Ph.D.: A Lapse Of Economic Reason

This is the story of Susie, Sherrie, and Britney, triplet sisters from Honolulu who graduated from the University of Hawai‘i at Mânoa in June of 2010, at the age of 22.

Sherrie and Britney dreamed of careers as biological researchers, and set their sights on doctoral degrees, since their dreams depended on joining the ranks of the Piled Higher and Deeper.

Susie, however, was tired of going around in academic circles. She ignored the withering scorn of her more ambitious sisters, and took a job teaching elementary school at the entry salary of $35,000 a year. She loved her job and prospered in it, avoiding both demerits and onerous promotions, and after 40 years of 3% annual raises, contemplated retirement at age 62 having earned a total of US$2,640,000.

Sherrie went off to a graduate school on the mainland, where she was one of the lucky few to receive a tuition waiver and a teaching assistantship, earning her $20,000 a year for each of the next eight years – two to earn the Masters degree, and six more to gain her coveted doctorate. Few of her fellow students achieved these milestones as quickly, but Sherrie was bright, and was consistently willing to work 60-hour weeks.

Her dissertation research earned her a postdoctoral researcher position in a prominent university laboratory, where she spent five more years of 60-hour weeks at $40,000 a year.

Finally, Sherrie landed her first “real” job, an assistant professorship at a smaller university in Montana. Starting salary, $60,000 a year. Of which the university paid $45,000 – the rest depended on her ability to earn research grants and contracts. Thanks to the 80-hour weeks she put in to her teaching and research duties, she won the contracts and her full salary.

The year 2029 was a big one for Sherrie. Her university promoted her to associate professor – a promotion that carried with it the precious grant of tenure. After 19 years of the hard labor needed to survive in the university world, she could finally contemplate taking a vacation.

Where she could work out that, for the first time, her career earnings were less than $100,000 below those of her sister Susie! (She would finally catch up five years later, at the age of 46, and when she began to contemplate retirement at age 62, would have total earnings of $2,860,000 – about $200,000 more than Susie’s.)

Britney was not as fortunate as Sherrie. She was unable to score a teaching assistantship at any university, so she remained at the University of Hawai‘i where she could, for the next eight years, pay in-state tuition of $10,000 a year for her M.S. and Ph.D. degrees. She never told either of her sisters where she got the tuition money, not to mention food, clothing, and shelter, but both of them got “Britney” spam in their electronic mailboxes that worried them sick. Between the demands of her studies and those of her means of support, whatever it was, Britney was more diligent and worked more hours than her sister on the mainland, and managed to graduate from the UH in eight years without even once being sent to Queen’s Medical Center on suspicion of a breakdown.

Thereafter, her career track (miraculously – few self-supporting students progress this quickly) was almost identical to that of her sister Sherrie. A five-year postdoc, an assistant professorship at a smaller university, promotion and tenure at age 41. When she reached her 62nd birthday, she totted up her total earnings (including the “negative earnings” of her tuition payments), which came to $2,590,000.

$40,000 less than those of her elementary-school-teaching sister Susie!! She never did catch up.

Susie, Sherrie and Britney had an elder brother, Rupert. He took a degree from the UH in finance, and, at age 22, took a job with a major bank at a salary of $75,000 a year. After a successful 20-year career managing investment portfolios, he retired to Honolulu. Where he became a well-known figure in state and local politics – railing against profligate state spending on public school teachers and the exorbitant salaries paid to academics at the University of Hawai‘i.

(Calculations are based on the starting salaries – or, in the case of Britney’s tuition, prices – stated, raised 3% annually. Discontinuities in the 3% annual increment, such as salary ceilings, or furloughs, or inducements resulting from competitive hiring, are ignored. The story, therefore, is based on a simplistic calculation – but Your Friendly Neighborhood Amoeba, who, he thinks, is about to witness the ostracism of University of Hawai‘i faculty by the rest of the state, including the rest of the state’s workers, who have tamely acquiesced to temporary permanent 10% reductions in their compensation, with more on the path to repealing the 13th Amendment to come, believes that the simplification clarifies the message without distorting it.)

  – O Ceallaigh
Copyright © 2009 Felloffatruck Publications. All wrongs deplored.
All opinions are mine as a private citizen.


  1. Well I’m glad you made “Susie” the one with the summers off LOL.

    It’s sad that the careers requiring mega-degrees and doubletime work weeks are paid so (relatively) little. The hourly rate becomes ludicrous, and the PhD far less tempting.

    • Susan, I’ve long thought that the refusal of the public (and private) schools to teach Sex and Money is the result of conscious planning. Science and technology drive our economies these days – and most of the innovations are developed by people who, if they’d had any economics education during their primary and secondary school days, would have rejected the profound financial stupidity of the advanced degree. I am intensely angry that the National Science Foundation of We the People of these Untied States of America aggressively tries to push young people into science careers in the face of the reality that these careers do not pay!

    • Susan — Amoeba says that even if I were to continue my education and earn my Master’s Degree, the raise I received wouldn’t recoup my losses.

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