Friday, December 24, 2010

Economist on Doctoral Degrees: "... Often a Waste of Time"

A must-read reality check for aspiring grad students.

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.”

[...] 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.

There's definitely more than a hint of Ponzi-ness in academia. A PhD is meant primarily for academic jobs in fields such as humanities (and theoretical physics too) where the situation is absolutely grim. What makes this grim reality somewhat tolerable in some fields (such as economics, engineering, chemistry and biomedical sciences) is the availability of career options in industry.

The message is clear: do it primarily for the love of it. And definitely not for a career boost for which (as the Economist article points out) a masters is a more "efficient" choice.

A second message to those of us who've been there, done that, and also managed to find fulfilling academic careers: "You've been enormously lucky!"


  1. SC said...

    Giants standing on your shoulders

  2. Anant said...

    Enormously lucky?! All these days I thought I was eminently deserving...

  3. jbeck said...


    Meanwhile, business leaders complain about shortages of high-level skills, suggesting PhDs are not teaching the right things.

    This is a dead giveaway, The Economist can't help making a case for "business-oriented" education and research. The problem actually is the other way round. Businesses - actually US based corporations - neither have the vision, nor the appreciation, nor the guts to invest in research that pushes the frontiers of knowledge. PhD programs are not the problem, it is the short-sightedness of business that is. Which is why it is the West Coast and a few scattered companies here and there in the US who continue to hire PhDs while Midwest companies have become used to getting by with incremental improvements and manufacturing in China.