PhDs, Income, and Wealth

When looking at PhD programs, it is important to have a well-rounded view of what pursuing a doctoral degree has in store. At the same time, it is engaging and sometimes enjoyable to review the many possibilities that will unfold after becoming a PhD, one of which is the financial security that this degree may grant you. Specifically, to widen the scope of what PhDs can do, and to provide examples of people that you may aspire to be in one form or another, we will be looking at some of the wealthiest PhDs and their professional lives.  Also, to capture a realistic view of some aspects of PhD programs–for those of you that may be thinking about becoming a PhD–some sections are dedicated to outlining the application process, the hardships, and the reality of pursuing a doctoral degree. 

This post was written by Isabel Inoa, BA (freelance writer) on behalf of Dr. Dave Maslach for the R3ciprocity project (check out the YouTube Channel or the writing feedback software). R3ciprocity helps students, faculty, and researchers by providing an authentic look into PhD and academic life and how to be a successful researcher. For over four years the project has been offering advice, community, and encouragement to students and researchers around the world.

Who are some of the wealthiest PhDs? 

Before naming the wealthiest PhDs, and listing their achievements, and some of their more notable quotes, it is important to mention that some of the men listed are quite controversial figures. Abundance and incredible amounts of wealth do not always translate positively in terms of the impact someone can have on the world. Wealth does not always translate to a well-rounded success. Overall, It is vital to stray away from glorifying or romanticizing the lives that these men lead while also noting their accomplishments. 

James Simons, Eric Schmidt, John Malone, William Koch, Ray Dolby, and Henry Nicholas all received a doctoral degree, and all became billionaires. 

  • James Simons received his PhD in Mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley in 1961 at the age of 23. He founded a hedge fund firm, Renaissance Technologies, in 1982 and previously chaired the math department at Stony Brook University. His net worth sits at $24.4 B. He once said, “Luck is largely responsible for my reputation for genius.  I don’t walk into the office in the morning and say, ‘Am I smart today?’  I walk in and wonder, ‘Am I lucky today?’” 
  • Eric Schmidt received his PhD in Computer Science at the University of California, Berkeley in 1982 at the age of 27. From 2001 to 2011, he served as the CEO of Google and co-founded Innovation Endeavors, a venture capital firm. His net worth sits at $23.5B. He once said, “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.”
  • John Malone received his PhD in Operations Research at Johns Hopkins University around the late 1960s in his late twenties. He built up a cable TV firm by the name of TCI, became the CEO of said firm at 29 years old, and later sold it to AT&T for more than $50 billion dollars in 1999. His net worth sits at $7.9B. He once said, “The public doesn’t particularly care for advertisements.”
  • William Koch received his PhD in Chemical Engineering at MIT.  His net worth is $1.9B. He is the founder of Oxbow Corp., a petroleum, coke, and sulfur products company. 
  • Ray Dolby received his PhD in Physics at Cambridge University in 1961. His net worth was $2.3B. He founded Dolby Laboratories and became wealthy by producing audio processing systems that eliminate background noise. He once said, “To be an inventor, you have to be willing to live with a sense of uncertainty, to work in this darkness and grope towards an answer, to put up with anxiety about whether there is an answer.”

While it is enjoyable to review certain aspects of the lives of the wealthiest PhDs, if you’re interested in applying and enrolling in a PhD program, passion should come first. That is not to discount the necessity that people from low-income families sometimes feel to enroll in graduate programs in hopes of ending a cycle of generational poverty. Rather, your goal should not be to become one of the world’s wealthiest PhDs but to become an accomplished scholar in a field that you are incredibly passionate about. Because chances are, that most of the men listed above come from long lines of generational wealth. Thus, while it is absolutely fine to enroll in a PhD program to seek financial abundance and stability, you should also realistically evaluate how much you love the field you want to study. 

What are the demographic characteristics of billionaires with PhDs?

While it is important to recognize that all the billionaires listed above are cis-white men, it is also important to note that they do not represent the entire demographic of students who have received their doctoral degrees. As research topics across fields continue to expand, the demographics of PhDs are doing the same. Moreover, new innovations in research also represent a larger set of experiences and minds. 

What is the average salary of a PhD?

Although statistically there is a very small chance that you will become a billionaire, pursuing a doctoral degree still offers optimistic prospects in terms of being financially self-sufficient and overall successful. The median weekly earnings for someone with a doctoral degree is $1,825, which translates to a salary of about $94,900. 

How much debt does the average PhD have? 

If you are genuinely interested in pursuing a doctoral degree, it is important to consider getting some sort of financial aid and to be very attentive to your finances before, during, and after a PhD program. The average debt for a student that has completed a research doctorate degree is $108, 400; average debt increases to $186,600 for students that have completed a professional doctorate degree. Although the average debt of PhDs is quite daunting, considering their average earnings can lessen the overwhelming feelings that may arise when considering the financial implications of completing a PhD program. 

Which fields pay PhDs the most?

While talking about the overall wealthiest PhDs, it is also helpful to review the average salaries of those who complete PhDs by field. To accurately outline these average salaries we will be looking at occupations that require a doctorate or professional degree as their entry-level education. Overall, occupational fields that sat at $80,000 or more as their median pay in 2020 (and had doctoral or professional degrees as their entry-level of education) were among the following: Postsecondary Education (in all fields), Audiology, Physical Therapy, Medical Science, Biochemistry, Veterinary Work, Astronomy, and Psychiatry. 

Post-secondary teachers across fields have a median salary of $80,560. Next, for Audiologists, their median salary was $81,030. The median salary sits at  $91,010 for Physical Therapists. For those in the field of Medical Scientists, their median salary was $91,510. Next, the median salary in the field of Biochemistry was $94,270. As for veterinary work, the median salary was $99,250. For Astronomers and Physicists, their median salary sat at $128,950. Finally, for those who pursue work in Psychiatry, which falls under the umbrella of Physicians and Surgeons,  their median salary sits at around $208,000

Although it is vital to be passionate about your professional field, and the PhD program that you pursue, it is also helpful to consider and review the programs that might yield the most economic stability. Overall, a PhD is useful to consider in a wide array of fields, not just the ones with the highest median salaries, but the ones to which you can truly dedicate yourself. Either way, the statistics for yearly earnings of a PhD are incredibly promising

Some people may worry that having a PhD will change them – that perhaps they will no longer fit in with long-established friends or family. Sometimes it is true that when you become financially successful you change, or how people view you change. It is natural to experience change throughout life, but those who have been there for you through it all should still be your top priority. While you make new friends and colleagues, don’t forget about old friends and family. Check out this blog post entitled, Does Education Matter? It Changes You for more insights about this issue.

The following is a review of how to apply to a PhD program, some of what to expect, and some of the challenges PhD students and PhDs experience. You may also want to check out this recent post about things you should think about as you prepare to apply and begin a PhD program: Things to Do and Think about Before Starting a PhD Program 

How do I apply to a PhD program? 

There are numerous PhD programs that you may apply to, but it is helpful to outline the necessary qualifications and steps of the application process if this is something you are considering. First, good standardized test scores–on the GRE, GMAT, etc.– and a strong GPA are essential to creating a competitive application. Next, to set yourself apart from other applicants, showing a good deal of resilience–whether that is through the interview process and/or a personal statement– is very important to emphasize to the people reviewing your application. Moreover, resilience is one of the most important factors in completing a PhD, as it requires an almost tireless effort and passion for research as well as oftentimes an unrelenting acceptance of failure in the process.  

In addition, a kind and calm disposition is equally important to showing your determination when applying to a PhD program. In order to effectively work with other people while doing research, it is incredibly valuable for people to view you as a patient and amiable colleague. Overall, make sure that you are serious about committing several years of your academic life to research, because it is more likely that you will succeed and be accepted into a PhD program if your intentions and passions are genuine. 

Here is more guidance from Dave in his vlog about applying to PhD programs:

Being in a PhD program 

While it is vital to discuss the application process for PhD programs, it is also important to review the main elements of actually becoming a PhD. That is to say that these programs are difficult, and they require constant innovation in terms of making new connections and forming new ideas about the various aspects of research. Another difficult but very real aspect of becoming a PhD is the constant comparison that you will face while observing and interacting with other researchers in your field and beyond. To effectively combat or deal with these feelings, it is imperative to lead a healthy life and to maintain your support systems, whatever that may look like to you. 

Self doubt during a PhD program 

Impostor syndrome is a very normal experience for many people pursuing a doctoral degree, and is something that you should acknowledge when becoming a PhD. This feeling is definitely connected to the atmosphere of constant comparison, but can also be an experience that you go through in all academic environments. While you should hold space for these negative feelings to surface and be felt, it is also really important that you keep working and continue to remain determined. Women and people of color are especially prone to impostor syndrome in academia but can benefit from mentoring and encourage. Check out this other blog post about how Encouragement In Academia Matters. 

Also, here is Dave discussing common feelings of self-doubt that many PhD students and PhDs experience:

PhD programs offer a very difficult, yet oftentimes equally rewarding research experience that enhances your expertise in a given field at a rapid rate. Since a PhD is required to conduct professional research you will be qualified to work on federal and state grant projects, you may be hired as a freelancer or consultant, may have opportunities to work in academia, and more. n the STEM and financial fields, there are some specific ventures you can take on, as noted agave. You can manage a hedge fund firm, create audio processing systems, be the CEO of a startup, etc. 

Having a PhD is great for someone who enjoys professional independence and adventure. By enrolling in a PhD program, one gains access to an incredible academic and professional freedom. Overall, a PhD can provide greater agency in a world that is constantly changing and growing. 

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