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How Rare (or Common) is it to have a PhD?

There are lots of good reasons to do a PhD (and a few bad ones) but we can all agree on one thing: having a PhD is quite rare. Or is it? We thought we’d take a look and ask whether a PhD will actually make you stand out these days.

The number of students going to university around the world continues to grow – and so does the level of qualifications they’re attaining. For example, according to official data, over a quarter of UK university students gained a first-class degree in 2017 and 75 per cent of students gained a 2:1 or a first, which is up from 68 per cent in 2013.

This increase reflects a rise in demand for skilled labour, a greater demand for higher education and the growing availability of financial support for people going into university (including PhD funding). The number of students taking on the challenges and opportunities that come with postgraduate study is also growing.

But how many of these people are going on to do a PhD? Well, my own PhD is in Biochemistry, not Statistics. But, thanks to the OECD, there is some interesting data available on the number of people with a PhD around the world.

What percentage of people have a PhD?

On average, only 1.1 per cent of the world’s 25-64 year olds who have been to university, have a PhD. So it seems like a PhD is pretty rare – but how rare is it where you are?

Countries with the highest proportion of 25-64 year olds with a doctoral degree
Slovenia 3.8%
Switzerland 3.2%
Luxembourg 2.2%
United States 2.0%
Sweden 1.6%
United Kingdom 1.4%
Iceland 1.3%
Australia 1.2%
New Zealand 1.1%
Norway 1.1%

Source: OECD Education at a Glance 2019

In the USA, 2.0 per cent of the population has a doctorate, with the UK not far behind at 1.4 per cent. Slovenia and Switzerland have the highest percentage of the population with a doctorate at 3.8 per cent and 3.2 per cent respectively. In Italy, meanwhile, only 0.5 per cent of the population have a PhD.

How equal is PhD study?

The distribution of men and women doing a PhD also varies from country to country. However, across the world, the percentage of men with a doctoral level qualification is generally higher than women. Interestingly, Slovenia, the country with the highest proportion of people with a doctorate, has also got a larger proportion of women with a PhD than men.

Source: OECD Education at a Glance 2019

The trend shown above is not a new one. For years, women have been underrepresented in PhD study, particularly in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects, but this is gradually growing . In recent years, many initiatives supporting and encouraging women in STEM subjects have been established to break the stereotypes. These include Women in Stem which aim to showcase the opportunities for women in STEM subjects and Athena SWAN which celebrates good practices in higher education and research institutions. These are just a few examples of organisations which are fighting to close the gender gap.

The most popular doctoral programmes are in natural sciences and maths with engineering, health and the arts all coming a close second. The table below shows the distribution of men and women who have graduated with a doctorate, by field of study.

Distrubution of women and men by field of study
Subject Area Women Men
Arts and humanities 45% 55%
Nature sciences, mathematics and statistics 46% 54%
Business, administration and law 47% 53%
Engineering, manufacturing and construction 32% 68%

Source: OECD Education at a Glance 2019

And is it all worth it?

Well, that’s a topic for another blog – or perhaps a full article. But, in a nutshell, a PhD is likely to help you. For one thing, the average employment rate for graduates with a doctoral degree is a whopping 97%. But, it’s not just getting the PhD qualification that puts you above the rest, it’s the years of experience and the skill set that you develop. Being able to put ‘Dr’ before your name is cool and all, but you also get plenty of transferable skills along the way.

So, in conclusion, you won’t be alone as a PhD holder, but you might be one in a million, statistically speaking. Or something like that. I’m fed up of numbers.

Where is the data from?

All data used in this post is obtained from the OECD Education at a Glance 2019 report, unless otherwise stated.

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