Friday, April 22, 2011

Nature on the Future of the PhD


The Special Section's launch page has links to all the articles -- most are free, but a couple of them are paywalled.

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The Nature editorial is blunt: Fix the PhD. After pointing out that the perceived problems with the PhD programs are different in different countries and disciplines, it takes the example of biomedical sciences (presumably in countries like the US and Japan):

... Exceptionally bright science PhD holders from elite academic institutions are slogging through five or ten years of poorly paid postdoctoral studies, slowly becoming disillusioned by the ruthless and often fruitless fight for a permanent academic position. That is because increased government research funding from the US National Institutes of Health and Japan's science and education ministry has driven expansion of doctoral and postdoctoral education — without giving enough thought to how the labour market will accommodate those who emerge. The system is driven by the supply of research funding, not the demand of the job market.

A little later, it gets to the core of the problem: oversupply caused by the wrong kind of incentives at the university level:

Something needs to change — but what? Ideally, the system would produce high-quality PhD holders well matched to the attractive careers on offer. Yet many academics are reluctant to rock the boat as long as they are rewarded with grants (which pay for cheap PhD students) and publications (produced by their cheap PhD students). So are universities, which often receive government subsidies to fill their PhD spots.

The lead article has a section on Japan, where the situation is so absurd that the government offers subsidies to companies that hire (unemployed) PhDs!

Academia doesn't want [the PhD holders]: the number of 18-year-olds entering higher education has been dropping, so universities don't need the staff. Neither does Japanese industry, which has traditionally preferred young, fresh bachelor's graduates who can be trained on the job. The science and education ministry couldn't even sell them off when, in 2009, it started offering companies around ¥4 million (US$47,000) each to take on some of the country's 18,000 unemployed postdoctoral students (one of several initiatives that have been introduced to improve the situation).

This article also has a section on India:

India: PhDs wanted

In 2004, India produced around 5,900 science, technology and engineering PhDs, a figure that has now grown to some 8,900 a year. This is still a fraction of the number from China and the United States, and the country wants many more, to match the explosive growth of its economy and population. The government is making major investments in research and higher education — including a one-third increase in the higher-education budget in 2011–12 — and is trying to attract investment from foreign universities. The hope is that up to 20,000 PhDs will graduate each year by 2020, says Thirumalachari Ramasami, the Indian government's head of science and technology.

Those targets ought to be easy to reach: India's population is young, and undergraduate education is booming (see Nature 472, 24–26; 2011). But there is little incentive to continue into a lengthy PhD programme, and only around 1% of undergraduates currently do so. Most are intent on securing jobs in industry, which require only an undergraduate degree and are much more lucrative than the public-sector academic and research jobs that need postgraduate education. Students "don't think of PhDs now, not even master's — a bachelor's is good enough to get a job", says Amit Patra, an engineer at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur.

Even after a PhD, there are few academic opportunities in India, and better-paid industry jobs are the major draw. "There is a shortage of PhDs and we have to compete with industry for that resource — the universities have very little chance of winning that game," says Patra. For many young people intent on postgraduate education, the goal is frequently to go to the United States or Europe. That was the course chosen by Manu Prakash, who went to MIT for his PhD and now runs his own experimental biophysics lab at Stanford University in California. "When I went through the system in India, the platform for doing long-term research I didn't feel was well-supported," he says.

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Thanks for the pointer go to Ravi Prasad Aduri (e-mail) and Ankur Kulkarni (Buzz).


  1. Desi Babu said...

    "The hope is that up to 20,000 PhDs will graduate each year by 2020, says Thirumalachari Ramasami, the Indian government's head of science and technology."

    Wow, that sounds like a catch phrase for a budding marketing genius -- twenty grand by twenty twenty!

    I have come to the conclusion, like with everything else, that our folks in New Delhi have a serious vision problem: it is definitely not twenty-twenty.