How Many People Have a PhD? Rarity vs. Reality Explained |
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How Rare (or Common) is it to have a PhD?

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 third of UK university students gained a first-class degree in 2021 and 82 per cent of students gained a 2:1 or a first, which is up from 75 per cent in 2017.

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 OECD and other official government sources, there is some interesting data available on the number of people with a PhD around the world.

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What percentage of the population have a PhD?

On average, only 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 4%
Switzerland 3%
Luxembourg 3%
United States 2%
Sweden 2%
United Kingdom 2%
Germany 2%
Australia 2%

Source: OECD Education at a Glance 2023 (Table: Education attainment of 25-64 year-olds (2022)

In the UK 2 per cent of the population has a doctorate. Slovenia and Switzerland have the highest percentage of the population with a doctorate at 4 per cent and 3 per cent respectively. This data has been taken from the most recent OECD report.

How equal is PhD study?

The distribution of men and women doing a PhD also varies from country to country. According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), in the UK, 48 per cent of graduates with a doctoral qualification were female and 51 per cent were male in 2021-22.

Across the world, the percentage of men with a doctoral qualification is generally higher than women. 2022 Census data from the Unties States shows that 54% of doctoral graduates were male and only 45% were female.

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 51% 49%
Nature sciences, mathematics and statistics 42% 58%
Business, administration and law 45% 55%
Engineering, manufacturing and construction 26% 74%

Source: OECD Data (Table: Graduates by field 2021)

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.

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Last Updated: 10 January 2024