What bang are we getting from our PhD buck?

In the early years of the Space Race, it was discovered that ordinary pens do not work in zero gravity. NASA spent 2 years and millions of dollars developing an incredible ‘space pen’ that incorporated a tiny pump. Meanwhile, Soviet cosmonauts took pencils. 

Maybe you have seen this infographic from the World Economic Forum (citing this OECD report) showing that the USA produces more PhDs than anybody else, by a Texas mile:

PhD absolutes

But hold on, the USA is a rather large country isn’t it? Let’s re-base the data per head of population:

PhD per cap

That’s better. Good old Blighty back in her natural place.

But before we all start singing Rule Britannia, I have an awkward question: “why?” Is there any national benefit to be derived from all these PhDs, beyond being a national status symbol?

If there is a social good to be had*, it should be reflected at least to some extent in a nation’s wealth. I re-worked the data again to correlate the number of PhDs awarded to each country’s GDP.


And it does correlate! The r-squared value is actually 0.72 which is highly significant**. We don’t know from this which way round the causality goes – do PhDs create wealth, or does wealth create PhDs – but at least we have failed to disprove the hypothesis.

So which country actually does best? I took a simple measure of national GDP per PhD (though remember this is still only PhDs awarded in 2014).

Phd per GDP

Good grief! UK is now third from the bottom. At the top, we find impoverished Russia squeezing eight times more benefit out of each doctorate than we do.

At a time when the government is retreating from using taxpayers’ money to fund any part of higher education, I feel it would be much easier to make the case for continued support if we could balance the other side of the equation and show that we get a return on our investment.


* I don’t in any way dispute individual benefits; they are just not the focus of this analysis.

** Especially considering these confounding factors:

  • all data is for 2014 as that is the year WEF started with. However, one would expect a PhD to contribute to their national economy 10 or 20 years in the future, not immediately.
  • PhD students are the most mobile of global migrants. Studying here does not mean staying here, and vice-versa.

Find my source data here.

Join the discussion about this on LinkedIn


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