The Opportunity Cost of Higher Education

December 3rd, 2015 by Potato

A Conference Board of Canada report on PhD graduates and careers came out (“Inside and Outside the Academy: Valuing and Preparing PhDs for Careers”). Much is being made of the economic implications, especially the grad students made terrible life choices angle, with this quote from the report seeming to get more play than all 135 other pages combined:

“Earning a PhD typically takes 8 to 12 years of study (or more) after completing high school, giving those with lower educational attainment an earnings head-start and initial advantage, which takes some time for a PhD graduate to catch and pass. To illustrate, compare a PhD who takes five years to finish his or her degree to a master’s graduate. If the PhD student had no paid employment during that time (which is unlikely given the nature of PhD funding), the master’s graduate will have earned $282,935 more than the PhD graduate by the time the PhD is earned. (See “Funding for PhD Students.”) With an average annual income of $69,267 or $12,680 more than the master’s graduate—it will take the PhD graduate just over 22 years—a substantial part of his or her working life—to close the cumulative earning gap. As such, while PhDs do see positive returns over master’s graduates, these returns are modest and, on average, the earnings of PhD graduates will not surpass master’s graduates until the later stages of their career.”

This is actually not pessimistic enough. The average PhD-holder will NEVER make up the earnings difference if you factor in the time value of money — worse if you make it more apples-to-apples. That is, if you consider that not only do you earn less for much of your working life doing a PhD, you also have to live like a grad student for many of those years.

One of my professors did this calculation years ago, showing that despite doing quite well in his career outcomes (one of the few to become a high-ranking professor), if he wanted a job working with MRIs he could have got his MR-technician certificate and lived like a grad student and post-doc for the first few years, banking the extra salary, and even earning considerably more at the end of his career would never allow him catch up to the compound growth of those initial savings. The opportunity cost of doing a PhD is huge (and this is for a STEM PhD).

Imagine a 22-year-old graduate from a bachelor’s program finding a job that makes $45k pre-tax. They decide to match their lifestyle and spending to their grad-school-bound friend (solidarity!), who lives off of $17,000 between a stipend, odd jobs, and volunteering in research experiments. They pack away $19,000 in just their first year, and invest it wisely, and keep that up all through their friend’s graduate degree. By the time the PhD student gains an honorific and finds a higher-paying job at age 30, the guy who just got a bachelor’s degree has a net worth of $273k1. They then both start living large, spending $47,000 per year on lifestyle expenses (which the bachelor’s holder can afford thanks to raises over the intervening years), and the PhD-holder socks away 15% of their new, higher income, building wealth to retirement.

But despite making more while living the same lifestyle, the doctor comes well shy of breaking even at age 65, with $989k less in retirement savings than the bachelor’s holder. Even with minimal (risk-free) time value to money and no investing, the doctor’s extra earnings are too marginal over the working types to surmount years of earnings and savings and compounding.

In real life there is only one person who lives that frugally when they don’t have to (and that was newsworthy) so the loss is somewhat illusory. But even saving just a few thousand per year straight out of school and banking their raises will let those who get straight to work get to enjoy higher quality of life earlier and still not lose out on lifetime savings relative to those who make terrible life choices.

(The peak of education appears to be a master’s degree — only two years sacrificed, and with enough earnings oomph that you pass the bachelor’s holder in 7 years).

However, not everything in life is about economic optimization. I could have made way more money if I had pursued business out of undergrad, or gone into a professional program instead of grad school, but I’m not exactly starving. And I do like science and what I do, and job satisfaction is not exactly value-less (just hard to value).

This article in University Affairs has some good discussion on the report, including this quote:

Not one person I know who has a PhD did it for the economic returns that they calculated in advance. Maybe the argument implicit here is that this is what we all should have been doing? That we should be rational actors in a market for the credential that will provide maximum returns.

I don’t know what to say. Yes? Economics shouldn’t be the sole reason to pursue a degree, especially not a doctorate. But the sacrifice and lack of payoff for doing one should not be totally ignored either, and we do need to raise a bit of awareness on that point before people start grad school. I did not know about the economic trade-off when I enrolled (at least, not the magnitude of the difference), and I was a relatively money-savvy undergraduate student. I think there is a need to get the message out there that doing a PhD is a labour of love that mostly likely will not produce any economic benefit.

That UA article references this one in the Post: “We’re letting a bunch of 17- and 18-year-olds dictate our labour market composition, and they’re not given a lot of advice to make decisions about what might be in their best interests.” It’s not much better at 21 when you have to decide whether to be awesome and go to grad school to unlock the secrets of the Universe, or be lame and go make a big pile of money and happiness and social adjustment and have kids while you’re still fertile and shit.

Anyway, the common belief amongst 3rd and 4th year undergrads contemplating grad school is that it’s the path to take to eventually have more money and to get a secure job teaching at a university. Both notions are mostly wrong — grad school opens that path but it’s still a low-probability path. Unless working years start getting a lot longer2, most PhDs will not come out ahead financially; the awareness machine is already cranked to 11 telling us that most PhDs will go into non-academic careers. There are other good reasons to go to grad school, but that trade-off should be made with eyes open.

1. Assuming a 5% return on their investments and 4% annual raises.
2. Which if they do, will be thanks to longevity and brain research done by PhD students.
Final note: I believe that many people would still go on to grad school even with eyes fully open about the costs and trade-offs because they’re just wired for research and hopelessly optimistic about being in the minority that become faculty.

The Problem of Slavery in Science

June 13th, 2013 by Potato

Jenn recently linked to an interesting article about post-doc pay, and how the low pay (and other issues, like the constant moving and uncertainty and short-term contracts and lack of benefits) right at the point where women’s fertility starts to drop is one factor keeping them out of science. Go and read that article, but I think this goes well beyond just women in science, post-docs and starting families.

I keep thinking of ways to dramatically reshape the way we do science. They may not be practical, but I like thinking outside the box from time to time.

One set of related ideas I keep coming back to are the issues of compensation and focus. Grad students and post-docs are paid terribly. How terrible? Well, in my department grad students made about $14k-16k as a base stipend (and that level has not changed in almost two decades, inflation be damned), top students with national scholarships could take home about $33k. Yes, per year, with restrictions on seeking outside work. This is in part because they are said to be trainees who are learning how to be proper scientists. Except if they make it through the funnel and up the pyramid, or whatever visual metaphor you may choose, they teach and write grants and supervise — skills they are largely not being taught.

So the idea I toss around is that of a permanent post-doc, or professional bench scientist: a position for someone who will spend their life doing hands-on research, and who gets paid a professional salary for it.

Along with that would be wage/stipend increases for grad students: there is a lot of catching up to do just to get back to the inflation-adjusted level of poverty they were at a decade ago, let alone getting to the point where it is recognized that they are the driving force behind science, and that a senior PhD student is a professional with years of training and specialized expertise making less than minimum wage. One related option might be to shorten PhD programs — it runs the risk of devaluing the degree, but did the 4th and 5th years of my own slog through grad school add much to my development as a scientist that the 2nd and 3rd years did not already? How has the average time to graduation changed over the past couple of decades?

It’s a tough issue, and would represent massive disruptive changes, with no real advocate to push for it. I’m really not even sure myself if these wild speculations I sometimes have are worth any further consideration at all. I mean, even if that is a place we wanted to move to, how would we possibly get there?

In a sense, science is powered by slave labour. If we restricted entry into grad school so that a higher percentage of PhDs could stay in academia (and let the industries that end up hiring PhDs instead hire MSc grads or some newly-created in-between research-intensive 3-4 year expert degree); or reduced the graduation hurdle so that they only did 2 experiments instead of 3, and graduated before 31 years of age — or really any change along those lines — we would limit the amount of science that could get done on current budgets. Unless we truly were able to hire more efficient and productive talent (or focus and dedicate the talent we have) with the increased compensation, the fact is that less research would get done for today’s research budget. This seems an insurmountable problem.

Then I thought, what if instead of thinking of slavery as a harsh verbal rhetoric, I looked at it as an actual model? After all, that problem has been solved. Slavery doesn’t exist in the modern civilized world, but did at some point in our past. Many countries weaned themselves off, with the US having a particularly dramatic and definite end to the practice after the Civil War. How did the transition work out then? What lessons can we learn for transitioning the economic model of science? Unfortunately I’m not enough of a historian to say, so I will have to end here as some food for thought.

Tater’s Takes – Book Lover’s Ball

February 13th, 2012 by Potato

A fairly exciting few weeks. My last lecture at UWO (at least until I get invited back), yet my first as a full-fledged PhD. It was not as polished as the version I gave last year, which is a shame since the students this year seemed a little more bright eyed and bushy tailed; that may have been helped by the fact that it was a decent day in an unbelievably mild winter, and not… ugh, I don’t even want to think of last winter.

Then I found out I won tickets to the Book Lover’s Ball, via a contest to write an attention-catching opening line to a novel. The ball is a fundraiser for the Toronto Public Library, so I entered hoping to win since it would be the perfect gift for Wayfare: a lover of both fancy parties and libraries!

The Ball was very much not what I had expected. I know of basically two definitions for ball: a fancy dance party, and a round thing you kick, bat at, or throw. The key part to the first definition being the dancing, and Wikipedia backs me up on that. There was no dancing. There were black ties and ballgowns and an excellent dinner, but no dancing. Which is just as well, because Wayfare is progressing from very pregnant to extremely pregnant, which would have made dancing awkward and painful. While I can see the poetic symmetry between Book and Ball, I think perhaps some more descriptive titles could have been chosen, such as: the Author’s Affair; Book Lover’s Banquet; the Knowledge Feast [which I particularly like since it could also apply to the library itself]; the Library Soiree; the Book Lover’s Benefit; or the Public Library Gala.

We met some famous authors, as well as a number we were assured were famous, though we had to take the organizers’ word for that (certainly more famous than me, anyway, which counts). We were asked to adopt a branch or implored to bid on the charity auctions several times, had some drinks, chatted, had dinner, and then the lights came on and we were asked to leave since people had to get up for work the next day. It was a fun night, and in support of a cause I can easily get behind.

We had a last chance to get dressed up in our finery and have a fancy night out to ourselves before having to worry about babysitters, which was fun. Please, take that as the take-home message before I get into the painful financial blogger OCD part below (in fact, feel free to skip the next two paragraphs, look for the bold text to start the link summary).

The tickets, won in a contest, were free. Given the face value (which granted is in large part a charitable donation), it was quite the contest win and a fantastic gift. Yet we spent hundreds of dollars on a tux and gown to go. Then hundreds more on a hotel room for the night. Then a surprisingly large amount on overnight parking downtown: I figured it would be expensive: $20 or maybe $30 for less than 24 hours near Front St.; I was shocked and angered to find it was $66 for 21 hours. Even though it was the least consequential cost of the evening, it really burned me up. Partly because I didn’t take a few minutes to research my parking options and to know in advance what to expect, and partly because I blindly followed the hotel’s instructions on where to park, and they should have warned me or had some kind of reasonably-priced option (a voucher or something if they don’t have their own lot). All told, the event ended up costing a majority of the vacation budget for the year, though I don’t think we had big vacation plans this year since we’ll have a newborn and I’ll have a new job which may not allow for a vacation this first summer anyway. The whole experience reminded me of the story of Diderot’s dressing gown (which is in recent memory thanks to reading The Wealthy Barber Returns — review to follow).

And speaking of Diderot’s dressing gown and creating new obligations, I now have a winning opening line to a novel, so there is some expectation that I follow that up with, if not a novel, at least a story of some kind. The thing is, I had no inkling of a story to go with that line: I was just reaching for something humourous and attention-catching that would fit within the strict character limit of the twitter contest. But if I’m unemployed anyway, no harm in trying to write a story, I guess (as long as I keep up the job applications)…

Links: The notion of housing risk goes mainstream.

A slew of articles recently on the risks associated with sky-high housing prices, like most everyone is waking up to the reality at once, including: the Globe’s connect-the-dots, Canadian Business’ prediction that the market will crash, and several others.

Macleans is surprisingly straightforward: “Yes, we’re in a bubble, and it will probably pop soon.” which was bolded in the text. I wasn’t happy to see “A whopping 75 per cent of mortgages in Canada are fully insured by Ottawa, according to the Financial Stability Board.” put forward as a reason not to worry.

The Financial Post reports that banks are dumping their exposure to even “prime” mortgages on the CMHC or securitization market. “Financial institutions are required to have mortgage-default insurance when a consumer has less than 20% equity. However, the banks have been seeking insurance on loans with even high downpayments — something not required by law — so they can securitize those bulk lending loans, thereby getting them off their balance sheets and reducing their capital requirements.” This is bringing the CMHC close to its limit for providing coverage, and it’s asking the banks to slow it down.

Just a few weeks ago, the news was dominated by the rush to the bottom in medium-term fixed-rate offerings by the banks. Now, those special offers are coming to an end.

A neat new hedge fund opportunity. Have a read, and no matter what you end up thinking of it, trust me and click on the “invest now” link to have a look at what comes next.

A very short post over at Divestor about selling Rogers Sugar after appreciating so much. I’ve had many such dilemmas this last year or so: with prices on things like Rogers Sugar, REITs, or other low/no-growth dividend payers hitting all time highs, am I being paid to take on equity risk? Sure, they’re towards the less risky, less volatile end of the equity spectrum, but I’m not sure if I’m comfortable locking in at 6%, especially when many preferreds are in the 5% range.

An article about behavioural economics.

Stats Canada is apparently going to refine the CPI calculation, which if it lead to a lowered CPI figure could lead to savings for the government (as many payments are inflation-adjusted). The article indicates that CPI is currently overstated, and I find that a bit odd, as I’ve long thought that CPI was understating inflation. Given the current government’s philosophy on stats, I wouldn’t be surprised if the revision was more about cost savings than data accuracy.

Canadian Capitalist talks about a “barbell” investment strategy. This is perhaps a good example of where combining two extremes doesn’t really give the same result as having a bunch of average stuff, or where increasing risk does not mean increasing returns.

Michael James says his MERQ measure is too extreme to be believable. But it’s really showing the impact of high fees. I still think it should be in dollars (and whenever I get off my butt will do short post on exactly that), but either way the important part of the message is that fees build up and cost an investor dearly.

Warren Buffett chimes in on investing in gold, bonds, or stocks, businesses, and other things. The summary widely picked up is that he isn’t keen on gold, but there’s also this gem: “Bonds promoted as offering risk-free returns are now priced to deliver return-free risk.” John Hempton adds some colour to that notion of investing in stocks rather than gold or bonds.

And after a few posts in a row cheerleading hybrids, news comes out that the Prius is going to get cheaper and better equipped for 2012. I’m kind of torn on that news: on the one hand it’s good for future hybrid owners, as it makes the financial decision even easier (though the Matrix also got stability control standard, so you don’t need to move up as many feature packages on the comparison car), which will be good for helping to get more on the road. On the other hand, reducing the MSRP of future vehicles means mine will now depreciate faster (not that I entertain plans to sell any time soon — I kept the last car until it was ~14 years old).

The teaser page for the Prius C (for compact) is also up, indicating it will get a fuel consumption rating of 3.7 L/100 km and a price tag under $21,000. Just a bit bigger than a $17k Yaris, that could be a tough choice for those that need a cheap, efficient commuter vehicle.

Western Rebrands

January 26th, 2012 by Potato

UWO has decided to rebrand itself, going from the University of Western Ontario to Western University. And it’s not even April 1st yet. I don’t particularly like the new name; it’s not terrible, but I don’t see the need to change, and it kind of makes me think it’s in the wrong part of the country (shouldn’t “Western University” be in Alberta or something?). UWO had a fair bit of brand recognition under both UWO and Western which was working, so I don’t know why they’d throw away the UWO part. They mention in breaking down the new logo that they’re proud to be in London, and proud to be Canadian… but apparently not so proud to be in Ontario.

Kind of funny, because just a few weeks ago we were making fun of a newspaper article that referred to “Western University” — so perhaps not wrong, just early.

One weird thing is of course that web address — still at the old I tried going to, and there’s nothing there. According to the whois, the domain is owned by a HR firm in BC. So the URL will likely be anachronistic now. [update: they did get] They say that the legal name is still the University of Western Ontario, and that’s what will appear on the diplomas.

Anyhow, one upside to leaving (sob, sob) is that I don’t have to go and redo all my powerpoint templates to suit their new branding.

Gift Ideas & Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

October 25th, 2011 by Potato

After graduating, I need to come up with a gift idea for myself. My dad doesn’t know what to get me, and I have no idea what to suggest. He’s thinking he’d like to give me something that I’ll have for a long time and might actually use, like a watch or ipad or 2nd monitor. But I can’t imagine really using any of that: I used to get like really anxious if I didn’t have a watch to know the exact time, but that phase has long since passed, and I hardly wore a watch at all the last decade or so since I found they irritated the skin on my wrist. Then once I realized I was reaching into my pocket to grab something to check the time anyway, I just started using my cellphone as a clock to cut down on the stuff in my pockets. And other than angry birds, I have no idea what an ipad might do for me that my blackberry, kobo, and laptop aren’t already doing in a superior way.

But other than shooting down his suggestions, I have no ideas of my own.

The problem is all I can think about after stretching the budget for so long is rent and groceries. Which is not helped by being faced with the prospect of my contract running out in just a few more months with no job lined up… I’m just not far enough up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to think of gift ideas right now.