Patrice Riemens on Sun, 19 Dec 2010 15:11:12 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> The Economist: The disposable academic, or Why doing a PhD is often a waste of time

original to:

The disposable academic
Why doing a PhD is often a waste of time
Doctoral degrees
Dec 16th 2010 | from PRINT EDITION

ON THE evening before All Saints? Day in 1517, Martin Luther nailed 95
theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg. In those days a thesis was
simply a position one wanted to argue. Luther, an Augustinian friar,
asserted that Christians could not buy their way to heaven. Today a
doctoral thesis is both an idea and an account of a period of original
research. Writing one is the aim of the hundreds of thousands of students
who embark on a doctorate of philosophy (PhD) every year.

In most countries a PhD is a basic requirement for a career in academia.
It is an introduction to the world of independent research?a kind of
intellectual masterpiece, created by an apprentice in close collaboration
with a supervisor. The requirements to complete one vary enormously
between countries, universities and even subjects. Some students will
first have to spend two years working on a master?s degree or diploma.
Some will receive a stipend; others will pay their own way. Some PhDs
involve only research, some require classes and examinations and some
require the student to teach undergraduates. A thesis can be dozens of
pages in mathematics, or many hundreds in history. As a result, newly
minted PhDs can be as young as their early 20s or world-weary

One thing many PhD students have in common is dissatisfaction. Some
describe their work as ?slave labour?. Seven-day weeks, ten-hour days, low
pay and uncertain prospects are widespread. You know you are a graduate
student, goes one quip, when your office is better decorated than your
home and you have a favourite flavour of instant noodle. ?It isn?t
graduate school itself that is discouraging,? says one student, who
confesses to rather enjoying the hunt for free pizza. ?What?s discouraging
is realising the end point has been yanked out of reach.?

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.

Rich pickings

For most of history even a first degree at a university was the privilege
of a rich few, and many academic staff did not hold doctorates. But as
higher education expanded after the second world war, so did the
expectation that lecturers would hold advanced degrees. American
universities geared up first: by 1970 America was producing just under a
third of the world?s university students and half of its science and
technology PhDs (at that time it had only 6% of the global population).
Since then America?s annual output of PhDs has doubled, to 64,000.

Other countries are catching up. Between 1998 and 2006 the number of
doctorates handed out in all OECD countries grew by 40%, compared with 22%
for America. PhD production sped up most dramatically in Mexico, Portugal,
Italy and Slovakia. Even Japan, where the number of young people is
shrinking, churned out about 46% more PhDs. Part of that growth reflects
the expansion of university education outside America. Richard Freeman, a
labour economist at Harvard University, says that by 2006 America was
enrolling just 12% of the world?s students.

But universities have discovered that PhD students are cheap, highly
motivated and disposable labour. With more PhD students they can do more
research, and in some countries more teaching, with less money. A graduate
assistant at Yale might earn $20,000 a year for nine months of teaching.
The average pay of full professors in America was $109,000 in 2009?higher
than the average for judges and magistrates.

Indeed, the production of PhDs has far outstripped demand for university
lecturers. In a recent book, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, an
academic and a journalist, report that America produced more than 100,000
doctoral degrees between 2005 and 2009. In the same period there were just
16,000 new professorships. Using PhD students to do much of the
undergraduate teaching cuts the number of full-time jobs. Even in Canada,
where the output of PhD graduates has grown relatively modestly,
universities conferred 4,800 doctorate degrees in 2007 but hired just
2,616 new full-time professors. Only a few fast-developing countries, such
as Brazil and China, now seem short of PhDs.

A short course in supply and demand

In research the story is similar. PhD students and contract staff known as
?postdocs?, described by one student as ?the ugly underbelly of academia?,
do much of the research these days. There is a glut of postdocs too. Dr
Freeman concluded from pre-2000 data that if American faculty jobs in the
life sciences were increasing at 5% a year, just 20% of students would
land one. In Canada 80% of postdocs earn $38,600 or less per year before
tax?the average salary of a construction worker. The rise of the postdoc
has created another obstacle on the way to an academic post. In some areas
five years as a postdoc is now a prerequisite for landing a secure
full-time job.

These armies of low-paid PhD researchers and postdocs boost universities?,
and therefore countries?, research capacity. Yet that is not always a good
thing. Brilliant, well-trained minds can go to waste when fashions change.
The post-Sputnik era drove the rapid growth in PhD physicists that came to
an abrupt halt as the Vietnam war drained the science budget. Brian
Schwartz, a professor of physics at the City University of New York, says
that in the 1970s as many as 5,000 physicists had to find jobs in other

In America the rise of PhD teachers? unions reflects the breakdown of an
implicit contract between universities and PhD students: crummy pay now
for a good academic job later. Student teachers in public universities
such as the University of Wisconsin-Madison formed unions as early as the
1960s, but the pace of unionisation has increased recently. Unions are now
spreading to private universities; though Yale and Cornell, where
university administrators and some faculty argue that PhD students who
teach are not workers but apprentices, have resisted union drives. In 2002
New York University was the first private university to recognise a PhD
teachers? union, but stopped negotiating with it three years later.

In some countries, such as Britain and America, poor pay and job prospects
are reflected in the number of foreign-born PhD students. Dr Freeman
estimates that in 1966 only 23% of science and engineering PhDs in America
were awarded to students born outside the country. By 2006 that proportion
had increased to 48%. Foreign students tend to tolerate poorer working
conditions, and the supply of cheap, brilliant, foreign labour also keeps
wages down.

A PhD may offer no financial benefit over a master?s degree. It can even
reduce earnings
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

Even graduates who find work outside universities may not fare all that
well. PhD courses are so specialised that university careers offices
struggle to assist graduates looking for jobs, and supervisors tend to
have little interest in students who are leaving academia. One OECD study
shows that five years after receiving their degrees, more than 60% of PhDs
in Slovakia and more than 45% in Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany and
Spain were still on temporary contracts. Many were postdocs. About
one-third of Austria?s PhD graduates take jobs unrelated to their degrees.
In Germany 13% of all PhD graduates end up in lowly occupations. In the
Netherlands the proportion is 21%.

A very slim premium

PhD graduates do at least earn more than those with a bachelor?s degree. A
study in the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management by Bernard
Casey shows that British men with a bachelor?s degree earn 14% more than
those who could have gone to university but chose not to. The earnings
premium for a PhD is 26%. But the premium for a master?s degree, which can
be accomplished in as little as one year, is almost as high, at 23%. In
some subjects the premium for a PhD vanishes entirely. PhDs in maths and
computing, social sciences and languages earn no more than those with
master?s degrees. The premium for a PhD is actually smaller than for a
master?s degree in engineering and technology, architecture and education.
Only in medicine, other sciences, and business and financial studies is it
high enough to be worthwhile. Over all subjects, a PhD commands only a 3%
premium over a master?s degree.

Dr Schwartz, the New York physicist, says the skills learned in the course
of a PhD can be readily acquired through much shorter courses. Thirty
years ago, he says, Wall Street firms realised that some physicists could
work out differential equations and recruited them to become ?quants?,
analysts and traders. Today several short courses offer the advanced maths
useful for finance. ?A PhD physicist with one course on differential
equations is not competitive,? says Dr Schwartz.

Many students say they are pursuing their subject out of love, and that
education is an end in itself. Some give little thought to where the
qualification might lead. In one study of British PhD graduates, about a
third admitted that they were doing their doctorate partly to go on being
a student, or put off job hunting. Nearly half of engineering students
admitted to this. Scientists can easily get stipends, and therefore drift
into doing a PhD. But there are penalties, as well as benefits, to staying
at university. Workers with ?surplus schooling??more education than a job
requires?are likely to be less satisfied, less productive and more likely
to say they are going to leave their jobs.

The interests of universities and tenured academics are misaligned with
those of PhD students
Academics tend to regard asking whether a PhD is worthwhile as analogous
to wondering whether there is too much art or culture in the world. They
believe that knowledge spills from universities into society, making it
more productive and healthier. That may well be true; but doing a PhD may
still be a bad choice for an individual.

The interests of academics and universities on the one hand and PhD
students on the other are not well aligned. The more bright students stay
at universities, the better it is for academics. Postgraduate students
bring in grants and beef up their supervisors? publication records.
Academics pick bright undergraduate students and groom them as potential
graduate students. It isn?t in their interests to turn the smart kids
away, at least at the beginning. One female student spoke of being told of
glowing opportunities at the outset, but after seven years of hard slog
she was fobbed off with a joke about finding a rich husband.

Monica Harris, a professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky, is
a rare exception. She believes that too many PhDs are being produced, and
has stopped admitting them. But such unilateral academic birth control is
rare. One Ivy-League president, asked recently about PhD oversupply, said
that if the top universities cut back others will step in to offer them

Noble pursuits

Many of the drawbacks of doing a PhD are well known. Your correspondent
was aware of them over a decade ago while she slogged through a largely
pointless PhD in theoretical ecology. As Europeans try to harmonise higher
education, some institutions are pushing the more structured learning that
comes with an American PhD.

The organisations that pay for research have realised that many PhDs find
it tough to transfer their skills into the job market. Writing lab
reports, giving academic presentations and conducting six-month literature
reviews can be surprisingly unhelpful in a world where technical knowledge
has to be assimilated quickly and presented simply to a wide audience.
Some universities are now offering their PhD students training in soft
skills such as communication and teamwork that may be useful in the labour
market. In Britain a four-year NewRoutePhD claims to develop just such
skills in graduates.

Measurements and incentives might be changed, too. Some university
departments and academics regard numbers of PhD graduates as an indicator
of success and compete to produce more. For the students, a measure of how
quickly those students get a permanent job, and what they earn, would be
more useful. Where penalties are levied on academics who allow PhDs to
overrun, the number of students who complete rises abruptly, suggesting
that students were previously allowed to fester.

Many of those who embark on a PhD are the smartest in their class and will
have been the best at everything they have done. They will have amassed
awards and prizes. As this year?s new crop of graduate students bounce
into their research, few will be willing to accept that the system they
are entering could be designed for the benefit of others, that even hard
work and brilliance may well not be enough to succeed, and that they would
be better off doing something else. They might use their research skills
to look harder at the lot of the disposable academic. Someone should write
a thesis about that.

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