This morning, I saw a question on Quora about the state of Ph.D. production in the U.S. “What can be done to address the problems of the current PhD system of academia?”, the writer asked, pointing to the December 2010 article “The disposable academic: Why doing a PhD is often a waste of time” by Natasha Loder in the Economist.
There is an oversupply of PhDs. Although a doctorate is designed as training for a job in academia, the number of PhD positions is unrelated to the number of job openings. Meanwhile, business leaders complain about shortages of high-level skills, suggesting PhDs are not teaching the right things. The fiercest critics compare research doctorates to Ponzi or pyramid schemes.
I’ve been on an couple hiring committees for faculty. I’ve talked with colleagues from high-profile schools and heard about the way they get “400 applicants for one position”. (And this is in mathematics!) I’ve also interacted enough with people online via Twitter, Quora, LinkedIn, and such tools to know that Loder’s claim is entirely accurate and, possibly, understated.
What has taken me by surprise if the vitriol that spews from the mouths of postdocs in the life sciences. Many feel like they were duped into a professional trajectory that had few options for academic positions or any other palatable professional option. Some of this could be chalked up to the Ph.D.’s propensity for complaint, but the attitude is pervasive in the life sciences.
Personally, I don’t feel like I was duped into my professional trajectory. I lucked into it. Loder pigeonholed me, in fact.
Many students say they are pursuing their subject out of love, and that education is an end in itself. Some give little thought to where the qualification might lead. In one study of British PhD graduates, about a third admitted that they were doing their doctorate partly to go on being a student, or put off job hunting.
That was me. I was a mathematics major and I had no idea what I could do with my degree. I did know that I could teach, and I knew that I’d rather teach at the undergraduate level than the secondary level. My advisors knew how to put me on a path toward the Ph.D., so they did, and here I am.
Had I known about options for going into industry, would I have taken them? Probably. But from the time I took the Math GRE to the time I earned my Ph.D., my advisors were not interested in connecting with me that sector. And this is where Loder gets another thing right.
The interests of academics and universities on the one hand and PhD students on the other are not well aligned. The more bright students stay at universities, the better it is for academics. Postgraduate students bring in grants and beef up their supervisors’ publication records. Academics pick bright undergraduate students and groom them as potential graduate students. It isn’t in their interests to turn the smart kids away, at least at the beginning.
I’m not claiming to be ‘bright’ in any way shape or form. It’s stubbornness that got me to my Ph.D. But Loder is right when she says that universities are all about creating this credential-treadmill that had faculty put their apprentices (undergraduate and graduate) onto same path that they trod. My undergraduate advisor got to take credit for me, to some extent, as has my graduate advisor (though what I do, now, is of little interest to him, it appears).
So this is the change I propose: undergraduate institutions must engage with industry to provide faculty development that will help their faculty understand how Universities can help meet the needs of American industry and government. This engagement must lead to decreases in Ph.D. candidates and increases in both masters candidates and terminal, professionalized baccalaureate degrees.
Tell those faculty, many of whom pursued academics so they wouldn’t have to get a ‘real job’, to learn about the needs of modern society and devise programs to meet those need. This will solve the ‘Ph.D. problem.’