Are PhDs rare?

PhDs, or doctoral degrees, are advanced degrees that require years of study and original research contributions in a particular field. But how rare are PhDs compared to other degree levels? Let’s take a closer look at some key questions to understand the rarity of PhDs.

How many people have PhDs compared to other degrees?

PhDs are far less common than bachelor’s and master’s degrees. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only about 2% of adults 25 years and over had a doctoral degree as of 2019. This compares to over 33% of adults with bachelor’s degrees and about 13% with master’s degrees. So those with PhDs make up a very small segment of degree holders.

Some numbers help illustrate this:

  • About 67.7 million adults had bachelor’s degrees
  • Over 36 million had master’s degrees
  • Only about 4.5 million had doctoral degrees

So while over 100 million adults had a bachelor’s or master’s, the PhD pool was only 4.5 million. The rarity becomes even clearer when we look at first-time graduate enrollment numbers. In 2019, over 2 million students enrolled in master’s programs compared to only about 178,000 enrolling in doctoral programs.

How many PhDs are awarded each year?

Only about 55,000 PhDs are awarded annually in the U.S. based on data from the National Science Foundation. This represents less than 1% of all degrees awarded each year. In comparison, over 2 million master’s degrees and nearly 2 million bachelor’s degrees are awarded annually.

Here is a table comparing PhD degrees awarded to bachelor’s and master’s degrees:

Degree Degrees Awarded Annually
Bachelor’s 1.9 million
Master’s 807,000
Doctoral 55,000

As the table shows, bachelor’s degree graduates outnumber PhD graduates by over 30 to 1 each year. And over 10 times as many master’s degrees are awarded annually compared to PhDs.

How competitive is PhD admission?

Gaining admission into PhD programs is highly competitive compared to bachelor’s and master’s programs. PhD programs typically admit less than 10% of applicants. Compare this to bachelor’s programs at many universities which admit 50% or more of applicants.

For example, Stanford University accepts only about 4% of PhD applicants but around 5% of bachelor’s applicants. Columbia University has an acceptance rate of 8% for PhDs and 6% for undergrads. Even state schools see this trend – the University of Michigan admits around 30% of undergrads but under 15% of PhD applicants.

Limited spots and a small pool of qualified applicants means PhD admission rates are very selective. Students need outstanding grades, test scores, research experience, and recommendations to gain entrance. This makes the path to a PhD more competitive than lower degree levels.

How do PhDs vary by field?

While PhDs are rare overall, some fields produce more PhDs than others. The chart below shows PhD completion rates by broad field based on National Science Foundation data:

Field PhDs Awarded Annually
Life Sciences 11,000
Physical Sciences and Earth Sciences 9,500
Psychology and Social Sciences 10,500
Engineering 9,500
Education 6,500
Humanities 5,500
Other Fields 3,000

This shows significantly more PhDs in the sciences and engineering compared to humanities and education. However, even in strong PhD fields, the number of graduates is small compared to bachelor’s and master’s degrees in those fields.

PhDs in Computer Science

For example, only about 2,000 PhDs in computer science are awarded annually. In comparison, over 100,000 bachelor’s degrees and about 30,000 master’s degrees in computer science are awarded each year. So while computer science produces more PhDs than humanities fields, the number is still low compared to broader graduation totals.

PhDs in Engineering

Similarly, only 9,500 PhDs are earned in engineering fields annually. This compares to over 100,000 bachelor’s degrees and about 45,000 master’s degrees awarded in engineering. So while engineering has high PhD output, it is still dwarfed by bachelor’s and master’s graduation rates.

Do men or women earn more PhDs?

Among PhD students, men significantly outnumber women. About 54% of PhD students were men vs. 46% women in 2019 according to the Council of Graduate Schools. And men earned about 57% of all PhDs awarded compared to 43% for women.

However, women have been closing this gap. Between 2009 and 2019, the number of PhD’s earned by women increased by 65% compared to 38% for men. But men still maintain an advantage in doctoral education, especially in certain fields like engineering and computer science.

Do international or US students earn more PhDs?

International students make up a significant share of the U.S. PhD pool. In 2019, about 30% of PhD students were temporary residents compared to 70% permanent residents according to the National Science Foundation.

Of PhD degrees awarded, non-U.S. citizens earned about 40% vs. 60% earned by U.S. citizens based on data from the Council of Graduate Schools.

So while domestic students still earn the majority of U.S. PhDs, international students make up a substantial portion of PhD students and graduates.

How does income differ for PhDs?

Individuals with doctoral degrees tend to earn substantially higher incomes compared to those with bachelor’s or master’s degrees. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows the median weekly earnings for U.S. workers based on educational attainment:

Degree Median Weekly Earnings
No degree $592
High school diploma $746
Associate degree $887
Bachelor’s degree $1,248
Master’s degree $1,497
Doctoral degree $1,825

Those with doctoral degrees earn 47% more per week than those with bachelor’s and 22% more than those with master’s degrees. The advanced specialization and expertise gained through PhD study leads to higher earning potential.

How much does it cost to earn a PhD?

Unlike bachelor’s and master’s programs, most PhDs do not require tuition payments. Funded PhDs offer a tuition waiver and stipend that covers living expenses in exchange for teaching or research duties. Self-funded PhDs do exist, but they are rare since few can afford the high tuition.

That said, PhDs still incur indirect costs. The years spent in PhD programs are years missing out on full-time income. Leaving the workforce for 4-6 years represents a significant financial opportunity cost. And moving, housing, books, fees, and supplies can all add up over the course of a PhD.

But the increased lifetime earning potential of a PhD can offset those costs. Estimates show PhDs earn over $1 million more in lifetime earnings compared to those with bachelor’s degrees. This helps make up for the years of lost income and expenses during the PhD program itself.

How much student debt do PhD students carry?

Surprisingly, PhD students carry nearly as much student debt as other graduate degree holders. Data from the National Science Foundation shows:

  • Over 60% of PhD students take on debt
  • The average PhD student debt is $63,000
  • This compares to $71,000 in debt for professional degree students like MDs and JDs
  • And $68,000 in debt for master’s degree students

While PhDs are mostly funded, past educational costs like undergraduate and master’s degrees drive debt burdens. And expenses during PhD programs including housing, supplies, and Opportunity costs contribute to debt. Nevertheless, PhDs earn high enough salaries after graduation to offset repaying this debt.

How do acceptance rates compare for PhD programs?

PhD programs are generally far more selective than master’s and bachelor’s programs. A look at top U.S. universities illustrates this:

University Bachelor’s Acceptance Rate Master’s Acceptance Rate PhD Acceptance Rate
Stanford 4.7% 9.1% 3.7%
Columbia 6.1% 11.7% 7.9%
Harvard 5.2% 11.1% 4.6%

Across top programs, PhD acceptance is extremely competitive – often half the rate of bachelor’s and master’s programs. The funnel narrows at each degree level, meaning PhDs are highly selective.

How do PhD program requirements compare?

Earning a PhD is a far more rigorous process than lower degree levels:

  • Bachelor’s: Typically 120 credits over 4 years of full-time study.
  • Master’s: Usually 30-50 credits over 1-2 years of full-time study.
  • PhD: Requires 4+ years of study and research plus a dissertation of original research, along with qualifying and comprehensive exams.

PhDs involve years more schooling, exams, research, and dissertation writing beyond bachelor’s and master’s requirements. The extended education and specialization is a key reason PhDs are rare.

Do PhDs require original research?

A key PhD requirement is making an original research contribution in your field. This comes through the dissertation – a publication-quality manuscript presenting new findings that add to the body of knowledge.

In contrast, bachelor’s and master’s degrees mainly require taking courses and passing exams. Only PhDs demand you advance research in your field before graduating.

This research mandate makes PhDs more rigorous. Students must make intellectual contributions deemed worthy by their dissertation committees and field experts. Fulfilling this difficult research requirement limits PhD production.

How long does it take to earn a PhD?

Another factor limiting PhD numbers is the lengthy time commitment needed to complete programs. The average PhD program takes 5-6 years to finish according to the Council of Graduate Schools. Some fields like social sciences (7 years) and humanities (9 years) often take even longer.

This extends far beyond the 1-2 years for a master’s or 4 years for a bachelor’s degree. Few can invest essentially their entire 20s to obtain a PhD. Dropping out of the workforce for that long has financial costs as well, limiting PhD production.


In conclusion, PhDs stand alone as the rarest degree level. Only about 2% of adults hold PhDs compared to over 30% with bachelor’s degrees and 13% with master’s. Just 55,000 PhDs are awarded annually – a small fraction of yearly bachelor’s and master’s graduates.

Highly competitive admissions, long commitment periods, and rigorous original research requirements all contribute to the rarity of PhDs. These factors ensure PhDs remain an elite, seldom obtained credential granted only to those with the dedication and capacity to reach the pinnacle of academic achievement.

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