The times are changing: Is PhD Comics still relevant?

http://phdcomics.com/comics.php

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:

  1. The fields of study people are pursing are changing.

http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/sed/2013/data/tab12.pdf

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.

  1. 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……

http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=360

  1. More people are earning PhDs.

http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/sed/2013/data/tab12.pdf

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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”.

http://www.phdcomics.com/comics.php?f=1744

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?

http://phdcomics.com/comics.php?f=1596

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……
http://phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=995
http://phdcomics.com/comics.php?f=1000

My Conclusion: It’s certainly not as funny anymore. What are people’s thoughts on this?

So? How does that affect anything in the comic?

Again… so? The mean time may have decreased, but that does not mean that (a) those years don’t still suck, (b) the variance still results in a lot of students taking forever to get their doctorates, or that © this isn’t a symptom of other problems decreasing budgets in the humanities putting stresses on faculty and students to graduate or reject them faster!

And the specific comic you posted was meant to be funny, not characteristic.

For lots of reasons, such as concerns that a bachelors or masters won’t be adequate, or because they were accepted to grad school but not to a decent job, etc. Just because more people are doing it does not automatically mean it is a good thing. It also does not mean that they are all getting jobs for which a PhD is either a requirement or an asset.

Well, we are getting a little specific now. I am also in engineering, worked in industry and then took a detour to get my PhD (in progress). I know people going through the tenure process, and I know what salaries are still like at my company, and it is not as clear cut as you are making it. In my department, assistant profs are making about what we pay new PhD’s at my company right now, and the full professors are making almost $100k less than the top engineers (not management, engineers) at my company make. The professors have more total earning potential, because they retain at least partial intellectual property rights, but it is at best evening out.

Further, tenure is no laughing matter. I have a friend who just got tenure in engineering a couple of years ago, and for 6 years he was working himself to death (compared to the 40-45 work weeks at my company). He immediately wound up on the tenure review committee and is seeing something like 50% of the tenure-track faculty denied tenure. That’s 50% who are still working themselves to death at a new school, or abandoning academia, and he is at the #1 department for his field in the country.

We have them in my department. And yes, they are called post-docs. And while it is getting less common in engineering in favor of “research scientists*” , in other fields it is still the norm. And again, the life of the post-doc depends a lot on the field and the university - there are indeed a lot of post-docs still living like the comic suggests (I know a few!), but really I am not sure why you would consider “The Big Bang Theory” to be a realistic depiction of anything. If nothing else, Sheldon would have been medicated or pushed down an elevator shaft years ago!

FWIW, none of the characters on that show (other than those in pharma) show any sign of significant income. They share apartments, have few major expenses (2 cars between the lot?), and live fairly cheaply. Other than splurging on geek toys, I see nothing to indicate that they are making a good salary as opposed to just being frugal!

*: Research scientist/faculty is not necessarily superior to being a post-doc. The money may be better, but these positions are often permanent, with no expectation of getting a tenured position.

I actually disagree with most of your post. Full disclosure: I’m in the social sciences/health sciences, but still a field where postdocs, research faculty, research scientists, etc., are very common.

In my field, a research scientist is quite different from a postdoctoral fellow, as are the attendant salaries. Research scientists are either 1) people hired on grant funding to do a specific set of tasks in support of that grant, usually under the supervision of a PI (who is generally tenured faculty at the institution), and thus the job is often term-limited unless the scientist and the PI write a new grant together, or 2) 100% soft money jobs at centers or institutes in which the scientist writes their own grants to keep themselves funded. Postdoctoral positions are traineeships; postdocs often have tasks that look like research scientists’ tasks, but they are considered in training and under the supervision of a mentor. Postdoc salaries range from $40-50K whereas research scientists/associates salaries are usually like $60-80K. (New tenure-track faculty in my field generally start at about $80-95K at R1 institutions.)

Research scientists are actually more equivalent by level tenure-track assistant professors in my field; they are independent, they usually have at least a modicum of control over the direction of research (and full control if they are one of those 100% soft money positions), and they usually aren’t using the job as a stepping-stone to a tenure-track faculty position. Postdoctoral jobs are understood to be temporary steps on the way to a faculty position, which is why the pay is so low. Current NIH levels for first-year postdocs are like $39K.

And research faculty/fellows are something else altogether. Research faculty are exactly that - faculty who don’t have to teach; they only do research. At most universities they are non-TT but it is possible to be a TT research faculty member. And a research fellow can mean anything. There are some very senior, distinguished people who take Research Fellow positions for a year or so while they’re on sabbatical from their main job.

I’m…not really sure what your vested interest is in trying to prove that PhD Comics is outdated/outmoded. I just graduated from graduate school in August 2014, and I find the depiction to be a somewhat accurate portrayal of graduate school - although of course exaggerated for humor, just as Sheldon, Leonard, and Raj are exaggerated for humor in The Big Bang Theory. (Although, let’s be fair - we don’t know what their titles were before Sheldon got promoted to assistant professor. (Sheldon also has two doctoral degrees and finished college and his first PhD in the 5 years between age 11 and age 16, so BBT isn’t exactly a bastion of real-world accuracy.) It does sound like Sheldon, Leonard and Raj are research scientists, but then again Sheldon got his PhD at 16 and was a visiting professor in Germany before he turned 20…so I think it’s safe to say that his career might have taken a different turn than the typical real-world scientist. Even in the real world, exceptionally well-prepared superstar graduate students can go straight into faculty jobs. (Also, it’s pretty clear that Sheldon was supposed to be an extremely absurd depiction of a quirky super-genius scientist.)

I also had the same observation as @cosmicfish. I mean, Sheldon and Leonard share an apartment, and none of the characters appears especially wealthy or even upper-middle-class (other than Raj, who comes from a wealthy family).

I don’t know what field Mike Slackernerny (the grad student/postdoc with red hair in the comics) is supposed to be in, but it’s not unrealistic that a graduate student make nearly ten times what he made in grad school depending on the field. One of my former students just started a sociology PhD program in which the stipend is $18,000 a year; if he got a job at a management consulting firm in 6 years, he could very well make nearly $180K a year. Again, it’s exaggeration, but a top grad student making $35K at MIT or Caltech or something could very well go to Google or Apple and make many times that, and probably more than he could expect to make as an assistant professor.

The tl;dr point of all this is that the graduate school - postdoc - assistant professor model does actually still exist and is flourishing in many fields, and salaries for postdocs are still actually pretty low.

Having been a physics professor for over 30 years, I find the comic still quite relevant. I see a lot of the characters in my own experience. Of course one can always find counterexamples but the bottom line is that it is a comic not a scholarly treatise on the state of academia.

I’m in the biomedical sciences, where five-ish year postdocs are more or less a hard requirement for a professor position at a research-intensive school. My official job title is Research Fellow, but if you asked anyone (including me) what my position is, they would say postdoc.

Postdoc salaries in the biomedical sciences generally follow the [NIH NRSA payscale](http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/notice-files/NOT-OD-14-046.html), which starts at $42k for zero years of postdoctoral experience and goes up to $55k for seven years. That’s certainly not nothing, but it’s enough to make people gripe, and it’s nowhere near the $80-100k salaries you’re quoting for senior postdocs in engineering.

I’m glad every body responded! This is exactly the type of conversation I wanted to have and expected to have. I didn’t expect many people to “like” what I had to say. I’ll respond to everything. It may take some time…

I think the comic regularly crosses line of what is good taste. Like I said, sometimes I’ve enjoyed it, but other times it comes across as overly personal in its criticisms of people who choose to work at universities. For example…

http://phdcomics.com/comics.php?f=1106

It’s not Dilbert. Dilbert is still relevant and funny in my opinion. Most of the US work or has a family member working like Dilbert. PhD comics paints academia in a bad light. People you meet who are not in academia may start talking about PhD comics. I don’t think that is helpful.

When I was in grad school…it was within the last year. Other grad students were genuinely annoyed by Phd comics too. I’m not alone in my opinions.

My experience working in industry was not a good one. For somebody to say that, compared to academia, the grass is always greener if you just go take a “real job” hits me harder than it would hit others. Education represents a large part of the US economy. Phd comics both mystifies this world and puts it down.

I love comic books and geek toys. I also know how much they actually cost. I always thought the running joke of the series was that these guys were sporting collections worth 20k…they aren’t frugal at all. Two grown men rooming together to save money, so they could by 20k in “toys”. I thought that was funny and most people got that.

However, my point was never that they were wealthy or even upper middle class. My point was that they were solid middle class, stable, and had a future. This couldn’t be farther from what PhD comics describes for a career path.

I don’t see a problem with the comic you referenced. I don’t happy to agree with that one (post-docs tend to be better off in all categories than grad students, in my experience), but it doesn’t seem to me to be in bad taste.

First, I genuinely cannot think of a single person who has (a) ever mentioned PhD comics and (b) never been to grad school. Second, inside jokes about how great everything is aren’t jokes, they are poorly disguised propaganda - that’s why this comic (like Dilbert) pokes fun at the bad or hard parts of some shared occupation, in this case grad school and academia.

This is literally the first time I’ve heard of anyone having a problem with it. I have a dozen friends at a dozen grad programs in a dozen different fields, and the worst I ever heard from anyone was “I didn’t care for today’s much”.

So you have a problem with the comic that pokes fun at the thing you love (PhD Comics) but have no problems with the one that pokes fun at the thing you hated (Dilbert). I am sorry you had a bad experience in industry. No one is saying “the grass is always greener”, both comics have picked a niche and are building comedy by pointing out the shared struggles. It’s how humor works. PhD Comics is not intended to be career advice.

I have a ton of friends in industry, and a fair number in academia. My friend who just got tenure is living the dream and has a great life… that took a ton of work and no small amount of luck to get. I have other friends finishing their PhD’s and finding out that even from a good school, interviews can be hard to get. I have still other friends languishing in the hell that is being an “adjunct professor”, living on food stamps as a reward for a decade of college. The fact that people in industry see a similar range of experiences does not make academia some utopian existence, nor is the opposite true.

So over years they have spent $20k on stuff. So? Split that in two, spread it over some unknown number of years, and make it their only significant luxury, and it is a pretty small annual cost to automatically demonstrate “middle class”.

And yet that show has also made jokes about money (Wolowitz making SO much less than his wife) and about status and serves primarily to point out how pathetic these people are. The bad things that PhD comics points out about academia are being spread across academic journals and newspapers around the country - academia is fantastic for those in tenured jobs, but for everyone else it is often (not always) a huge struggle for comparatively low pay, and those tenured jobs are getting fewer and fewer even as the number of PhD’s is rising. PhD Comics is a way for people in academia and grad school to share a joke over common tribulations. If you don’t find it funny, you don’t have to read it.

I should note that, as an engineer and a PhD candidate, I have more problems with BBT than I ever had with PhD Comics. The latter shows good, intelligent people dealing with a difficult situation. The former shows intelligent but bumbling, socially inept, physically unimpressive people creating their own problems day after day. At least one has severe psychological problems. There is not a single person on the show who is represented as being a complete human being without some major flaw, and many are perpetually unhappy. I usually enjoy the show, but to hold it up as an example of how great academia is just mystifies me, because if I take it as such, all I see are awful people living a mediocre life.

I know exactly zero people outside of academia who are even passingly familiar with PhD Comics. I have certainly never met anyone who has no experience with academia and has approached me thinking that a humorous comic is a reflection of my every day life. I’d think they were quite off in the head if they did.

I have the same problem with @cosmicfish about BBT. At least PhD Comics (at least, in my experience) is an extensive inside joke that’s mostly only read by people within academia who actually “get it.” BBT is supposed to be a popular interest television show, but it portrays scientists as socially inept nerds who don’t know how to interact with other people - particularly other people without PhDs. Not to mention that a minor irritation I have is Sheldon’s possession of 2 PhDs. I have heard many non-academics hold up 2 PhDs as some kind of ultimate sign of nerdishness and genius, wheres having one myself I always think that having 2 PhDs - especially in two closely related fields is 1) virtually impossible, since most programs would never let you do that, and 2) pointless and stupid, and really more a sign of how much a person doesn’t want to move on than intelligence. I am similarly baffled at how someone can think BBT is a more realistic portrayal of science and the every day life of academics than PhD Comics.

I’m a current postdoc and I certainly don’t take that comic personally. Number one, because again, PhD Comics is supposed to be an exaggeration in order to be funny. Secondly, though, because it’s partially true. That comic is also part of a series - you have to take it in context. Mike is a new postdoc, and the more experienced postdocs are making the point that postdocs are often “invisible” on campus, as they have no official status - they’re not student, but not quite faculty. (Fortunately my university has recognized postdocs as staff, so we don’t have that issue, but that IS a significant problem at many campuses!) [url=<a href=“http://phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=1103%5DThis%5B/url”>http://phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=1103]This[/url] one is a particularly good one in that series.

@juillet …I got a kick out of reading about how puzzled you are with Sheldon’s 2 PhDs. Honestly, I can’t argue with you on this point. I think anybody who had two PhDs would literally have to be crazy. I’ll give you that one :wink: .

More seriously, the are things said by everybody that I just don’t agree with…or are things said that are really good points for discussion and debate. What are PhD comics?

My problem is that I don’t think PhD comics is a “Comic” anymore. It was 10 years ago. Some of its entries are comics of the same format as Dilbert. Other entries are well referenced graphs and visuals that would be perfectly appropriate in a New York Times education article. Such as…

http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=1086

Others entries are highly critical cartoons that are closer to the political cartoons you might find in the political editorial section of the newspaper. Such as…

http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=1144

I guess what I’m saying is that I see PhD comics more as “Media” or “Press” similar to how I would see the Drudgereport or the New York Times. No doubt Dr. Cham should be able to publish what he wants. However, if somebody wants to debate his ideas, scrutinize his opinions, and flat out criticize his work, you can’t pull back and say “Whoa! It is only a comic”. It is not a comic anymore, and it has opened itself up to debate and criticisms. As serious articles discuss the state of academia, they often will reference PhD comics.

For these reasons I disagree with the statement…

I think that at this point, it is “media” similar to a newspaper. Criticism and debate over what it is saying are perfectly fair game.

It is also notoriously hard to avoid as universities regularly invite Dr. Cham to speak, it is plastered over the walls of universities, and it often referred to in articles about the higher education system.

I see it more like “hey, if you like this strip you might also like to know that…” Being occasionally informative does not make you media or press, especially if the substantial majority of your time is devoted to straight up humor.

PhD Comics is not the only one to do this, by the way. The Oatmeal, for example, often includes facts or real opinions as part of the comic, but that does not mean that it is anything other than comedy.

In the discussion of the comic itself, I think you absolutely can. If that same artist then brings up those ideas in a non-comedy venue (such as someone inviting that person to speak at a university) then I think that is the part you should criticize. And if that is what you want to criticize, then please reference it. If Dr. Chan made comments about higher education in a serious context, and you disagree with them, I would be more than happy to discuss them, once I have read them. But if you feel a comic strip is too inaccurate… I am not sure what to say, other than that I disagree! Your results may vary!

Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, has comics plastered around every engineering department (academic or professional) that I have ever visited, has been invited to talk at numerous “serious” venues, and has been referenced in academic and professional works. That does not make him anything other than a comic.

The fact is that postdoc positions such as those described in PhD Comics do still exist and are quite common, particularly in academia. Postdocs working for government labs or research centers (NASA, NIH, etc) generally have a more defined role as a postdoc and are more likely to be very productive. Postdocs in academia are much more variable. I have seen them be essentially “faculty lite” positions where the postdoc gets a lot of professional freedom and can get a lot of great, career-building things done, and I have seen them be glorified lab assistants. In that regard, PhD Comics is still pretty much right on with those strips.

The moral of the story, though is that your mileage may vary. Every once in a while there will be a strip that really annoys me as being completely opposite my own experience, but inevitably then there is one soon after that hits the nail on the head. Not every comic can resonate with every person.

Of course, if you really don’t like it, just stop reading it. It’s still a far, far better depiction of academic life than the abomination that is Big Bang Theory, but if you find the latter to be funnier, then by all means, stick to that.

I really, really don’t get how you conclude that PhD Comics are not comics anymore. Even the graphs and visuals are drawn to be humorous. That second pictorial isn’t remotely political; it does reference a real phenomenon, but it’s still jokey. Just because Cham doesn’t use the traditional comic format 100% of the time doesn’t mean that PhD Comics is not a comic. It definitely doesn’t mean that you can compare it to Drudge Report, let alone the New York Times. I mean, for Pete’s sake the NYT is a serious news outlet. PhD Comics doesn’t pretend to be serious or about news.

The only serious comic I can ever remember them doing - that didn’t have a touch of humor to it - was the one after Jorge Cham visited a lab doing cancer research, and drew a comic talking about how cancer research was very different from what most people thought it was.

It is a form of media, but so are television shows, movies, other comics, books, graphic novels, etc. It’s not press (aka news media). You won’t see Jorge Cham clambering to the White House with a press pass or even to a university over some new announcement. He doesn’t seriously cover news. He doesn’t even seriously cover higher education news.

Still, nobody is saying that you can’t criticize him - you can criticize anything, whether it’s a comic or a comedy on television - or a serious literary novel or newspaper. I think the argument here is not that you can’t criticize Cham and PhD Comics, but that most of us simply disagree with your criticisms of PhD Comics. And I personally said that I think that you are taking PhD Comics too seriously - you criticize the comics for making exaggerated claims when I was pointing out that Cham does that deliberately, for humor, just like Dilbert and every other comic poking fun at reality does. I have to say that it’s kind of absurd to conclude that it’s not a comic anymore simply because he uses different formats when drawing it - Bill Watterson did that with Calvin and Hobbes, too, but it was still a comic. XKCD covers geeky stuff and serious stuff from time to time, but they’re definitely still a comic. A comic is not about the content so much as the medium. Comics are allowed to cover serious stuff; they’re allowed to do social commentary. In fact, if they didn’t no one would read them and they’d be boring.

As serious articles discuss the state of academia, they often will reference PhD comics.

When has a serious article ever seriously referenced PhD Comics? And by “seriously referenced,” I mean took as gospel what the strip means and used it as a discussion point in the article (not just used the comic as a funny jumping off point for the article).

Back to some of the original points people raised… @cosmicfish brought up some reasonable points.

To me, the same things that suck about grad school also extend the time it takes to graduate. These same things represent the content of about 60% of PhD comics. These include:

  1. Funding problems
  2. Bad advice from your advisor
  3. Little to no advice from your advisor
  4. TAs
  5. General time wasting activities you're assigned to do (e.g. anything from editing your advisor wiki page to filling out multiple forms to be reimbursed for a 5 dollar charge at a conference)
  6. Problems from your dissertation committee members
  7. Quals
  8. Being assigned to projects destined to fail.

An interesting point was raised…

quote this isn’t a symptom of other problems decreasing budgets in the humanities putting stresses on faculty and students to graduate or reject them faster!

[/quote]

I actually do agree that in the past 5 to 10 years, these policies have been implemented across the board in almost all fields.

My sincere question is whether people think the decrease in time to graduate over the past decade are primarily due to these policies or an overall improvement in the system (i.e. improving on the 8 or so items I listed that make a PhD suck). I personally think the decrease in time to graduate is due to an improvement in the things make a PhD suck. I’d be happy to hear other points of view.

I think that the time to graduate has reduced for a number of reasons, including concerted efforts by some departments to move students through faster, a more focused attempt by the students to finish earlier, and funding issues that simply limit how long you can stay.

I certainly do not think that all 8 of the factors you mentioned have improved. For example, funding is a bigger problem than ever - not only are more students seeing assistantship/fellowship shortages, but also the grant money needed to complete research has also reduced. This pushes students to graduate faster (while they still have funding!), it sure does not make their time any better!

So here is my point of view: Grad school has gotten shorter, on average. That alone does not mean it has gotten better, just that it has gotten shorter. Grad students experience all the problems you mentioned and more, and while some may have improved (again, on average) others have gotten worse. The grad experience, while wonderful in some ways, is still extremely hard compared to industry, and outcomes for graduates have certainly not improved. The difficulties humorously discussed in PhD comics are still experienced by a great many grad students all around the country, and if you yourself don’t or didn’t experience them, the sheer popularity of the comic should give you some proof that it resonates with a lot of students and former students.

I’ve heard professors say this. Funding pressures were given as one of the reasons I should graduate ASAP by my doctoral advisor….he gave me lots of good reasons….I think graduating ASAP was a good decision by the way.

The issue is that, on the surface, the data does not back up this claim. In fact, the exact opposite seems to be true. As of 2013, funding has never been better.

Below is data on doctoral student’s primary source of funding from 2001 – 2013 (In percentage). Keep in mind that the number of doctoral recipients has increased by 29% from 2003 to 2013.

2013 http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/sed/2013/data/tab35.pdf
Teaching assistantships: 20.8
Research assistantships or traineeships: 32
Fellowships or grants: 26.9
Own resources: 15.4
Employer: 3.0
Other: 1.8

For some strange reason I could not find data on 2012

Data for 2001-2011 is summarized on page 13 (figure 4A) http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/sed/digest/2011/nsf13301.pdf

Students funding themselves primarily from their own resources dropped from ~30% to ~15% between 2001 and 2013. This is a massive improvement, and a major change.

Now there may be some complex meanings hidden in the dept. of education/nsf data. I’d be happy to hear what they are.

Ditto. A lot of my grad school friends regularly post PhD comics, and I’ve identified with more than a few. The #whatshouldwecallgradschool Tumblr page is also quite popular.

I love #WhatShouldWeCallGradSchool. Hilarious.

I think the decrease in the percentage of PhD students funding themselves from their own resources has been partially due to a focus on programs in simply cutting spaces in their programs. They no longer let in students who don’t have funding in a lot of cases, not allowing them to fund their own way from personal resources. Or perhaps with the advent of the Internet, students are more savvy about funding and have chosen not to attend programs at which they were not funded, whereas before they would’ve.

One interesting note is that the 2011 chart on post-graduation salaries does demonstrate that across fields, on average people who go into industry make more money than people who start in academia. Postdocs in general hover right around $40K; academic salaries seem to range from $55K (humanities) to $75K (engineering), and industry salary averages range from $55K (humanities) to $100K (physical sciences). The only field that does not seem to have an industry bump is humanities - humanities PhDs make about $55K on average after earning a PhD regardless of whether they stay in academia or leave.

I will say, though, that most of my colleagues that have moved onto academic positions have been offered salaries quite a bit higher than the average for the social sciences. They do, however, tend to move onto R1 or elite institutions.

Another thing the chart shows is that the number of people going into postdoctoral positions has actually been increasing. They’ve always been more or less ubiquitous in the life and physical sciences - with about 60% of life scientists and 50% of physical scientists going to postdocs after the PhD in 1991. But in 2011, 20 years later, 70% of life scientists and just under 60% of physical scientists did postdocs after the PhD. The rate has creeped up in other fields, too. In 1991, less than 20% of social scientists and engineers did postdocs after graduate school; in 2011, 40% of social scientists and engineers did postdocs after the PhD.

@Cosmicfish…for whatever it is worth, I have been in this situation. The grant that funded me ran out. This put me under considerable pressure to graduate. There was some talk about putting me on another grant or a TA…I honestly could have used about 4 more months of funded time. I think if I made a huge fuss about it with my advisor I could have not graduated and remained a funded grad student. I couldn’t wrap my head around fighting to delay getting a PhD though. It seemed like a bad idea…like “looking a gift horse in the mouth”. I was considerably stressed and upset about it at the time.

For a few months I was able to become a “temp employee” to keep access to e-mail, the library, most of the computer labs, and software tools I needed for simulations. I still had access to my lab (I had keys and all). I still met regularly with my doctoral advisor. I actually found consulting work with a university start-up for a couple months…it paid better than a TA and was considerably easier. The start-up seemed happy with what I did, and they seemed happy I wasn’t permanent. I used some of my own funds too. I could’ve worked more for the start-up, but I was getting so much work done on my papers that I kinda said “screw it” and used my own funds. Eventually, another professor noticed that I kept coming to the University and gave me a post-doc/research fellow/fellow…started paying me to come. A research fellow is a full staff position where I’m at. I kept working on my old research in my new post-doc/research fellow/fellow position…with my new advisor’s approval…I told him I would spend some time on my old research.

It is good to that universities graduate PhD earlier, but they need to make sure that they continue to give students opportunities to continue their research. Journal papers can take months to write and a year to get published once submitted. My university was good to me in this sense. When I was under so much pressure to graduate when I knew I wasn’t really done…Yes, that was stressful and upsetting though.

Let’s move on to tenure. Granted Dr. Cham’s “Game of Tenure” is funny (and irritating). In a strange way, it is funny because it is brazenly wrong…II think…but I’m open to learning something new here though.

http://www.phdcomics.com/comics.php?f=1574

My first reaction is that I don’t want to be a professor at this university. Where is this? Why? Do they just not get grants? This is very different from anything I saw in my PhD program.

Where I did my PhD (Michigan), the number of faculty getting tenure was closer to 90%. It was hard to know when faculty didn’t get tenure. They’d just leave to a university that was just as good…and this wasn’t all that common for people to leave. I used to bring in faculty guests for a student organization to give takes from other universities too. I would take them out to dinner and talk to them. Often tenure came up. Again, in applied engineering fields, I regularly heard the 80%-90% percentage of tenure-track faculty getting tenure at other universities. These professors would specifically say that there was a common misconception that getting tenure was hard. So, what is going on here?

I will say the following. I’ve heard MIT’s engineering has a bad reputation for not giving tenure-track faculty tenure. In my undergrad, a good liberal arts school, tenure was no joke. The number of tenure track faculty getting tenure was more like 70%-80%. At one point it was a major issue on campus (there were many articles written on it in our school newspaper), but there was not an engineering program on campus though.

Here is an actual study done by researchers back in 2006:

http://www.opia.psu.edu/sites/default/files/AIR_Tenure_Flow_Paper_06.pdf

And here are some highlights:

While this matches with your experience, the paper points out that this is evaluating only the tenure decision itself, and ignores faculty who leave prior to being submitted for tenure. In other words, this number is like giving the graduation rate at a university by dividing the number of graduates by the number of students with enough credits to graduate, ignoring transfers and dropouts.

This process compares the number of individuals entering tenure-track positions and then actually getting tenure at that university, a more honest comparison.

Of interest to me is that it appears that (at least at Penn State, the focus of this particular study), tenure recommendation rates are pretty consistently at or above 90%. The paper doesn’t really go into the disparity in the numbers - why so many people, who only got to their positions through a lifetime of hard work leave despite apparent confidence from their departments and universities. I can’t imagine that it is because academia is so much more pleasant than their options in private industry.