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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.

Discussion on HackerNews.

  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.