Is an Oxford degree worth the parchment it’s printed on?

I received the following email:

I recently graduated a U.S. university with a degree in Political Science and Applied Mathematics. At the moment, I’m starting out at Oxford where I’m studying statistics. While I’ve always been interested in politics and statistics, I didn’t start to combine the two until my last year of college, and even then, only on occasion. . . . I saw your recent posting for post-docs at Columbia’s Applied Statistics Center and thought about how much I would love that job, or one like it, at some point in the future. The practical question is this: I have been given a great opportunity to study at Oxford, but there is a question as to how much American institutions value Oxford degrees. I’m currently on track to get a master’s degree followed by a doctorate in statistics. However, some old advisors are strongly discouraging me from pursuing a DPhil (Oxford’s PhD) and instead think that I should get an American PhD in Political Science or Economics. While there are of course other factors in this decision, I was hoping you might have some advice. Would an Oxford DPhil be competitive for a job like the one you posted? Do you think I would need more substantial qualifications to teach in statistics or political science in the States?

My reply:

1. We should be having these postdocs for the indefinite future, so I encourage you to apply in a few years. The top new PhD’s in applied statistics can get good academic jobs right after graduating, but I think you can learn a lot in a postdoc position, especially ours, which is interdisciplinary but with a core in statistical methods.

The other cool thing about a postdoc (compared to a faculty position, or for that matter compared to admissions to college or a graduate program) is that you’re hired based on what you can do, not based on how “good” you are in some vaguely defined sense. I like to hire people know how to fit models and to communicate with other researchers, and my postdocs have included a psychologist, an economist, and a computer scientist, along with several statisticians.

2. I have no sense of how Oxford degrees are valued. I would assume it has the same value as a degree at an American university. Oxford statistics has some great people, including Chris Holmes, Tom Snijders, and Brian Ripley. Recommendations from these guys would carry a lot of weight, at least in a statistics department. More important, you can probably do something interesting when you’re in grad school and also learn some useful skills.

3. You also ask about getting a Ph.D. in statistics or political science or economics. My general impression is that, to teach in a department of X, it helps to have a Ph.D. in X. But some people can do a lot of statistics in a poli sci or econ dept, or vice versa. My other impression is that econ is a cartel. The individual econ professors I know are, without exception, nice people and excellent colleagues who do interesting and important research. But the field as a whole seems so competitive, I would think it could be an unpleasant setting to be in, academically. Statistics (and, to a lesser extent, political science) seems much less competitive to me. Substantively, much of the interesting and important work in applied economics is statistical, and my impression is you’d be better prepared to do the best work there if you come at it from a statistical background.

4. Update: I mentioned this to a colleague and he said that, if you’re interested in getting an academic job in the U.S., it isn’t a bad idea to spend a year or two at a top U.S. department so people get to know you. (This doesn’t contradict my point 1 above.)

P.S. The student replies,

I was not expecting your negative view of economics, however. My interest in the field has (naturally) been on the applied side, more as a potential combination of political science and statistics than anything else, and I gave it as a potential PhD option merely to add more diversity to the list.

My reply: No, I think economics (and economists) are great. I’m just not sure I’d recommend an academic career in economics, since I think you can do similar work in other fields without the intense competitive atmosphere. But that’s just my impression as an outsider. In any case, I’m a big fan of the work that’s being done in economics, sociology, psychology, and various other social sciences (along with political science and statistics, of course).

4 thoughts on “Is an Oxford degree worth the parchment it’s printed on?

  1. Not to be crass, but a factor omitted above is the relative compensation across disciplines. If someone is interested in employing sophisticated statistical methods to address social science questions, chances are likely that the difficulty of the course work will not be dramatically different across departments. The pay after one emerges from graduate school, however, will vary considerably.

  2. I was wondering if I could mildly threadjack this post for a similar question of my own.

    I am currently considering returning to school to study for a PhD, with the aim of moving to academia afterwards. The downside – although I have what I believe is a firm background in statistics (1st class maths and stats degree from Warwick and a Masters in stats from Leicester in the UK), I am now in my early 30s – by the time I finish my PhD I would likely be close to 40 as the Canadian PhDs (Canada being where I now live) tend to be longer than those in the UK. I have spent the intervening years as a statistician in various pharmaceutical companies, but not as a researcher – although I've had the pleasure of being more of a statistician than a table programmer that many pharmaceutical statisticians become.

    Is my age (and lack of publication record in the intervening years) likely to be considered against me when looking for academic positions in the future?

    I suspect I will do the PhD no matter what – I miss much of the heavy theoretical work that was the core of the Warwick undergraduate degree – but some indication of the likelihood of an academic position in the future might help decide exactly what path I take. Besides, if you never attempt, you never succeed!

  3. Nate,

    Yes, econ pays more–at least, econ profs get more than poli sci and stat profs. But I don't think the extra pay could possibly be worth the hassle. There are other good reasons to study econ, I'm sure, but I wouldn't recommend doing it for the money.


    Yes, I think there is some age discrimination, but I don't really have any evidence one way or another on that.

  4. To the person trying to chooses between an American PhD and a British one, I would go with the American. I am Austraian and I did my PhD at the University of Melbourne before going to the States for my first postdoc. I found the American academic environment completely different, and the gards there somewhat better qualified than I could ever be. This is not to say that an Australia PhD modelled on the British system is inferior, but I doubt that there's parity with a PhD from a quality American institution. The main reason I see for this is the greater focus on course work at American institutions. American graduates have usually taken a braod selection of courses at the graduate level, that's simply not available under the British style PhD programmes. Often, these courses are taught by people at the cutting edge of their respective fields and I truly believe that American graduates are fotunate to be able to sit through such courses.

    I believe a PhD education should always be about bradening your horizons in related fields, and not just intense research on your very specialised topic.

    The choice is obvious to me.

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