This is a bit off-topic–something that I originally considered using in Chapter 1 of the book, but ultimately omitted after deciding not to include PhD programs within my spectrum of focus. I thought I’d write about it here, since some trends in the PhD program world were too interesting to ignore.
The story for how hard it is to get into a PhD program is a bit more complicated than the preschool/prep school/college/grad school perspective discussed in the book, given the relationship between PhD program size and university funding. Since many private universities serve as full sponsors to PhD candidates for the first 5 years of their programs, the number who can be admitted often correlates to a university’s ability to pay related costs.
To the extent that private university funding is typically tied to the health of an endowment, the 2008-2009 academic year spelled trouble for some PhD programs; though many top schools were able to maintain admission levels, other schools allowed PhD admissions to shrink in the wake of major financial losses. The Harvard University endowment, for one, lost 22%. Princeton’s lost 11%. While Princeton confirmed in 2009 that it maintained its admissions levels, Harvard declined to comment.
Despite complex funding dynamics, Ph.D. applications at Northwestern rose by 16% in 2009; Johns Hopkins’ rise was 12%; Dartmouth and University of Michigan were 8% and 7%, respectively. This indicates that, though funding is not insulated from macroeconomic volatility, application rates may be.
Logically, this makes sense. Given the 7-8 years necessary to complete Ph.D. programs, it is believed that they are less frequently used as parking places to wait out recessions. Consequently, a rise in Ph.D. program applications may be the most valid indicator of sustained graduate-level demand.