I’ve enjoyed PhD comics. I’ve even said a few words to its author, and he has drawn pictures in and signed a couple of books of his I bought. In 2008 and 09 when I started this PhD process, his comics and criticisms of the academic community seemed deadly accurate. However, as I finished the PhD, the comics seemed hard to relate to.
Lately, I’ve found PhD comics to be annoying. Some aspects of the comic strip that were relevant 10 years ago, when the PhD Comics author got his PhD (2002-2003?), are quickly losing their relevance. In the worst case PhD comics gives the academic profession a “bad rap” or just come across as professional “put-downs” based on dated partial-truths.
What I think has changed in the past ten years to make PhD comics lose its relevance:
- The fields of study people are pursing are changing.
As a percentage of PhDs earned, there have has a significant increase in more practical fields such as all engineering disciplines, computer science, and biomedical/health sciences. This has been accompanied by a decrease in humanities, social sciences, and education PhDs (as a percentage of total PhDs earned).
Humanities and Social Science PhDs are a tough gig, but there is little growth in the number of PhDs earned in these fields in the last decade.
- The time it takes to get a PhD decreased significantly from 2003 to 2013
By 1 year across all fields-> http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/sed/2013/data/tab31.pdf
This means there is 1 year less of the bad stuff “PhD comics” is based off of. This is, no doubt, in part due to reason 1……There are more people completing PhDs in fields where it takes less time to complete a PhD. My experience was nothing like the “Life Taking” experiences still published in the PhD Comics books. For example……
- More people are earning PhDs.
A 29% increase from 2003 to 2013 (11994 more people earned PhDs in 2013 than in 2003). If it is such a bad thing to do, why are more people doing it?
Most of the increase has been due to engineering, life science, and computer science PhDs.
- Healthy academic salaries vs. anemic industry salaries for engineers over the last decade
PhD comics doesn’t seem to address the issue that salaries and opportunities in engineering (and industry in general) are often greater in academia vs. industry. This is new in the last ten years and is a result of the stagnant salaries for engineers working in industry in the last decade.
I worked as an engineer with a master’s degree in industry for several years starting in the early 2000s. When I started, I made more than a tenure track (but not yet tenured) assistant prof with a couple years of experience in an R1 university. When I ended and went back to grad school, a tenure track (not yet tenured) assistant professor with a couple years of experience would have me beat in salary by ~15k…this is based on my industry salary after several years of experience.
(Just in case people don’t know…salaries at public universities are public info)
Once you get tenure, academic engineering salaries at R1 universities far outpace industry salaries…even I’m afraid to let on how good these salaries actually are…. One might argue that few get tenure. This is not true in engineering. It is rare to see a prof not get tenure in my experience. If they aren’t going to get tenure, they can almost always jump to another comparable university. Not only that, competent asst. profs can get tenure within 5-6 years.
- A “post-doc” as PhD Comics understood it ceased to exist as of about 5-10 years ago
Here is PhD comics on the “post-doc”.
It is as if the creator of Phd Comics isn’t aware of the “The Big Bang Theory”, and instead chooses to malign a type of academic position that, in all reality, doesn’t really exist anymore. It existed 10-15 years ago…no doubt. This is a change in the last decade.
For starters, the question is what do you call an individual who has earned a PhD, works in academia doing research, but is not a professor?
You rarely see the official position title “postdoctoral scholar” (a.k.a. post-doc) anymore. Instead you see “Fellow”, “Research Fellow”, “Research Scientist”, or “Research Faculty”. “Fellow” or “Research Fellow” is usually considered a training position; however, there is often a very fine line between what is a “Research Fellow” vs. what is a “Research Faculty” as they often do identical jobs….For example, it is not uncommon to see a Research Fellow promoted to Research Faculty while doing the same job. The term “post-doc” would either be used as slang for a first year Fellow or a behind-their-back insult to a Research Faculty.
On the “Big Bang Theory” Sheldon, Leonard, Amy, and Raj would likely be considered Research Faculty (Sheldon was recently promoted to asst. prof). Do the lives of Sheldon, Leonard, Amy, or Raj professional resemble anything like what PhD Comics depicts? No…of course not. This is because PhD comics depicts an academic world that existed almost 15 years ago. The “Big Bang Theory” depiction of the research structure at universities is accurate in my opinion.
Secondly, these Fellows/Research Faculty’s salaries are reasonably competitive. For engineers 1st year is 50-55k, 2nd/3rd year is 60k-70k. Research Faculty (4th/5th year) at universities range between 80k-100k. Most Engineering PhDs would find similar salaries after working five years in industry (see my point 4). In some case, Research Faculty can get tenure, or act as an alternative career path to become a prof (Most profs still are fellows before becoming professors).
Beats me where PhD comics is coming from……
My Conclusion: It’s certainly not as funny anymore. What are people’s thoughts on this?