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Article: "The disposable academic: Why doing a PhD is often a waste of time"

LurkNessMonsterLurkNessMonster Posts: 2,015Registered User Senior Member
edited March 2012 in Graduate School
From The Economist:
Whining PhD students are nothing new, but there seem to be genuine problems with the system that produces research doctorates (the practical “professional doctorates” in fields such as law, business and medicine have a more obvious value). 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.
Proponents of the PhD argue that it is worthwhile even if it does not lead to permanent academic employment. Not every student embarks on a PhD wanting a university career and many move successfully into private-sector jobs in, for instance, industrial research. That is true; but drop-out rates suggest that many students become dispirited. In America only 57% of doctoral students will have a PhD ten years after their first date of enrolment. In the humanities, where most students pay for their own PhDs, the figure is 49%. Worse still, whereas in other subject areas students tend to jump ship in the early years, in the humanities they cling like limpets before eventually falling off. And these students started out as the academic cream of the nation. Research at one American university found that those who finish are no cleverer than those who do not. Poor supervision, bad job prospects or lack of money cause them to run out of steam.

Doctoral degrees: The disposable academic | The Economist
Post edited by LurkNessMonster on
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Replies to: Article: "The disposable academic: Why doing a PhD is often a waste of time"

  • PeaPea Posts: 2,384Registered User Senior Member
    I saw this article and didn't like it. It isn't even internally consistent. The article complains that there are too many PhDs and also that the rate of attrition from the programs is too high.

    I would argue that the rate of attrition is a result of the program's being difficult. This has the effect of weeding people out and bringing the numbers down. If the programs weren't so difficult then there would be even more people with PhDs.

    I thought this was just another article written by someone who wasn't well informed about the issues and felt like complaining.
  • yaygradyyaygrady Posts: 86Registered User Junior Member
    I think every profession has its ups and downs--even professional degrees like JD/MBA/MD degrees are also very demanding..and there are likely people who will complain in these programs too.
    I think what matters is how you use your degree and what you ultimately want to achieve and what you really WANT to do in life. Not all PhDs end up in academia/research but yes, it primarily teaches you for a scientific/academic career. There are lot of opportunities for people with PhDs outside of the traditional academic fields. You just have to look at the right places. Your PhD will not be gone in vain, in fact, it will be a huge asset to any company you apply for and you most likely will start at a much higher position than you would if you just had a Bachelors or Masters..and you will get higher promotions at a much faster rate. Ofcourse, you have to prove your worth and earn respect--which is true in every profession.

    It is NOT a waste of time..you learn such wide range of skills such as writing, presenting, problem-solving which is important in so many careers. It will only be if you make it ought to be! So the years completing your PhD are not only preparing you for a bright future, but you will come out with such pride having that doctorate degree in your hands!! It is both intellectually and personally rewarding.

    So be optimistic, do the hard work, go to conferences and present your work, and DO take the opportunity to network not only among your peers but also among people in fields outside of your area--because you never know who you come across who might just give you that dream job you have always wanted!
  • JHSJHS Posts: 14,136Registered User Senior Member
    In the humanities, where most students pay for their own PhDs, the figure is 49%.

    No one, but no one, should pay for his or her own PhD in the humanities (or in any other field), except as a personal indulgence affordable because of great wealth. I don't know anyone who has or would. Where did The Economist get this factual premise?

    I look at PhD programs as poorly paid, entry level training jobs. As with most such jobs, they are hard and there is a lot of attrition as people discover they have other options they like more. As with most such jobs, there is camaraderie and competition, and lots of whining about how everyone is treated. Entry level jobs lead to other jobs, although not always in the direct career path envisioned. Everyone knows that. Sometimes people really shift directions, and all the work is "wasted" to some extent, but that's not the majority.
  • somemomsomemom Posts: 9,273Registered User Senior Member
    The place when paying might be appropriate is a student whose undergrad record needs rehabilitation before qualifying for grad school, that student might pay for a masters to get the research experience and prove their proficiency in coursework
  • gthopefulgthopeful Posts: 1,828Registered User Senior Member
    I do sometimes feel like I could be making a lot more money and gaining more job skills if I had simply left after my MS last year. However, I like the environment where I can pursue whatever I want as long as I meet deadlines.
  • mathboy98mathboy98 Posts: 3,752Registered User Senior Member
    I look at PhD programs as poorly paid, entry level training jobs. As with most such jobs, they are hard and there is a lot of attrition as people discover they have other options they like more.

    That's how I see it too. People work all sorts of jobs before they land on something they want to do, and at the very least a PhD affords lots of chance for development.

    Further, let's not forget that even getting paid a small amount is to the student's advantage in a huge way. There are PhDs which can be received in 4 years -- think about it, paying 3 or 4 year's worth of stuff vs. getting paid, albeit little, for that much time; plus, if the person really entered the PhD program with the right attitude, (s)he would have real plans for what to do with that time.
    do the hard work, go to conferences and present your work, and DO take the opportunity to network not only among your peers but also among people in fields outside of your area

    I think this is on the money.
    I do sometimes feel like I could be making a lot more money and gaining more job skills if I had simply left after my MS last year

    Well, the goal of the PhD isn't to prep for a typical job anyway. After all, it is training in research, which is another word for learning a whole lot of new stuff without too much fear and being able to produce something from it. If one's goal really were just to take the shortest path to prep for a job that pays pretty well, one might avoid the MS too, and just get a BS and start working, and maybe get a management degree. But that isn't the ideal path for all kinds of jobs, and the mind of a PhD is valued in certain settings. Probably, a technical/mathematical PhD opens more career doors than a humanities or social studies one.

    The real question is if the PhD provides value for what it's meant to do, and yes it does, if one goes in with a mature outlook on it. Someone who just wants some kind of degree to get a good job probably is better off looking at other degrees.

    Maybe a better criticism would be doing a PhD for the massive number of people who don't think through why they want one is often a waste of time.
  • jack63jack63 Posts: 493Registered User Member
    I read the article, and it makes some good points. I was a physics major who switched to engineering. This...I think....was a good decision. A number of my former physics classmates got PhDs. To my surprise, some of them are doing great. They have nice academic careers going. It would have been wrong to tell these students not to go into this area that they were passionate about. These students have suceeded.

    Other classmates sucessfully got thier PhD, and are really struggling.....some of those who are struggling now after thier PhD were star students in thier undergrad programs. Also, I've talked to former classmates who have wished they hadn't got a PhD in a science or had gone into engineering. Should somebody have discouraged these students.....yea....maybe. How do you know which ones to discourage or not to discourage? I don't know.



    One more thing about the article.....below is a qoute from the article....
    The premium for a PhD is actually smaller than for a master’s degree in engineering and technology, architecture and education.

    I believe the author of the article missed some important points here. You can't compare the salary of an engineering academic with a engineer in industry. It really is an apples to oranges comparison. When I graduated with a Masters in Engineering several years ago, I immediately started at a salary close to what my tenure track professors were making. To say that this means "The premium for a PhD is actually smaller than for a master's degree in engineering" just doesn't make any sense. If you you look at the long term oppurtunites of an engineering professor vs. a corporate engineer, the professor's opportunities are significantly higher long term. The tenure track professors don't get downsized anywhere near the level at which the corporate engineer does.....true the engineering professor might not get tenure and need to move....this only usually happens once though. The professor can work until she is 75, while the corporate engineer is out at 55.....this in and of itself is worth a few million dollars. The professor job is just better with far greater flexibility. The engineering professors get consistant raises, can consult, and start thier own companies within 7 to 10 years of starting thier academic position. Thier consulting fees aren't listed anywhere and can be up to 25% of thier income.
  • JorjeJorje Posts: 91Registered User Junior Member
    The article is spot on for the most part. A PhD nowadays does not grant you any sort of job security (except life time postdocs) and you have to be ready to work for long hours, low pay and always living in the insecurity of not having a secured future. The way I see it a PhD in the sciences (may differ for engineering) is only worth it if 1) you absolutely love this stuff and you're willing to sacrifice a lot for it 2) if you enter the highest tier in schools in your field where your future prospects are better. A PhD is supposed to mainly train you for an academic career, and there are few academic spots and tons of PhD degrees issued every year. The situation in industry would likely depend on the field, but the opportunities there are fickle and do not seem to be so much better than in academia.
  • mathboy98mathboy98 Posts: 3,752Registered User Senior Member
    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.
    The article is spot on for the most part. A PhD nowadays does not grant you any sort of job security (except life time postdocs) and you have to be ready to work for long hours, low pay and always living in the insecurity of not having a secured future

    Unfortunately, this is the common perception, but one must also acknowledge that a PhD is precisely training in independent research. There is some value to not being attached to any specific set of skills, but being able to pull up new stuff, learn it rapidly and figure out what to do oneself...along with the presentation skills, deep thinking, etc, etc. Coupled with skills like programming, it can be valuable outside of academia.

    The problem occurs when a PhD has no skills outside of academia-marketable things, and is uncertain of and/or not strong enough to continue in the academia world.

    I think some self-awareness going into the PhD (or rather, before applying even) is what is needed.
  • JorjeJorje Posts: 91Registered User Junior Member
    Unfortunately, this is the common perception, but one must also acknowledge that a PhD is precisely training in independent research. There is some value to not being attached to any specific set of skills, but being able to pull up new stuff, learn it rapidly and figure out what to do oneself...along with the presentation skills, deep thinking, etc, etc. Coupled with skills like programming, it can be valuable outside of academia.

    The problem occurs when a PhD has no skills outside of academia-marketable things
    , and is uncertain of and/or not strong enough to continue in the academia world.

    I think some self-awareness going into the PhD (or rather, before applying even) is what is needed.

    But that's exactly part of the problem. The criticism is that PhD training ends up being too specialized and the training you receive does not conform with what industry is looking for.

    In my opinion the system needs to be changed. No matter how we twist it, a PhD is really designed primarily for an academic career in the pursuit of knowledge. PhD admissions should be made much more competitive, and those who do get admitted should have a high chance for a future career as a professor. This probably means that "technician" could replace many PhD positions, and those with an already established publication record can continue pursuing the PhD. But then PIs would love alluring all the young minds with something that sounds prestigious like the PhD in return for cheap labor.
  • LadyDianeskiLadyDianeski Posts: 2,045Registered User Senior Member
    Oh my gosh, the horror stories we could tell!

    DH earned his Harvard PhD in (Byzantine) history in the early '80s. His adviser, the late Professor Robert Lee Wolff, had always managed to place all of his doctoral students in good tenure-track positions. But, a few years before DH graduated, the situation became much more dire, and Professor Wolff could no longer guarantee jobs for his proteges. A Wolff protege who graduated just two years before DH managed to land only a half-time gig at Georgetown, with a half-time fellowship at Dumbarton Oaks. It wasn't tenure-track, and the pay stank.

    When DH was applying, there were only two tenure-track openings in Byzantine history in the entire country: one at Rutgers (they wanted a secondary specialty in Arabic history, which is actually unusual for a Byzantinist); and one at UT-Austin (they could not decide between funding a Byzantine position or an Ancient Greek history position, and they ended up going with the Ancient Greek slot). Although Byzantine history is so much more arcane than American history, which always draws tons of applicants, it seemed as if every Byzantinist in America came out of the woodwork for these two tenure-track Byzantine openings. And one of the openings ended up being a non-starter, anyway.

    It was very grim back then. The professoriate was glutted with tenured professors who had landed their jobs during the halcyon days of the '60s and '70s. These professors were youngish -- very far from retirement age. They were also entrenched. They weren't going anywhere!

    DH made the finals for both the Rutgers and the UT jobs. Then the UT job turned into an Ancient Greek, not Byzantine, job. And the Rutgers job apparently went to someone whose secondary specialty was Arabic history. (My DH, like most Byzantinists, did his secondary field in Roman history. He did know a lot about Arabic history, but he had not done one of his four fields in it.)

    So, like the guy a few years ahead of him, DH ended up with a Dumbarton Oaks fellowship and not much else. He was so discouraged and demoralized that he chucked it all and went into high school teaching (at the Louisiana School for Math, Science & the Arts).

    End of saga.

    I was under the impression that professorial jobs were far more available now than they were back in the early '80s, when so many young academics ended up as poorly paid "gypsy scholars," lecturers, and adjuncts. It's depressing to discover that the situation is still pretty bad. :(
  • LadyDianeskiLadyDianeski Posts: 2,045Registered User Senior Member
    I'm with JHS, BTW. No one pays for his or her PhD. Every PhD program DH applied to offered him a full ride plus stipend. I guess they figure humanities PhDs will be starving for a long time, hence unable to repay huge loans, so don't even go there. :)
  • MonkeyKing1MonkeyKing1 Posts: 273Registered User Junior Member
    Too many people waste their time, money and life on PhD's. It really is an awful ponzi scheme. If you are from a privileged background, then by all means pursue one if it's your fancy, but its a terribly deceptive degree that can ruin your life.

    Something has to be done. I feel nothing but sorrow and pity for those poor PhDs who are now unemployed and would do literally anything to destroy their useless degrees and turn the clock back to give them another chance.
  • MmeZeeZeeMmeZeeZee Posts: 490Registered User Member
    Supply and demand pretty much sums it up for me. There's a supply glut so only the best of the best will make it. The New York Times has a great article about the supply glut for corporate and private lawyers right now (there is a "demand" for lawyers for the poor, but since they cannot pay even for the lawyers' basic needs, it's more of a need than a demand, like saying there is a "demand" for yachts although nobody can pay for them).

    If you have a passion for research that drives you, do a PhD. If you want to be the most qualified for a job, get a highly technical bachelor's and a strong master's because that is what is required in the job market.
  • cellardwellercellardweller Posts: 1,567Registered User Senior Member
    There are lot of opportunities for people with PhDs outside of the traditional academic fields.

    That is largely a myth. The opportunities are typically few and far between. There are relatively few professions where a PhD degree would be required over and above a Masters degree. The opportunities would be mostly be in the chemistry/biotechnology/biomedical field working in a lab. Some patent attorneys also have PhDs although technically nothing over a BS in science or engineering is required, and a patent attorney requires a JD degree over an above a PhD. They could practice as patent agents but they are paid much less than patent attorneys. In the medical field you have MD/PhD or physician-scientists who can combine research and medical practice. But again, they don't make more than straight MDs, and actually typically make less because of their research functions.
    Your PhD will not be gone in vain, in fact, it will be a huge asset to any company you apply for and you most likely will start at a much higher position than you would if you just had a Bachelors or Masters.

    That is also not true. There used to be a market for PhDs in math and physics as "quants" on Wall Street. That market has largely disappeared in favor of highly specialized applicants with Masters degrees in quantitative finance and derivative products. In most cases, there will be NO premium for a corporate position for a PhD in science or engineering over a candidate with a Masters degree in the same field. In addition, the PhD applicant often has to overcome the presumption that a corporate career is only a backup to an unsuccessful academic career and may therefore be less motivated than the candidate with a Masters degree.
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