Best Cities for Recent PhD Grads

Image of graduation cap resting on stack of books

Getting any degree is no small feat. Getting a PhD in particular takes considerable work. An advanced degree is a big undertaking, one you want to ensure will make a positive difference in your life. Where you choose to live once you’ve earned your degree can greatly impact its benefit to you in terms of happiness, employment opportunities, financial fulfillment and more. So, how can you make that PhD pay off?

We at GCU, along with help from Grand Canyon Education, looked at the U.S. cities that offer the most for PhD holders — and the results are a bit surprising. Many might assume notable New England collegiate towns top the list for where graduates want to spend their post-PhD time, but it’s actually coastal California that ranks the highest overall.

If you’re considering pursuing a PhD or deciding where to maximize your doctoral degree upon graduation, read on to see in which cities graduates fare best, based on our scored criteria.

Guide for Best Cities for Doctoral Degrees:

The Best U.S. Cities for PhDs

Map displaying the best cities in the U.S. for people with PhDs

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8


To determine the best cities for PhD holders, we compared the 50 largest U.S. metropolitan areas across these criteria and weighted each:

  • Population 25 years old and over with graduate degrees (Factor Weight: 2.75)
  • Livability (Factor Weight: 2.50) 
  • Cost of living (Factor Weight: 2.50)
  • Median salary of graduate degree holders (Factor Weight: 3.00)
  • Percentage more graduate degree holders make compared to city average (Factor Weight: 3.25)
  • Unemployment rate (Factor Weight: 2.00)
  • Access to arts and culture (Factor Weight: 2.00)
  • Leisure opportunities (Factor Weight: 2.00)

Each of the eight indicators were graded on a 5-point scale, with a score of 5 representing the most favorable conditions. We determined each city’s total score from the total of its individual factor scores, which were weighted according to their impact on quality of life for PhD holders. The sum of these weights is 20, which creates a total possible city score of 100. Each is listed below with its respective weight and data source.

Results of the Study

According to our scoring, San Jose, CA, ranks the overall highest, with San Francisco, CA, not far behind. Their scores are 69.5 and 66.8 out of 100, respectively. Both offer a variety and high volume of arts and leisure opportunities, relatively low unemployment rates and six-figure incomes for graduate degree holders. Despite a relatively higher cost of living, PhD earners can still be quite financially comfortable once they enter the job market in these cities.

Other Western U.S. cities to make the top 15 are San Diego, CA, Los Angeles, CA, Portland, OR, Seattle, WA, and Denver, CO. East Coast cities also rank well, with Washington, D.C, Boston, MA, New York, NY, and Baltimore, MD, scoring between 50 and 62. Indianapolis, IN, Minneapolis, MN, Austin, TX, and Columbus, OH, are sprinkled throughout the top 15 as well.

These rankings are definitely something for PhD candidates to consider. With the amount of time, money and stress that go into earning such an advanced degree, living in an area that provides a high quality of life makes it all worth it. What especially makes these areas attractive for graduate degree holders is the employment opportunity and ability to earn considerably above the median salary for each city.

The U.S. Cities Where Graduate Degree Holders Earn the Most

Map showing the U.S. cities where graduate degree holders earn the most


Financial opportunity is an important factor when deciding where to live. While income isn’t the primary motivation for all degree seekers, return on investment is a factor to keep in mind. PhD programs can be costly, leaving degree holders with loans to pay back—and who doesn’t want to earn a reliable income after putting in the work to obtain a degree?

We looked at which cities offered graduate degree holders the highest income, noting that the average salary for graduate degree holders for the 50 states we scored was $77,023.4

Median salary for graduate degree holders in the top 15 cities ranges anywhere from $3,278 to $54,268 over the median. Chicago, IL, Houston, TX, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, PA, Hartford, CT, Baltimore and Los Angeles all score in the $80,000 to $86,000 income range, while Sacramento, CA, San Diego, Boston, New York and Seattle rank slightly higher in the $88,000 to $97,000 range. Topping the list are Washington, D.C., San Francisco and San Jose, which offer graduate degree holders an average income of $100,000, $113,000 and $131,000, respectively.4

Map displaying the cities where graduate degree holders earn the most in comparison  to the local median salary

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Where we can really see the benefit of being a graduate degree holder in these cities is comparing this average income to that of all residents. In these cities, education pays. In Los Angeles, graduate degree holders have the opportunity to earn a 104.68% higher income than the average median salary of $41,000. Five other California cities — San Jose, San Diego, Riverside, Sacramento and San Francisco — also give those with advanced degrees the opportunity to make at least 75% more than the area’s overall income average.5

For comparison, graduate degree holders in Denver get the smallest income boost, making just 28.76% more than the rest of the city’s population.5

The Cities with the Highest Percentage of Graduate Degree Holders

Map showing the cities with the highest percentage of graduate degree holders


Looking at which cities have the highest percentage of graduate degree holders over the age of 25 can tell us a few things, namely which cities other advanced degree holders are attracted to.

Our findings show that advanced degree holders seem to prefer the East Coast. Seven of the top 15 cities are located on the eastern side of the U.S., with Washington, D.C. being home to the highest percentage (25.14%) of graduate degree holders. San Jose comes in second at 25.06%, and four other West Coast cities — San Francisco, Seattle, Portland and San Diego — also dominate.6

Final Thoughts

Overall, tech hubs, despite being some of the costliest places to live, provide great incomes for those with graduate degrees. Some of America’s most historic cities, such as Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., feature high percentages of the population that already hold graduate degrees and have high arts and leisure scores. Taken together, those factors propel those cities to high finishes, beating out the tech hub of Seattle, as well as the traditional business hub of America: New York City. When factoring together all the criteria, from local culture to income to cost of living, unemployment rate, quality of life and more, California often tops the charts as the most worthwhile option.

Regardless of the city you choose, if you’re pursuing a PhD or have already earned one, don’t make the decision lightly. Analyzing these considerations can go a long way to set you up for success after your degree program. GCU offers a number of PhD programs through our College of Doctoral Studies in counselor education and general psychology. No matter which one you choose, you will be led by faculty that will guide you every step of the way. In your residency, you’ll be able to collaborate with peers and faculty where you can receive face-to-face sessions and the resources you need to help further develop your dissertation.


City Ranking Factors, Weights and Data Sources:

1 Unemployment Rate (factor weight: 2.00) - U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, November 2020 Unemployment Report. Retrieved February 2021. > link to

2 Livability Score (factor weight: 2.50) - AARP Livability Index Report, Published June 2018. Retrieved January 2021.

3 Cost of Living (factor weight: 2.50) - NerdWallet Cost of Living Calculator, Data Retrieved January 2021. 

4 Median Salary for Graduate Degree Holders (factor weight: 3.00) - U.S. Census, 2019 Data. Retrieved January 2021.

The earnings referenced were reported by the United States Census Bureau. They are not calculated using wages from GCU graduates but from workers across the country with varying levels of education and experience, and they reflect a national average for this occupation in 2019. This national data may not accurately reflect earnings of workers in particular parts of the country and include earners at all stages of their career and not solely entry level wages.

COVID-19 has adversely affected the global economy and data from 2020 may be atypical compared to prior years. The pandemic may impact the predicted future workforce outcomes indicated by the United States Census Bureau as well. Accordingly, data shown is based on the 2019 calendar year.

5 Percent More Graduate Degree Holders Make Compared to Average Population (factor weight: 3.25) - U.S. Census, 2019 Data. Retrieved January 2021. 

6 Percent of the Population Over Age 25 With Graduate Degrees (factor weight: 2.75) - U.S. Census, 2019 Data. Retrieved January 2021. 

7 Arts Score (factor weight: 2.00)- 2020 Arts Vibrancy Map produced by Southern Methodist University, county level data. Data retrieved February 2021. 

8 Leisure Score (factor weight: 2.00) - 2020 Arts Vibrancy Map produced by Southern Methodist University, county level data. Data retrieved February 2021. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.