Nature Special Issue on the Future of the PhD
April 26, 2011 6:34 AM   Subscribe

Mark Taylor. Reform the PhD system or close it down. Nature 472, 261 (2011)

There has been considerable criticism of Prof. Taylor's proposals for reforming academia, especially that his opinions are based in his experience in the humanities and simply don't apply to the sciences.

In Nature 472, you'll find a posse of similarly themed articles aimed towards the sciences : Fix the PhD, The PhD factory, Rethinking PhDs, and What is a PhD really worth?

Don't be too bemused by the venue either. There have been several recent science blogs asking : Are biology graduate students the unhappiest?

If you prefer physicists, we may go back a little further to David Goodstein's The Big Crunch (1994), which argues that Malthus' theories apply cleanly to academia, or Jonathan Katz's Don't Become a Scientist! (1999), or even :

"Science is a wonderful thing if one does not have to earn one's living at it." -- Albert Einstein (via)

In the same vein, there is a retort over at Partial Objects to the stereotypical political remarks on STEM education made by President Obama at the recent town hall even at Facebook's headquarters.
posted by jeffburdges (54 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
Reform the expectations of graduate students in the PhD system or and you don't have to close it down.

There. Fixed that for you.
posted by ged at 6:52 AM on April 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

The situation can be summed up in two words: pyramid scheme.
posted by exogenous at 6:53 AM on April 26, 2011 [12 favorites]

Teleconferencing and the Internet mean that cooperation is no longer limited by physical proximity.

Well, to some degree, but this seems to rely on online courses, which show much higher drop rates than face to face classes. I am not sure we want to put our eggs in that particular basket so quickly....
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:54 AM on April 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

A number of issues here that ought really to be viewed individually.
1. jobs--get the PhD in any field today and are there jobs that you can get?
2. the way the advanced degrees are presented and offered--do they need reform?
3. too many schools too close together offering the same degree in the same fields
4. self-interest that keeps teachers of grad programs encouraging students to enter their programs so that the faculty can make sure they have work in order to keep their jobs.
5. and in all of this, where is anything about the super agencies--accrediting groups?
posted by Postroad at 6:55 AM on April 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

Is this the academic version of "get off my lawn"? It sounds like it a little bit.
posted by King Bee at 6:56 AM on April 26, 2011

He was a weenie when I had classes with him in the early 90's and apparently the intervening years haven't helped. Teleconferencing. Sheesh. At least he's not still flogging CD-Roms.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 7:06 AM on April 26, 2011 [3 favorites]

There is a reoccurring theme coming from various articles that more interdisciplinary research, like that funded by IGERT, may help graduate students find jobs outside academia. And might even produce better faculty members too.

In particular, the assertions that biologists are the unhappiest center on their skills sets being less transferable into very flexible software development skills.

We should however acknowledge that the NSF has been pushing scientists towards more interdisciplinary research for a very long time, meaning scientists are now very good at not being pushed.

We might therefore try more direct approaches like simply paying graduate students on NSF grants more if their thesis work produces open source software.

I accidentally left out Jason Hoyt's Are there too many PhDs? is an older article by a biologist that opens with the interesting case of Douglas Prasher.

And stereotypical should point to the mefi article on The Real Science Gap : Jobs.
posted by jeffburdges at 7:06 AM on April 26, 2011 [3 favorites]

Is this the academic version of "get off my lawn"? It sounds like it a little bit.


Seems like the exact opposite of that. Did you RTFA? In fact, the author is stating that the old model is almost completely irrelevant.
posted by AndrewKemendo at 7:08 AM on April 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's a bit amusing that this is written by someone who has in a religion department. Engineering PhD's often collaborate closely with industry and address multidisciplinary problems, by definition. It really seems like most people benefit (industry / student / prof) from such a collaboration, assuming the student enjoys what he does. Also (speaking from personal experience), it's wonderful to be in a university where you can work on things that interest you; which is usually part of doing a PhD.
posted by a womble is an active kind of sloth at 7:16 AM on April 26, 2011

oops; has <- is.
posted by a womble is an active kind of sloth at 7:17 AM on April 26, 2011

posted by RogerB at 7:33 AM on April 26, 2011

We might therefore try more direct approaches like simply paying graduate students on NSF grants more if their thesis work produces open source software.

But why should my work either have to produce open source software or be intrinsically less worthy? The research that I'm doing might not be applicable to industry, but that doesn't mean it's not worth doing.
posted by ChuraChura at 7:33 AM on April 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

My personal feeling is that while there may be more PhD's available, the quality has plummeted. It is a real challenge to find a qualified PhD for a research job in my field (physical sciences) - most don't display what it takes to become an independent researcher.

I think most of the best and the brightest are lured into more lucrative fields - banking, finance, medical, internet.
posted by spaceviking at 7:34 AM on April 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

Previous MeFi discussion of Mark C. Taylor.

There has been considerable criticism of Prof. Taylor's proposals for reforming academia, especially that his opinions are based in his experience in the humanities and simply don't apply to the sciences.

They don't apply to the humanities, either.
posted by GeorgeBickham at 7:42 AM on April 26, 2011

There are numerous reasons your proposal simply cannot work, ged. All you'd accomplish might be discouraging even more women from working in the sciences (see the via link for the Einstein quote).

We're talking about people who feel doubly invincible when making these decisions because (a) they're under 25 and (b) they've never failed at anything in their lives, well they were among the smartest in the high school and university.* And there are massive institutional incentives encouraging this behavior.

* About 3.4% of high school graduates ever obtain an MD, JD, DDS, PhD, etc.
posted by jeffburdges at 8:00 AM on April 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think he's especially right in the humanities. Humanities PhD's can lead to a variety of employment, but not without a significant amount of shaming from colleagues for "failing" to work in academia - and frankly, the training provided is extremely skewed towards working in academia alone, or a related and equally competitive field (archives and libraries, academic publishing). Programs in the UK are more oriented towards outside employment, but programs in the US provide little to no support from the academic staff for non-academic employment. And what support could they provide? Most have never worked outside academia - and among those at top universities are many who have never been outside of Oxbridge/the Ivies/etc. They don't see what happens in the trenches, because they haven't served there.

And the numbers just DON'T work, which I suppose isn't that suprising considering counting isn't that respected in a lot of the humanities. In some universities, one faculty member will take 1-3 students per year, which was fine in the 1950s or 60s, but the university system is not expanding. Really, faculty in humanities fields should be accepting 5-6 students in their entire career to make the numbers work out, and that's including for working at institutions without doctoral programs. But the social sciences seem to have similar problems, and you think they would be much better at the counting thing (and more aware of demographic trends).

The sciences is different, because there are very closely related research-based jobs available in industry, and support from the disciplines for students who want to work in industry - or, at least there was for my UK friends. I haven't talked to my American scientist friends because those I have did end up staying in academe.
posted by jb at 8:02 AM on April 26, 2011 [3 favorites]

I have the feeling that reforming the PhD system is about as likely as reforming the tax code or political campaign financing.
posted by slogger at 8:05 AM on April 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

People have been giving me crap for years about not going to grad school. I keep pointing out that there isn't much point in going if you are not in a science, which I am not smart enough to do.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:10 AM on April 26, 2011

Isn't this the same as the debate about what subjects undergraduates allegedly should take (and pay for) in order to maximise their economic potential? In that debate, wider intellectual and social goals do not exist, either.
posted by GeorgeBickham at 8:13 AM on April 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

This seems like an effort to pull up the ladder behind. In this case, the swinging, uncertain, sometimes razor-wired, unduly long ladder to an uncertain platform full of committee work.

Anyone who recommends "outsourcing" in academia had better be ready for the train wreck that will be. Most who've worked in distance education can tell you--it works fine for a relatively small portion of students. The reason the face-to-face model has lasted as long as it has is that it works well with human motivation and keeps students feeling like human beings.

I'm of course speaking from the position of an assistant professor at a lightly paid teaching institution.
posted by LucretiusJones at 8:14 AM on April 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

Based on my own experience with academia, I would have thought that the much more numerous masters degree mills (in both science and the humanities) are what needs reforming more than PhD programs.

- Is this the academic version of "get off my lawn"? It sounds like it a little bit.
- Seems like the exact opposite of that. Did you RTFA? In fact, the author is stating that the old model is almost completely irrelevant.

I think they meant that an aging boomer who has his at an Ivy academic department is telling the young kids to get lost and get a real job instead of doing what he did.
posted by aught at 8:17 AM on April 26, 2011

Reform the expectations of graduate students in the PhD system or and you don't have to close it down.

I've never had to deploy this metafilter-cliche before, but I want to favorite this SO HARD.

I've been watching the coverage that this topic gets the past few days, and, as a graduate student myself, have found it to be unceasingly paternalistic. The argument boils down to the fact that we produce more Ph.Ds than we need to replace faculty, therefore, graduate students must be deluded and wasting their time, since most of them won't get faculty jobs.

Except, well, every student I know is very well aware of the difficulty of getting faculty jobs. Yet somehow they still want to do the Ph.D. How could this be, the authors of these 'system is broken' rants write. Well some of us enjoy the field we work in. We put up with the work and low pay and the uncertain future because we enjoy what we do. Every one of us actually chose to go to grad school, nobody was swindled or bamboozled, although it's probably true that incoming grads are more naive than graduating ones. I've been to three Ph.D defenses in the past year; two of them went into industry and one went on to a postdoc, and all of them happily. And these are people with astronomy degrees, arguably one of the least relevant physical sciences to any other field.

So please, stop attempting to save grad students from themselves. Because we're not dumb; we know what the numbers look like.
posted by kiltedtaco at 8:19 AM on April 26, 2011 [22 favorites]

Maybe the reason to get a PhD isn't to get a job. Maybe it's to get an education.
posted by grubi at 8:21 AM on April 26, 2011 [16 favorites]

So I know a lot of math professors. And a lot of them, even the younger ones, won't answer student questions that involve mathematics by e-mail -- it's just too frustrating.

I do answer those questions by e-mail. And it is frustrating. And if you're thinking it's just that students don't know how to write mathematical notation in e-mail, well, that's true, but not really the problem. I usually can figure out what they mean. The problem is that I want to draw pictures, I want to look in their eyes and see if they're getting it or if they've totally tuned out, and so on -- and these are things that e-mail is bad at. These are complicated ideas we're talking about! And any course worth teaching is going to have some things that are hard to understand in it1, so I don't think this problem is unique to mathematics.

1. although a lot of people in math seem to think that other disciplines don't have actual content. this is why I don't like a lot of people in math. believe it or not, our way of understanding the world is not the only way.
posted by madcaptenor at 8:21 AM on April 26, 2011

Being in the sciences doesn't mean one is smarter than the humanities, jenfullmoon; scientists just usually have different aptitudes and interests than the humanists or social scientists. I have met humanists who have blown me away with their intelligence, and I have met scientists who were excellent researchers, but not particularly insightful about anything not related to their discipline. And vice versa, of course. When I think of the smartest people I have met, they have been social scientists and mathematicians and masters of dead languages and physicists-turned-historians.
posted by jb at 8:24 AM on April 26, 2011

I'm a PhD student in Computer Science and about to graduate. I talked to the rest of the grad students in our group recently about tenure track jobs. None of them were particularly interested in going right into a tenure track job after graduation. They considered the stress of getting an assistant professor job and then going through the tenure process almost like getting another PhD and they weren't up for it. They wanted to get a job in a government or industry lab, doing research.

Of course, this is highly field-specific. Due to the nature of work in the humanities, I assume jobs are more difficult to find outside of academia, and my field lends itself very well to cross-disciplinary collaboration.
posted by demiurge at 8:31 AM on April 26, 2011

grubi - See, I realize that people get a PhD to get an education, but at some point they are going to have to get a job. What do they do then?

The grad students I know have no idea what to do next. They want to stay in their field, but they have no real way of doing that and they have no skills that are applicable to other lines of work.

Graduate programs need to be smaller so as to produce fewer graduates.
posted by ged at 8:33 AM on April 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Students, administrators, trustees and even people from the public and private sectors must create pressure for reform.

Oh, but there has been pressure to reform--lots of it. But that pressure is usually directed at telling us to squeeze out more undergrads in a shorter period of time, oh, and with less money to hire qualified faculty and support said students.

I think we actually do need all these PhDs we've produced, in the sense that we have the undergraduate population in most places (certainly at my own university) to support the hiring of more doctoral-educated full-time faculty. But states and administrators don't actually want to pay for that, so instead we're forced to rely on grad students and part-timers. Oh, and then everybody complains about how their kids are taught by grad students and part-timers, blah blah blah, but does anybody actually want to pay higher taxes to support the hiring of more full-time faculty? No.

Yeah, I'm sure there are probably some low-quality and/or redundant PhD programs in most fields. But I think this article is missing the larger point.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 8:34 AM on April 26, 2011 [7 favorites]

grubi - See, I realize that people get a PhD to get an education, but at some point they are going to have to get a job. What do they do then?

Same thing a lot of people are already doing.

I'm not saying it's ideal. I just think it would be better if people stop seeing college degrees as some sort of ticket to a career. Generally speaking, I know almost nobody who does for a living what they went to school to do. And I know more than a few successful folks, so it's not like they're all flipping burgers.
posted by grubi at 8:35 AM on April 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

I need only to look at the academic job wiki in my field to see that Humanities (or to be more specific to my area, creative fine arts) PhDs are being produced at a rate far exceeding job openings. When I did my PhD I was lucky to get into a program that accepted few students a year, quite a few of which had no intentions of going into academia. Those of us that did, have done well with jobs, so from my, admittedly glossy, immediate perspective, things aren't so bad. However, when I read the wiki things seem very different. The vast majority of good jobs are going to PhDs are from a handful of schools. This should come as no surprise, but it seems to. So, what I take from this is: If you are hell-bent of doing a PhD (after hearing all the advice that goes into making that decision), make sure you get into the best program possible, and even then, think twice about going into academia. Of course, this isn't spelled out students before starting the whole process, but it should be.
posted by ob at 8:38 AM on April 26, 2011

People change career paths all the time-- sometimes by choice, and sometimes not. Going into a different field after a PhD is no different. It's not like you develop no marketable skills as a PhD candidate-- to the contrary, at least in the humanities, you need to perfect your public speaking and presentation skills, your writing skills, and your reading comprehension/information retention skills. There are a number of industries that value those skills (advertising and publishing, off the top of my head), and in which I've personally seen people with humanities PhDs and ABDs succeed.
posted by oinopaponton at 8:41 AM on April 26, 2011 [3 favorites]

Want to know a real driving force behind the glut of grad students stuck in a post-doc holding pattern? The disappearance of forced retirement. Prof's get to teach into their 70s (or 80s or as emeritus professors or as [insert salary saving name of position here]).

As for grad students needing to buck up: who do you think does all the actual work? Profs have ( have not get, have) to write grant proposals, papers, and lectures up almost every chance they get as a consequence of a broken funding system. It falls to the students (with rare exceptions) to make things go in the lab, to puzzle out a new technique, to interpret the results. Its what we're expected to do (at least in the bio sciences).

The rub is this: What's the difference between what I'm doing in the lab for a degree on 23K a year and what I could be doing in industry for 40K a year and relevant job experience? Not a whole lot. A MSc and 4 years of experience are worth about the same thing, but with 4 years of private work you have fixed bloody hours and a decent wage in your crusade against [cancer/blindness/heart disease/senescence/life's problems generally].
posted by Slackermagee at 10:14 AM on April 26, 2011

we actually do need all these PhDs we've produced [...] But states and administrators don't actually want to pay for that, so instead we're forced to rely on grad students and part-timers.

Thank you for stating this, in a thread which otherwise seems unsalvageably polluted by a few very persistent ideological myths about the actual situation. One of Taylor's greatest faults is exactly this, his perpetuation of the "oversupply of PhDs" myth. As Marc Bousquet keeps saying every time this repeatedly comes up, and Taylor never addresses — there's only a "surplus" of unemployed PhDs because the degree is the waste product of the systematic exploitation of graduate student labor. If the academy weren't increasingly dependent on grad students and adjuncts to do so much teaching (and research) work, there wouldn't be "surplus" PhDs. Intellectual overspecialization and irrelevant research simply have nothing to do with the problems here, as Taylor would understand if he didn't have some kind of superhuman irrational commitment to going after ideological "causes" and solutions rather than structural economic problems.

Between the oversupply myth, and Taylor's fixation on finding intellectual causes for structural/economic problems, and the "grad school is for education, not employment" myth (where the PhD is some kind of learning-is-fun internship, not a sacrifice of time and money and years of life in pursuit of a specialized calling), and the "versatile PhD" myth (where the PhD is a general-studies/critical-thinking credential for the workplace, rather than a certification in highly specialized research), there's just too much wrong with this discussion for it to get somewhere more interesting — and this is surely largely due to Taylor's nonsense being its jumping-off point. If we start from the idea of the PhD as college-plus rather than a fundamentally different thing, as abstract "education" rather than a professional certification for a research career, then our analysis doesn't end up worth taking seriously.
posted by RogerB at 10:19 AM on April 26, 2011 [31 favorites]

I'm feeling snarky today, so I am pre-emptively apologising....

but advertising and publishing? Yes, if one finds academia too competitive/unstable, those fields just guarentee easily-found jobs.

People with PhDs and ABDs can succeed in many fields, because they are well-educated and intelligent people. But PhDs are not like BAs - they are not meant to be generalist training. PhDs are professional level training to be an academic researcher. That one improves other skills along the way is just happenstance - the way that a med student might learn to be a really good listener, but no one would argue that there are no problems if a majority of med students end up not being able to find jobs as doctors and instead find themselves working as bar-tenders or hairdressers. I mean, they are still using their people skills, right?
posted by jb at 10:19 AM on April 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

I let myself get talked out of pursuing the subject I was really passionate about by people who knew nothing and didn't care.

I've had to regret that over and over. BETTER to be unemployed at what you care about then at what you don't care about.

Getting what you need to survive isn't so hard if you try. In a crowded, talented world, getting to do what you want to for a living is a lot harder. But once you have the mental tools to support your interest, noone can stop you from pursuing it. Is academia really all that great? No, didn't think so.

If you're just going for the PhD to make the money, take the conventional advice. The students sure as hell don't need you anyway. But if it's your thing, don't listen to anyone. Because very few people are really passionate ... and - they don't care -. Don't screw yourself by listening to them.
posted by Twang at 10:32 AM on April 26, 2011 [10 favorites]

I've said it before, but 90% of my own PhD advisees are working, either in postdocs or tenure track jobs. And that's no small number, since I've been advising PhD students for over 15 years.

Well said twang. Do what you love. Success will follow.
posted by fourcheesemac at 10:39 AM on April 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

but advertising and publishing? Yes, if one finds academia too competitive/unstable, those fields just guarentee easily-found jobs.

I don't mean entry-level pencil-pusher jobs that any BA with a few internships under her belt could get-- I mean starting companies, going into specialist publishing, and doing targeted research for advertising agencies. I mean jobs where having a PhD is seen as a selling point for the job candidate, not as incidental. Again, this might be very different in the sciences.
posted by oinopaponton at 10:42 AM on April 26, 2011

Intellectual overspecialization and irrelevant research simply have nothing to do with the problems here, as Taylor would understand if he didn't have some kind of superhuman irrational commitment to going after ideological "causes" and solutions rather than structural economic problems.

There are no structural economic problems in democratic capitalist America!
posted by at 11:00 AM on April 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

When I got into a PhD program (in the humanities) I knew exactly what the situation was. If you don't do your own research before getting started in such a big life project, then you deserve to be surprised by your naivety at some point. I decided to do a PhD, and thus I don't feel I am a victim of the system. You would be amazed how many of my colleagues think they'll just find a tenured job once they're done, like if they were not already "working" towards getting that job.

We should not limit the number of students (yeah, let's discourage graduate production of knowledge and leave it to some lucky tenured profs, often coming from another era), but rather think of how these people can be integrated in the academic and educational system (other than by giving them some cheaply paid untenured teaching contracts).
posted by ddaavviidd at 11:14 AM on April 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Wow, what a race to the bottom. You'd think someone with a PhD might realize that increasing demand is as equally valid as decreasing supply. What's needed aren't fewer PhDs but more jobs for PhDs.

We have serious problems which require much more specialized attention than is currently available. There's more than one way to adjust the allocation of resources other than just downwards. Only a small portion of PhDs are needed to replace faculty. That's not the point of a PhD. We need most of our PhDs to be out in the world tackling problems.

My department keeps churning out PhDs with the skills and smarts to actually do something about specialized problems like global warming and oil spills instead of just teaching about them. Their problem is that the resources which might employ them in those endeavors are tied up in things like wars and bailing out investment bankers.

You'd also think a professor of religion would have special insight into inequitable resource allocation. He talks about solving problems like providing clean water to a growing population. That's a problem that's largely been solved for awhile as far as how to do it. It's now more a problem of financial resources. Maybe the salaries of all those PhDs without jobs could be reallocated to the problem?

Not coincidentally, creating jobs has become a major focus for the faculty in my department. So now they are not only spending most of their time writing proposals to fund their students, they are also trying to create new businesses and even whole new industry sectors to employ their students using their skills to solve societal problems.

Maybe the Department of Religion at Columbia should consider what they are doing to employ their students outside of academia rather than trying to de-educate the rest of the population.
posted by 3.2.3 at 11:15 AM on April 26, 2011 [9 favorites]

There isn't imho any reason to overtly limit the number of PhDs, they all gain from the experience, advance the state of human knowledge, etc. We should however pay graduate students and postdocs significantly more, thus indirectly reducing their numbers at large state schools, i.e. the places currently abusing them for cheap labor.

We could achieve this by restricting federally backed student aid to institutions unless they paid instructors some generous minimum wage, dependent upon qualifications of course. And that'd obliterate the for-profit schools that currently suck up all the federally backed student aid too. Win!

We should likewise prevent institutions with too many poorly paid short term research positions form receiving NSF funding. There isn't anything wrong with a non-teaching "research assistant professorship" that might evaporate if the grant funding dries up, but we should not expect people to spend a decade s postdocs who move every 3 years.

That said, there is still the underlying Malthusian problem described by David Goodstein's The Big Crunch. Afaik, we must solve that by making PhDs feel more comfortable migrating into industry, which basically requires broadening people's skill sets.
posted by jeffburdges at 11:35 AM on April 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

When I was a prospective grad student in astronomy, back in 1994, I went out with some of the current students at Berkeley for beer. The most advanced of them was just finishing his thesis, and was despairing about the same situation people are talking about in these articles: there are way too few faculty jobs to accommodate the number of Ph.D.'s produced. He tried to encourage me to seriously consider whether it would be worth going to graduate school at all.

Of course, that pessimistic grad student went on to pioneer the field of dwarf planet studies, and is now a professor at Caltech. He's best known for 'killing' Pluto.

I went into graduate school despite those warnings, and have been lucky enough to land a tenure-track job at a quality institution. I got my Ph.D. knowing full well that at the end of the process I might end up with a programming job instead, and that was OK with me; I had always wanted to be an astronomer, and would have had the chance for at least a few years no matter what. I try to make sure that grad students know that the odds of getting a good tenure-track job are against them; but also that everyone I've known who's gotten a Ph.D. in astronomy has ended up with a satisfying and/or well-paying job at the end of the process. Unfortunately, those in other fields may not have as many marketable skills.

I also want to echo ob's advice that it is important to go to a grad school (or do a postdoc) at an institution with a strong reputation. The great majority of my graduate school classmates are now in faculty jobs, but that certainly isn't true in general. Our department got around 150 applications for one tenure-track position in astronomy this year, when there were at most a couple of dozen comparable or better jobs worldwide.
posted by janewman at 11:38 AM on April 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

I also want to echo ob's advice that it is important to go to a grad school (or do a postdoc) at an institution with a strong reputation. The great majority of my graduate school classmates are now in faculty jobs, but that certainly isn't true in general.

Of course we can't all go to a school "with a strong reputation" can we? We've built a plutocracy of science to mirror a plutocratic society.
posted by at 11:57 AM on April 26, 2011 [3 favorites]

To some extent, academia is a little bit like acting. It's something that a lot more people want to do than there are available jobs, even for the truly talented. In both fields plenty of people are able to convince themselves that despite that fact they'll be the ones to make it, because it's their dream, they'll do whatever it takes, etc etc. And most will end up doing something else eventually.

Anecdata don't prove much, except that the story is highly non-uniform. It seems highly likely the nature of one's sub-sub-field, the prestige and connections of one's supervisor and one's research group have a great deal to do with individual prospects.

Of course people with doctorates get some kind of a job afterwards, they were bright and hardworking people to begin with. But the stats don't bear out that doing a PhD gave those people much of an extra edge over doing a masters, if any at all.

"Reform the system or close it down" is pretty melodramatic. But the idea that a lot fewer people should be doing PhDs, at least in their current forms, and possibly doing them at rather fewer institutions, well that idea seems fairly plausible.
posted by philipy at 12:09 PM on April 26, 2011

There are a bunch of issues entangled here, and it's tough to talk about any one of them in isolation.

That said, maybe it's worth focusing on the "oversupply" of PhDs, and why it's hard to know what to do about it. In my field (physics/astronomy), it's true that there are far more PhDs being granted than there are permanent academic posts. All of us know this: we talk about it incessantly at conferences, at parties, at work, at home, to our dogs, etc, etc. Right now it isn't wildly difficult to get a postdoc after your PhD, at least in the US -- the number of such positions is comparable to the number of PhDs, though obviously some sub-fields are in much higher demand than others. But the number of tenure-track positions available is a fraction of that, so it's common for people to do full-time research for 3-6 years after their PhD and then have to leave academia. (My anecdotal impression here is that this is not because, as in some other fields, TT positions are being increasingly replaced by adjunct faculty or short-term posts or whatever -- those kinds of positions do exist, but are relatively rare in astronomy. There just aren't a lot of places desperately needing to hire an astrophysicist.)

So given that, you might ask 1) should we try to align the number of PhDs more closely to the number of permanent academic jobs? and/or 2) does getting a PhD serve enough other purposes (e.g., as training for other careers, or as "education" independent of any job prospects) that we don't care about the PhD/TT-job mismatch? and/or 3) are people entering grad school aware enough of all these issues that we can trust them to evaluate this stuff for themselves?

None of these questions are (imho) easy to answer. Suppose you think we should grant fewer PhDs, or hire fewer postdocs, for instance, so that (say) people aren't in their mid-30s when they are obliged to switch fields. If you draw the line at grad school, it seems like grad school admissions would then inevitably become a lot more competitive. So, okay, maybe it's a little more palatable to tell a 22 year-old "hey, find something else to do" than to tell a 35-year old who's invested 10-12 post-college years into this the same thing -- but you exacerbate another problem, which is that it's very very tough to distinguish who is likely to succeed in this stuff (or really enjoy it, for that matter) on the basis of undergraduate record alone. The skills that allow you to do really well in undergrad Physics classes and the GRE are not quite orthogonal to the ones that make you a great researcher or teacher, but they're not really the same either. I've seen many people really hit their stride, research-wise, only late in grad school or after a postdoc or two -- and it would be a shame to miss out on these people. (Not just in a basic fairness sense, but also in a "gee, I wonder what all these great people might have accomplished" sense.)

I'll mostly skip (2), because I think it's the hardest to answer, and because I think the answer is so dependent on a bunch of other factors. I'll say that for me, personally, I felt like I learned enough stuff while getting a PhD that, even if I'd had to leave the field, it wouldn't have been a waste. But look, let's not pretend it's a trivial decision. I love what I do, and I'm happy I stuck with it. But typically you make waaaay less as a grad student, marginally less as a postdoc, and roughly the same as faculty as many of my friends did straight out of undergrad. I was incredibly lucky to be able to do this; not everyone is so lucky. I'll also say that I agree that current PhD programs (again, in my field only) are mostly structured for training people to be academics; whether that is something we should change is somewhat bound up in whether you believe there should be fewer PhDs, more TT jobs, etc.

The only one that's relatively easy to deal with is (3) -- not because I know whether people are really adequately informed (though I was), but because the required course of action is so clear. Everyone going into grad school needs to know, up front, that it's pretty unlikely they're going to end up with their advisor's job. Not that "the best students make it" (because who, at 22 and entering a good graduate program, doesn't think they're one of the best students?), not that "it's a tough market," just -- look, the odds really are against you. If that is really, truly imparted to everyone, then the other questions regarding the role of PhD programs, how many people we admit, etc, lose a little of their moral urgency. They're still interesting questions -- can we structure PhD programs to better serve students, universities, or society? do you have to pick one of those? -- but they take on less of a "maybe we are really screwing people over" feel and morph into "can we do better?"

tl;dr : this really is a pretty complicated issue, and I don't know what the hell to do about it.
posted by chalkbored at 12:11 PM on April 26, 2011 [8 favorites]

chalkbored - you make a good point about how excelling at undergraduate doesn't mean that you will necessarily excel in graduate studies; I found that the skills required were radically different, and also that I'm not as interested in graduate level work in my field as I was in the undergraduate questions.

But that's another reason that we want to change the nature of PhD programs - You're right that you don't want to just raise the GPA requirements or GRE scores. What if PhDs actually did require research experience, and post-undergraduate research experience at that? Like going into an MBA, a PhD could be something one did AFTER having worked in the field for a while.

As things are right now, many undergraduates feel the pressure to go directly on to PhDs, if offered - I know I did, because it was an opportunity beyond any I had ever imagined, and what I thought was my only chance at a professional level job. (Sure, I could have gone for a masters, but had no money for that - funding is only offered for the PhD). If you realise it's not for you, you might only do so after putting in years of effort.

Of course, this would not help at all in the original author's field or most humanities, where collaborative research tends to be unknown. There would be no way for people without graduate degrees to "taste" the world of research without committing to a long program and years of their life. In fact, it's not even until the third or fourth year of a humanities program - maybe not until the write up in years 5 or 6 (or 7 or 8 or 9) that people will know whether this is something they excel at and want to do. Grad coursework is just like undergrad, and teaching is separate from research.

One thing I have to say: I don't trust any of the anecdata provided by working academics about how "all of their students" have jobs. I've seen too many times when students who struggle are just conveniently forgotten. I've heard one advisor tell his advisee that "all of his students get funding", only a few days later to mention that someone had left the program to work in the City of London "to make some money to fund her PhD". This same advisor also probably tells himself that all of his students have excellent positions -- some certainly do. He just likes to forget about the students he's thrown under the bus at their thesis defence - after all, they didn't graduate, so they aren't "his student" anymore, right?

Employment success does differ by school - my own program is very well funded, very respected and a majority of graduates (about 70%?) find academic employment. But that doesn't mean that there aren't a lot of people falling through the cracks, just that there is less institutional support for them because they are the "bad eggs".
posted by jb at 12:50 PM on April 26, 2011 [3 favorites]

Umm, he does realize the PhD has become something of a vanity degree for people who want to maintain an image of seeming smarter-than-thou and have no intention of really, really using it?

And that there are people who just want to avoid working so they extend their school days for as long as possible?
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 2:46 PM on April 26, 2011

And that there are people who just want to avoid working so they extend their school days for as long as possible?

I am one of those people. In my defence school is about the only thing I'm good at.
posted by selenized at 2:55 PM on April 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Alexandra Kitty - my head is hurting from confusion from your comment. How is a Phd ever a good vanity thing? It makes one poor and unfashionable. Or how does taking one help you avoid working? I was doing 60+ hour weeks in my first few months of coursework, and didn't even have time to go to a Halloween party because I had too much reading; in their first few years, my lab-based scientist friends might come out for dinner, and then go right back to the lab again, because they had only put in 9 hours before dinner and had another three to do before they could sleep. One of the main reasons I want to leave academia is that I would really like a job which is only forty hours a week.
posted by jb at 2:56 PM on April 26, 2011 [6 favorites]

One of the topic links, Phd Factory, present a rather interesting summary of the present situation in many countries, many focusing on economic aspects.

But let' start from the literal meaning of Phd, Doctor of Philosophy. What does Philosophy mean?
Let's consider that the word comes from the attic greek φιλοσοφία, composite of φιλεῖν (filèin), "to love", and σοφία (sofìa) or "knowledge": to me a Phds, or a BA or BSc is often a person who strongly likes learning, knowing and understanding, usually an avid reader or using any kind of medium.

One doesn't necessarily need to obtain any particular title to be a philosopher: my car mechanic, a 60+ years old colourful man who didn't attend high school, is forever fascinated by concepts he doesn't understand completely (and by ancient greece mythology, on which he is used to drawning perilous but reasonable parallels, as he understood gods to be representation of humans), but he keeps on reading and trying to understand.
He often says that he would have liked to study more, but unfortunately he wasn't a brilliant student (the state in which most youngster enter any school, unsurprisingly) and that his family needed him to work to help sustain themselves.

So, we have a class made by people we may tentatively call "natural philosophers" and a second class composed by "market oriented students", whose primary goal is that of obtaining educational titles, percevied as instruments that may be used to obtain higher salaries or to escape less monetarily rewarding and socially prestigeous careers (i.e. burger flipping).

The former presently constitute the bulk of the workforce in any kind of lab or research team, regardless of the nature of subject being studied; in a bid to apply what they have learned, and to learn therefore some more, they often volountarily submit to long hours and poor pays (at least in my country, Italy) and would surely like to remain in the academia, but financial considerations drive them to look for jobs in any sector; at times the exploitation by private educational institutions (and now also by the public ones) quickly becomes evident, so they try to find a position in private or public companies, in which at times they become the necessary, underestimated complement to the latter class.

Indeed the latter class, the "market oriented student" class, is (imho) increasingly composed of people who seldom are philosophers, but are quite focused on achieving an high rank position, or prestigeous position, in the hierarchy/food chain of any business activity: that's due to the advent of private colleges, in which "being connected" or "networking" with people is the top priority; the student is prepared "enough" to understand what they will be doing, while the minutiae are left to the workforce.

The combined effect of "networking/connectedness" focus and lack of focus on preparation produces a limited number of well-connected-elite-status graduates, while the remaining students leave the college with a sizeable debt, but not necessarily with a proportional preparation, and immensely pressed to repay the debt asap: not being natural philosopher, they have an hard time going back to the books.

Hence we have a Phd Factory, an increased number of Phds with different preparations, sometimes responding to market induced demand for education (see China, churning Phds of a questionable quality, as they need and wish to enter the workforce asap), sometimes being basically cheated into becoming high quality inexpensive temporary workforce (Western present model), sometimes being basically coopted by a financial elite, and the German attempt to adapt the curriculums so as to let people who like to learn have a job (not necessarily a prestigeous position) in some company.

It's quite unfortunate that present educational models are, imho, increasingly being shaped by business needs; some would argue that that has always been the case, but the business cycles are now shorter than ever, which has an effect on quality of preparation and - more specifically- introduces a mindset in which failure is not even considered as an acceptable element of the path toward understanding.

We see that in Phds cheating and producing false data, in order both to obtain financement and to avoid being seen as "unproductive"; yet it should be self evident that the yeld of properly conducted studies is information, which is target agnostic - if my study doesn't produce a desiderable result, it still yelds properly formed information on what path is less likely to lead to desiderable results.
posted by elpapacito at 2:57 PM on April 26, 2011

To be serious, it really hurts your vanity, aka self-esteem, to be in graduate school. You go from being one of the smarter people in the room to being one of the dumber - and always there is someone who has read more and knows more than you. There is a reason why a very large number of graduate students are in therapy for depression.

A PhD as a vanity degree is such a silly idea that I can't imagine anyone with the intelligence to complete a BA entertaining the idea for longer than ... entertaining the idea at all. It would be like saying that people purposely break their legs to be able to use the disabled seats on the bus.
posted by jb at 3:00 PM on April 26, 2011 [7 favorites]

Well, to be fair, there *is* a person in my lab who's apparently in it for the vanity thing; she works about 20 hours a week, at least a good 40 less than anyone else. I have no idea how she hasn't been let go. This is someone who decided that she was going to be married by 24 and, by golly, she got hitched to the first person she seriously dated 6 months after meeting him. At 24.
posted by porpoise at 3:27 PM on April 26, 2011

I'm sorry, can't we just give Admiral Adama the benefit of the doubt?

Sorry, I can't be the only one thinking that.

OK, the reality is that they're right (at least in biological sciences). They turn out way too many people with way too much focus and not enough practical experience to justify the cost and time that the degree took. I feel bad too because a lot of people realize this during their doctoral studies but stick with it for various reasons. They think its too late to go back now, they really want a PhD (vanity) after their name or often because studying to work in Academia is an incestuous affair and they seem to have everyone convinced that without a PhD and a postdoc no one will consider you for a job. As more and more people have been pushed through this program to provide free labor for PIs who have often low/no incentive to help teach we end up with a ton of poorly trained (though often bright, well intentioned, debt ridden and burned out) of PhDs on the market all fighting to get a job in academia. When they come to industry they're often of no more value than an intro lab tech for a few years since their study was so focused that unless there's a direct market for their skills that they have to get some real world experience like everyone else.

The thing is that these students all want to learn and are well intentioned, they can get work and jobs. The problem exists in the fact that they want to work in academia which doesn't have enough jobs so raises the bar on time, requirements, etc... to useless levels and everyone goes through these pathways where only the 8% who end up in academia as faculty actually should. The rest should be trained and get out in 4 years with a PhD rather than 10 with a postdoc and get a job someplace where you're more likely to be judged on your intelligence than whether you went through the right fellowships and postdocs. IMO, the system is OK for producing academic faculty but that should only be a small part of who and how they train people because thats only a small part of the job market.

Sorry, I could talk about this stuff for days as I've made an amateur study of it for about 5 years now. I think there really is a problem and there's a lot of injustice going on taking advantage of students with little exposure or recourse. Add to this the skewed sense of importance in the academic environment to bolsters peoples feelings of self worth (MS is a consolation prize for losers, PhD without a postdoc was a waste of time, ...) and you've created a troubling and often oppressive system.

There's a fix though and its faster, cheaper and better overall. Don't need to scrap the system, just fix it and the mentalities of the people that define it.
posted by thadjudkins at 6:37 PM on April 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

Being a poor, lousy ABD in English forced me to do things like a) work on various other professors' research projects for extra cash b) help edit a well-known poetry anthology c) write music reviews for a local magazine for which I actually got paid d) learn rudimentary HTML and web-design.

Thanks University of Virginia, I guess.
posted by bardic at 8:32 PM on April 26, 2011

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