My friend got a degree in egyptology, but can’t get a job, So he’s paying more money to get a Phd, so he can work teaching other people egyptology. In his case college is literally a pyramid scheme.

Copied from here, but I have seen the joke elsewhere as well.

My personal experience is that neither the university nor most university professors care to evaluate whether their curriculum has a lot of applicability/use. (Some professors claim this is not a goal or cannot be measured in any way; while many universities claim their programs are also very practical, but if you read the actual claim it is very much PR with little scientific measurement.)

Has there been any academic research into which fields satisfy the following criteria:

  1. Most of the people who complete the university program do not find placement in the field.
  2. There is some (perhaps not conclusive) statistical evidence that the program gives no benefits in the actual field (not the field the program was in) where these people eventually start to work in. E.g. it can be useful to study theoretical math even if you end up programming, as your logic may improve. Perhaps this could be measured with a control group of people who had similar backrounds to those who got into the math program but did not apply to get in; how different is their success in the same field?

P.s.: Does egyptology really fulfill these criteria?

Edit: Added the word perhaps.

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    $\begingroup$ There's a tiresome young man in Bay Shore. When his fiancée cried, 'I adore The beautiful sea', He replied, 'I agree, It's pretty, but what is it for?' - Morris Bishop $\endgroup$ Mar 30, 2021 at 16:58
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    $\begingroup$ What did the members of the control group with all the time they got from not getting a math degree? $\endgroup$ Mar 30, 2021 at 17:02
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelGreinecker The Bishop quote is very good :) But I find that when I pick at the foundations of economics I often get witty yet unsubstantive answers - there are half a dozen that I can tell convincingly, yet without conviction - so it leaves me wanting more. $\endgroup$
    – Giskard
    Mar 30, 2021 at 18:14
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    $\begingroup$ I do not know enough about Egyptology or literature on exactly the things you are asking for to provide full answer, but: 1. in literature education is not just for human capital accumulation but also signal/screening e.g. Becker vs Stiglitz view. Under the signal view even getting Egyptology degree can provide useful signals for non-related fields (e.g. signal that you can do your coursework on time etc all potentially useful at almost any job). 2. There is literature on 'superstar' professions. Many people are taking dancing lessons, acting classes, writing classes - $\endgroup$
    – 1muflon1
    Mar 30, 2021 at 19:04
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    $\begingroup$ @Giskard right but the hallmark of pyramid scheme is that people make money by recruiting more people. Superstars don’t ,they make money from their performance/work. Eg for an Egyptology or any other activity to be pyramid scheme it would have to work in a way that money is earned just by recruiting others (or predominantly this way - some schemes will mask themselves by also selling some products). That joke has it right in a sense it claims that egyptologists just recruit more egyptologists to get money from their tuition who, to get compensated, recruit more egyptologists for their tuition. $\endgroup$
    – 1muflon1
    Mar 30, 2021 at 21:05

1 Answer 1


Partial and tangential answer, but no other answers so far, so here goes:

For the first part of the definition (people who complete the university program do not find placement in the field), data from the Survey of Earned Doctorates may be useful, particularly "Postgraduation plans (e.g., work, postdoc, other study or training) - Type and location of employer". Papers that use this dataset may compare by field.

The "no benefit" part could be studied by regression discontinuity around the admission cutoff, but the small sample size of fields like egyptology makes it low-powered.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks. My focus is not an egyptology, it is merely an illustrative example. $\endgroup$
    – Giskard
    Mar 31, 2021 at 17:58

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