’s graduate at slightly lower rates. Engineering is a problem. Lot’s of people sign up as undergrads, but many switch to other majors.



    May 7, 2013 at 5:05 pm

  3. Scott: Last note for now – among professional programs, the PhD programs is really, really bad. Long time to graduation and a 10 year (!) completion rate of about 50%.



    May 7, 2013 at 5:05 pm

  4. I’m certainly with you on graduation/retention rates in Ph.D. programs and also on points you’ve made about the number of years until completion in a lot of Ph.D programs. I also agree that it is essential to inform prospective students of the sometimes harsh realities of completing a Ph.D., which is why I have told a number of my own students or acquaintances to check out gradschoolrulz (you’re welcome).

    I guess I am interested in what’s the solution beyond just telling people to avoid pursuing a Ph.D. I tend to agree with you that part of the problem is the quality of students who pursue and are admitted to Ph.D. programs versus the quality of students who pursue and are admitted to medical schools (gulp, is saying that going to get me in trouble? Though I’d be interested to see how MBA students stack up to Ph.D students in various fields). And you might be right that not everyone is cut out to be an academic or a scholar, so it’s important to present harsh realities to get a sense of a student’s understanding of the commitment required to complete a Ph.D..

    But I also think there are some serious questions we need to ask about the curriculum and structure of the programs themselves? Or questions we need to ask about our end goals in Ph.D. programs? I think med schools and other professional programs have a clearer idea of what the target is and how the profession itself might work in practice. Thus all of the important clinical components of the program and the sub-specialty training after the degree.

    I think the target in Ph.D. programs(and I speak only of those I am familiar with in the social sciences–Sociology specifically) are less clear. Maybe we have less standardized criteria for what a “scholar” or “practicing academic” looks like or needs to know. Maybe that’s also why why we see such variation within the discipline but also across programs.

    Whether standardizing the requirements of Ph.D. programs is appropriate is a different question (and a more normative question). But focusing more on defining what a “scholar” in a field looks like in practice might be one way to ensure that programs perform better in this regard. Because they might have a more clearly defined objective

    And please take everything I say above with a grain of salt, as it is mostly just armchair theorizing (or in this case desk chair theorizing). So again, mostly conjecture, so anyone who is informed (which I am sure there are many on this blog including Fabio) should feel free point out why I am just plain wrong.


    Scott Dolan

    May 7, 2013 at 6:48 pm

  5. And one quick point, I also agree that it’s important to let prospective grad students know about what they can expect on the back end in terms of income, and how that might compare to other potential avenues of study. Which is probably the big point you were trying to make. I just think there’s a missing component, which is also how the training itself operates. And let me also say that I tend to think there are both benefits and disadvantages to having the end goal be less standardized. Now I’m done.


    Scott Dolan

    May 7, 2013 at 6:53 pm

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