Ho ho ho, merry christmas PhDs and postdocs! The Economist has a christmas present for ya, an article in which the prospects of PhDs get smashed completely. According to the Economist you are nowadays better off taking a job as a cashier at the local grocery store after you graduate than to complete a doctoral degree. During the writing process you’re doing “slave labour” and after the 3-5 years of research you’re tossed aside by the academic community. And that is if you finish the degree at all, because 40-50% becomes desillusioned and quits. Also, if you do land a job as a postdoc researcher or assistant professor, you are going to be underpaid and treated as dirt.
“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.
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.
You are even worse off if you do a PhD in The Netherlands or Germany, because you have a big chance of becoming a shoe shiner or newspaper vendor:
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%.
It ends on a very positive note:
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.
It must be said that the author of the article has completed a PhD degree herself, ”she slogged through a largely pointless PhD in theoretical ecology”, and she’s extremely sour about it. In the comments section of the article a debate has stirred up. Many commenters say the article is way to negative and has no eye for the benefits of doing a PhD:
Albert Dutch wrote: Dec 16th 2010 10:21 GMT
It seems to me our correspondent had a sour experience during his/her PhD.
I happen to have a PhD; and a great career in industry. My experience could not be more different to the correspondent’s: I have always felt privileged, and the PhD was the beginning of my beautiful journey. I have worked in areas which are exciting and beautiful. A good combination when added to a nice salary. It’s true that some people get higher salaries, but very few of them love what they do as I do. This is the beauty of a PhD: you love what you do.
Very few people in life are as lucky as PhD students. The luxury to work on something they like, expanding the boundaries of knowledge and learning a set of skills which will make a difference in their careers. My advice for to-be-PhD students is to be aware of that, and enjoy the experience. If they do not, then quit.
Others agree with the article:
HuskyPhD wrote: Dec 17th 2010 12:54 GMT
I got my Ph.D. a few months ago in a scientific field. I didn’t want to stay in research, but I figured with my credentials, I could easily land a job. I applied for around 40 jobs, and I received exactly one offer.
Unless a person is prepared to spend one’s life in academia, I’m afraid a Ph.D. is largely a waste of time. It does make you feel good about yourself, but that doesn’t pay the bills or put food on the table.
This comment reflects my feelings well:
VickyTuke wrote: Dec 16th 2010 10:23 GMT
As a PhD student of politics in the ‘writing up’ stage, this is utterly depressing. Merry Christmas The Economist