Thursday, June 25, 2015

So You Want to Go Pro: NCAA Basketball vs. the PhD

Tonight is the NBA draft. Most drafted players will come from the ranks of US universities, along with some international players. Most kids go to college, whether they are athletes or not, to gain skills, knowledge and credentials that will allow them to get a job. Unless they have a trust fund, just about all college kids want to go pro in something.

So if you play college basketball, what are your chances of playing professionally? The NCAA has helpfully provided these numbers based on last year's data.
  • Number of draft-eligible NCAA basketball players = 4,071
  • Number of Division I draft-eligible NCAA players = 1,210
  • Odds of reaching NBA from total NCAA eligible = 1.2%
  • Odds of reaching NBA from Division I NCAA eligible = 3.9%
  • Odds of playing professional (NBA & non-NBA) from Division 1 NCAA eligible = 29.3%
So if you play big-time college basketball (Division I) then you have about a 1 in 25 chance of making it as a multi-millionaire in the NBA. The odds are considerably higher for the Big 5 conferences, as I'll show in a forthcoming analysis. 

I'd wager that there are not too many undergraduate degree programs in Division I basketball schools that can boast a 1 in 25 chance of becoming a millionaire straight out of college. It turns out that big-time athletics has the opportunities for big-time rewards.

This fact cuts two different ways across current debates related to college sports. For scholarship athletes wanting to get paid these data point to a considerable opportunity for economic benefit by virtue of participating in college basketball, which may complicate cost-benefit calculations, especially for the big-time programs. The data also show that colleges in fact do an excellent job preparing students for careers in their chosen profession, as 1 in 3 Division I players get to play professionally at some level.

For some further context, let's compare athletic job placement with the academic PhD. The numbers, it turns out, are not so different.
The graph above comes from a 2013 Nature Biotechnology paper, and shows the annual number of U.S. PhDs awarded compared to the annual number of U.S. academic faculty positions. For the PhD, we can equate the tenure-track academic faculty position to the equivalent of making it in the NBA for the college basketball player. Sure, not all college basketball players want to go pro and not all PhDs want to be professors. But many do.

The data show that about 36,000 PhDs were produced in 2011 and there were about 3,000 faculty positions available. That equates to a success rate in job placement of about 8.3%. Since 1982, the number of annually-available faculty positions has remained constant at about 3,000 per year. The number of PhDs over this same time frame increased from 19,000 to 36,000. In addition, if you graduate from a PhD program at a R1 university (top 60 or so), then your odds of securing a tenure-track faculty position are surely higher than the overall numbers, just as with Division 1 basketball and the NBA.

Overall, the NCAA Division I basketball player has about a 3.5 times greater chance of playing professionally (at some level) than does the PhD in landing a job as a professor. The bottom line here is that the job market consequences of playing NCAA basketball are pretty similar to those of getting a PhD. Lots of people want to go pro, some are successful, but many are not.


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