21 April, 2011

PhD - what's the point?

The latest issue of Nature has a few articles on the topic of PhDs.

'Reform the PhD system or close it down'
by Mark C. Taylor argues that many universities and academics essentially (if not purposefully) lie to undergraduates about their eventual career prospects in order to simply get 'free labour'. In this way, PhD students become nothing more than data generators who can be discarded and forgotten once they successfully graduate. I've seen this happen in my own career. Some academics have little interest in their students, other than what they can get out of them for their own benefit, i.e. publications. But their are others who do care. They allow the student to develop in their own time, which can take months or even years, but once that spark emerges they carefully nurture the student and encourage them to think laterally and critically about their chosen subject area.

As a side note, I am somewhat surprised that Nature invited Mark C. Taylor to write this article, given that he is a Professor of Religion in Columbia University. Don't get me wrong, I have no problem with people studying religion. But I think someone from a scientific discipline would have been more suitable. Indeed, the author even states the following:

[Universities] must design curricula that focus on solving practical problems, such as providing clean water to a growing population.

As noted by several of the commenters, how can a religion cirriculum achieve that? If it can't address practical problems, then lets get rid of religion PhDs.


The second article ('Seven ages of the PhD') is by a number of authors, each of whom completed their PhD in a different decade: Raymond Gosling 1950s, Cheryll Tickle 1960s, Steve W. Running 1970s, Yao Tandong 1980s, Andras Dinnyes 1990s, A. A. Osowole 2000s, & Erika Cule who is due to complete her PhD in 2012. Each of the authors gives a brief synopsis of their experiences during these years and compares to the current PhD climate.

Particularly interesting is the section by Raymond Gosling, who worked with Maurice Wilkins and later Rosalind Franklin at King's College London and is credited with taking the infamous first picture of the stucture of DNA.

Gosling says:
Randall's biophysics unit was a wonderfully energetic place to work. However, in those days relationships between staff and students were rather formal. All the men wore ties with their white lab coats, and the senior common room at King's was for men only...He told me that he didn't want to see my PhD until it was submitted — I can't imagine that happening nowadays.

Other notable quotes include:

Tickle (1960s):
Nowadays, PhDs are much more structured. Students are not given as free a rein as I was, nor are they allowed to make as many mistakes. There is a greater emphasis on acquiring data. Students also often work with others rather than alone. These differences reflect the changes over the past 40 years in the way in which research is carried out, and its growing pressures.

Running (1970s):
I finished my PhD in 1979, just before personal computers arrived. So it was written on a typewriter, with 53 hand-drawn figures. The subject of this labour of love was inducing water stress on 13 pine trees by cutting their leaves off and measuring desiccation responses. Looking back now, my PhD research seems highly esoteric. The work built fundamental understanding of leaf-scale physiology but had no policy relevance. The only practical value was in understanding why your Christmas tree turns brown. I think how innocent we all were then, doing weird science and looking for cheap beer.

Tandong (1980s):
I graduated from Lanzhou University in China's Gansu Province in 1978. At that time, the postgraduate system in China was immature. During the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), the whole education system was broken, and it was only after 1978 that the degree system was restored. There were probably only a few hundred PhD students in China.

Erika Cule (2010s):
The first draft of the human genome was published when I was still at school.


The next three articles comment on an increasingly problematic situation - the bottle neck that has emerged from a large number of PhD graduates and a relatively low number of academic positions. Alison Cook ('Education: Rethinking PhDs') recommends thinking outside the box, as opposed to just staying on the established treadmill of Degree-PhD-Postdoc-Academic position.

Here, Nature presents five approaches to shaking up the hallowed foundations of academia. They range from throwing scientists deep into independent study, to going interdisciplinary, to forgoing the PhD altogether.

1 Jump in at the deep end
2 Forget academia
3 Trample the boundaries
4 Get it online
5 Skip the PhD

All good options, but it ultimately depends on the person.


The fourth article, ('Education: The PhD factory') discusses PhDs on a country-by-country basis - some in which prospects for PhD graduates are on the way up, some on the way down, and some which are stagnating.

Japan, for example...

In some countries, including the United States and Japan, people who have trained at great length and expense to be researchers confront a dwindling number of academic jobs, and an industrial sector unable to take up the slack. Supply has outstripped demand and, although few PhD holders end up unemployed, it is not clear that spending years securing this high-level qualification is worth it for a job as, for example, a high-school teacher...

Of all the countries in which to graduate with a science PhD, Japan is arguably one of the worst. In the 1990s, the government set a policy to triple the number of postdocs to 10,000, and stepped up PhD recruitment to meet that goal. The policy was meant to bring Japan's science capacity up to match that of the West — but is now much criticized because, although it quickly succeeded, it gave little thought to where all those postdocs were going to end up.

Overall, the statistics seem to show that the benefits of doing a PhD are dwindling:



PhD - what's the point?

The final article ('What is a PhD really worth?') by Peter Fiske sums up the whole situation for me:

...I believe the most important lesson is that no programme of higher education can guarantee its graduates gainful and lucrative employment. At best, a graduate programme in any discipline can provide its students with key skills, knowledge and abilities. How the graduates apply that learning is up to them.

I agree with this. For me, achieving the ability to think critically and laterally is the point to doing a PhD (whatever the discipline). It is just as important as the eventual career path. The ability to critically assess any given topic or situation is advantageous in any walk of life and is something that employers will recognise and actively seek out. A good PhD program will provide the environment for students to learn these skills, regardless of whether they gain direct employment from such a program.

At the end of the day, a PhD is a very personal thing. No-one should go into one lightly, but no-one should be afraid to pursue a PhD based on downstream career prospects. My philosophy has always been to try and work in a field that I am interested in. I have been lucky enough to live up to that so far, and part of that was gaining a PhD in molecular immunology. I would change things here and there if I could, sure; but I have no major regrets.

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