In Defense Of The PhD

Recently there’s been a lively discussion on why do people pursue PhD studies, is it good (for them and for the society), is it optimal (for the society and for the universities), and so on. The whole topic is by no means new, but since The Economist’s recent publication, other people expressed their opinions.

I’m 25, I’m a full-time PhD student, and I’d like to put in my oar now.

First off, while The Economist’s article has a number of valid points, it’s very US- and UK-centric. Even though the author refers to some case-studies outside the Anglo-Saxon world, like Germany, Slovakia or Belgium, some of its arguments do not apply at all to most European countries. For example:

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.”

We all read the PhD Comics and we all hear about how many hours of coursework or admin-duties a typical US grad student has. I don’t know how does it look like in other countries, but in Norway, Denmark, Holland and Belgium this is definitely not the case. At some Dutch universities, even if PhD students want to teach, they can’t do that (e.g. because there’s too many of them, or because they are considered underqualified, or whatever). My contract clearly states that I have to spend 25% of my time on teaching, and that’s exactly what I do. One quarter of my overall work time is not much, yet I still gain valuable teaching experience, so it’s a win-win. I know many of my friends who are PhD-students work as TAs for courses taught by their promoters, and that’s usually also not too much work. Apart from all that, a little bit of teaching looks good in your CV, especially if you want to apply for post-doc or other academic positions after finishing a PhD.

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.

There probably is an oversupply of PhDs in the US and in the UK, fair point, but there isn’t one in Norway, and as far as I know not in any of the Nordic countries. Maybe it’s a peculiar situation here, but then again I hear that there’s too many PhD students in The Netherlands, yet all of my friends who recently graduated managed to get post-doc positions in the same country (yes, in some cases it took a while, but still).

So let’s talk about the subject that generates most controversy: money.

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.

Again: US is not the whole world. I’m not going to quote numbers here, but a PhD student in Norway gets a very decent salary, even compared to industry salaries in technology sector. I’m not saying I earn more than a senior programmer at Google, but the money is more than good enough to rent a nice flat (not shared with anyone), eat out from time to time, travel virtually wherever I want and still being able to save some of my monthly pay. The article fails to understand a basic thing behind PhD students’ motivations, though: we’re not after the money. If we were, we wouldn’t be studying philosophy, logic, theoretical computer science or quantum physics. We’d go for an MBA, law or something similar, only to end up working our asses off for McKinsey, Boston Consulting, E&Y or PWC. That is simply not our goal, and while many PhD candidates like to whine about how little cash they have, they either lie, or they simply shouldn’t be doing a PhD at all.[1]

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%.

Right, but the OECD study doesn’t show how many people without a PhD are on temporary contracts in Slovakia five years after receiving their degrees, be it bachelor or master’s.

A major thing the article fails to understand is that most PhD students pursue an academic career for two reasons: because it’s their passion, and because they don’t seem to be able/willing to do anything else. Take a philosophy graduate for example, with a master’s thesis on German, late 18th century idealism. This person has two choices: either he goes for a lowly occupation, as the OECD study puts it, or enroll in a PhD program. Statistics suggests that our poor philosopher might still end up working for the man, somewhere in a call center selling insurance to people who don’t want to buy it, but going for a PhD is still better, because he can have 3-4 years of joyful academic life and then try his luck getting a tenure track job after a couple of years. Even if he fails, at least he tried.

PhD students/graduates are usually lousy at finding jobs outside the universities not because they have a PhD degree, but because they’re different. Normal people don’t study philosophy, and if they’re into computer science, they don’t care whether P ≠ NP – they just learn Java, Objective-C, Python or whatever else they find useful for becoming a successful software engineer.

And then finally, there’s one last thing everyone seems not to understand: once you finish your PhD, get done with the damn post-doc contract, and become a tenure-track researcher, you’re in the best job there is. You’re doing what you love, you have most of the time a flexible schedule, you supervise master’s and/or PhD students, you go to conferences all over the world. You write papers others comment on, and at some point you might even write a book (or co-author one). How amazingly cool is that? Oh you’re saying I’m a dreamer, and that simply never happens? Well what about those thousands of internet start-up companies? They waste their time as well, trying to become another Facebook or another Google. Yet they still do it, because it’s their dream to pursue.

And so is academic career ours.

Notes:

  1. Of course poor fellas trying to earn their degree with no scholarships in countries like Poland, Ukraine, etc. are excluded, but then again salaries in other professions are way lower in these countries, as are costs of living.

Discussion on HackerNews.

17 Comments

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  2. Most of these posts also attempt to reduce everything to quantitative measures, which is pretty much only useful in fields where people do things primarily for the amount of money it yields. Without that, it is very difficult to compare various career tracks.

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  4. John McAuley

    Good points, well made. It’s nice to hear something beyond constant misery. Certainly, this line of study is not without it’s problems but so is everything. A phd does not turn you into an idiot, you can pursue other lines of employment and do other things….or emerge from the seedy post doc underbelly with a genuine contribution to how the world works. Why do novelists write novels or artists produce art or bears shot in the ….

  5. art_haali

    good article, thanks.
    job is not about money only. It depends on position.
    Job is about passion too – to create something that people appreciate, like, love. You get a feedback from people.
    but if you are a scientist – you should understand that it is people who pay you, so you are kind of a debtor. probably they don’t need you.
    and some people even may ask “what are you doing? Reading/writing/self-studying? What have you created? How are you contributing to our lives?”

    Kind regards, Ayrat
    airat.halimov at[gmail]

  6. A-Z

    I really wish the Economist article would have referenced Germany as well. There is an overwhelming glut of PhDs there, particularly for being a primarily manufacture-based economic engine. Having a PhD next to your name on a business card is equated with professional/intellectual legitimacy there (it seems like half the country has one), and yet in countries like it (also NL, Belgium, LuxB) PhD projects are almost criminally easy to arrange compared with the strict criteria/application process of major institutions in the States. The doling out of PhDs are even the purview of major corporations and research groups these days, beyond the walls of academia.

    What I got from the Economist article was not a wholesale dismissal of the inherent merits of a PhD nor the passion and practicality that leads one in the direction of getting one. What I got from it was, in economic terms, a disconcerting ratio between earning a PhD and the real prospects for opportunities to make use it in a context for which it was intended (even within academia); also, it questions the real value-added of a PhD in the work force at large (say, compared to only having a MA). There simply isn’t enough room in academia for everyone that acquires a PhD. As an American, I can tell you that not all students pursue their higher learning out of passion either, but as a means of putting off for 4-7 years their obligations to pay down their academic debts (this is a different issue entirely); this is not necessarily good for the research either, in my view.

    The structure of academic employment models are changing also. There is practically a generation of PhD students/graduates in the US that have been waiting for their tenured baby-boomer predecessors to pass the torch and retire (or die already!); even in a country like Italy academia is afflicted by the entrenchment of defunct pedigree. On the other hand, once those old stumps have been removed, in some cases, academic institutions are deciding more and more to make tenureship a thing of the past in favor of cheap temporary PhD blood.

    Ultimately, I think, it really depends on which PhD one pursues. The humanities are in danger, for sure. The PhD students that don’t worry as much belong to the academic departments that are well-funded along with the industries/governments that support them (e.g. medical sciences, economics, engineering, etc.). This is the trend, toward highly technical skills-training in lieu of other subjects that have clear (but sometimes long-term and intangible) benefits for society. (http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/12/13/the-value-of-higher-education-made-literal/?src=me&ref=general) Perhaps unrelated, I think it is interesting that companies like Amazon are making it easier to self-publish without all of the academic politics of legitimacy.

    The real takeaway I get from the larger PhD debate is that there is palpable uncertainty that academia is the safety net and haven of higher learning it perhaps once was, and as a practical choice, dedicating oneself to a four-year+ PhD–far from being a guarantee of opportunity–is becoming less of an arrow (real or perceived) in one’s quiver (i.e. CV). When I was earning my undergrad my university increased enrollment numbers every single year that I attended. As a matter of practical intuition I thought to myself, ‘What is my degree worth if absolutely everyone has one?’ Our universities are turning into degree mills and the PhD is the latest thing on the menu in high demand and increasing supply.

    I resoundingly endorse a love of learning and a collegiate dedication to advance one’s field, but in these days of networked research and non-academic institutions a PhD may not even be required. Let’s devise alternative forms of intellectual legitimacy and advanced learning beyond the symbolic knighthoods readily supplied by the academy. Try a collective model (Particularly among unemployed PhDs!), as opposed to hierarchical. Quality research and mutual respect between researchers with a common cause is the keystone to intellectual legitimacy, not the hallowed walls the academy.

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  9. moto

    “My contract clearly states that I have to spend 25% of my time on teaching, and that’s exactly what I do. One quarter of my overall work time is not much…”

    Then you’re not working hard enough. I was regularly putting in 80 hours of work a week, and I still only got two publications out of grad school.

    “…Apart from all that, a little bit of teaching looks good in your CV, especially if you want to apply for post-doc or other academic positions after finishing a PhD.”

    post-docs do.not.care.about.your.teaching.experience.

    Good luck finding academic positions after finishing a PhD. Demographics indicate that the 2009-2010 cohort is at the “peak” of undergraduate admissions numbers in many places around the world, US and Europe included. If there is not a dramatic increase in the number of students to be teaching and a dramatic increase in PhD students, where exactly are these academic positions coming from?

    “A major thing the article fails to understand is that most PhD students pursue an academic career for two reasons: because it’s their passion, and because they don’t seem to be able/willing to do anything else.”

    You focus too much on the first and not the second. Soo many people go for their PhD because they can’t think of anything else to do, and sometimes because their advisors don’t know how to place them into any other positions. These people are diluting the PhD supply, depressing wages for postdocs, and also making scientific progress far more difficult.

    “They waste their time as well, trying to become another Facebook or another Google.”

    Yep, the difference is that they are actually producing something, getting “real-world experience” that can be leveraged into a new project. Also, the investors in those companies know that that money is liable to be a sunk cost, and the turnaround time is rather quick. Grad school sinks 6 years of your life with a very narrow skillset (unless you’re wise and learn how to do a lot of things). A sunk internet startup is 2 years, but at least you’ve spent so much time marketing and learning ruby on rails or android dalvik or whatever that the experience set will prepare you for something new.

  10. moto

    I’m just warning you, your article reads very pollyanna. I graduated from a graduate program in the US that is regularly very highly ranked (top 10), my publication record is decent. I did a one-year postdoc from which I got a very favorable recommendation (although the publication is still pending). The best I could do is to get a BA/BS/MS position at a very amazing research institute, retooling from natural products research to bioenergy. Luckily, I’m pretty rapidly proving myself and if everything goes well I should get 3 or so publications from my 7-month temporary position and may get rehired either as staff scientist or maybe maybe as a faculty, depending on how my side projects go.

    I’m not a corner case. Last month, my bosses put up a posting for another research associate (BA/BS/MS) slot, and they got a PhD (admittedly from a lesser-ranked institution) who was ready to work the next week.

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  13. Anon

    As a PhD student in the UK I can tell you that we are not
    forced to do teaching – in fact it is quite the opposite! I have
    friends in Switzerland who teach and mark entire courses whereas I
    am given the option to assist on a course if I wish to. Generally
    if you are a Computer Scientist you will probably care in some
    small way about whether P≠NP though (this is the problem many
    misunderstand until they do Computer Science – it isn’t necessarily
    programming and there is a lot of fall out from this).

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  15. “Then you’re not working hard enough. ”

    That actually may well be true:)

    “post-docs do.not.care.about.your.teaching.experience.”

    This very much depends on where you’re doing your post-doc. But of course it might be that no one cares about your teaching when you’re applying for a post-doc, but if you’re applying for some further positions then usually having some teaching experience is considered an asset (or at least that’s what many people in the academia tell me).

    Furthermore, there’s one aspect of teaching I didn’t mention here, because it probably applies only to me and a small number of people in a situation similar to mine. Well, I’m a PhD student in formal logic, and I belong to the faculty of computer engineering, but my master’s degree is in philosophy. I know people doing what I do with a background in humanities are often found “useless” for many jobs in the academia (well, that is unless they have an outstanding research results, but those really need to be exceptional). Logicians like us can’t teach philosophical courses, because we’re not that much into philosophy. Of course we could teach philosophical logic, but philosophers can also do it, and they can probably do it better. We could as well teach logic in computer science departments, but not every computer science program has a dedicated course in logic, and even if it has, there’s plenty of computer scientists that can teach that. What I’m saying is, if a guy holding a PhD in logic can demonstrate that he’s had some teaching experience in courses like databases, algorithms, functional programming or similar, he might be a bit more valuable to a faculty rather then a guy who’s just a logician. But perhaps I’m wrong, that happens:)

    “Soo many people go for their PhD because they can’t think of anything else to do, and sometimes because their advisors don’t know how to place them into any other positions.”

    Fair point, but I know many, many people in the academia whom I can’t imagine living outside its walls. They would simply be miserable, and often useless if they weren’t doing research.

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