[OPE] The Economist, 'Why doing a PhD is often a waste of time'

From: Jerry Levy <jerry_levy@verizon.net>
Date: Thu Dec 30 2010 - 08:56:48 EST


December 29th 2010

The disposable academic
Why doing a PhD is often a waste of time Doctoral degrees

Dec 16th 2010 |

ON THE evening before All Saints’ Day in 1517, Martin Luther nailed 95
theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg. In those days a thesis was
simply a position one wanted to argue. Luther, an Augustinian friar,
asserted that Christians could not buy their way to heaven. Today a doctoral
thesis is both an idea and an account of a period of original research.
Writing one is the aim of the hundreds of thousands of students who embark
on a doctorate of philosophy (PhD) every year.

In most countries a PhD is a basic requirement for a career in academia. It
is an introduction to the world of independent research—a kind of
intellectual masterpiece, created by an apprentice in close
collaboration with a supervisor. The requirements to complete one
vary enormously between countries, universities and even subjects.
Some students will first have to spend two years working on a
master’s degree or diploma. Some will receive a stipend;
others will pay their own way. Some PhDs involve only research,
some require classes and examinations and some require the student to teach
undergraduates. A thesis can be dozens of pages in mathematics, or many
hundreds in history. As a result, newly minted PhDs can be as young
as their early 20s or world-weary forty-somethings.

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.”

Whining PhD students are nothing new, but there seem to be genuine
problems with the system that produces research doctorates (the
practical “professional doctorates” in fields such as
law, business and medicine have a more obvious value). 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.

*Rich pickings*

For most of history even a first degree at a university was the privilege of
a rich few, and many academic staff did not hold doctorates. But as
higher education expanded after the second world war, so did the
expectation that lecturers would hold advanced degrees. American
universities geared up first: by 1970 America was producing just
under a third of the world’s university students and half of
its science and technology PhDs (at that time it had only 6% of the
global population). Since then America’s annual output of PhDs
has doubled, to 64,000.

Other countries are catching up. Between 1998 and 2006 the number of
doctorates handed out in all OECD countries grew by 40%, compared with 22%
for America. PhD production sped up most dramatically in Mexico, Portugal,
Italy and Slovakia. Even Japan, where the number of young people is
shrinking, churned out about 46% more PhDs. Part of that growth reflects the
expansion of university education outside America. Richard Freeman, a
labour economist at Harvard University, says that by 2006 America
was enrolling just 12% of the world’s students.

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

Indeed, the production of PhDs has far outstripped demand for university
lecturers. In a recent book, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, an academic
and a journalist, report that America produced more than 100,000 doctoral
between 2005 and 2009. In the same period there were just 16,000 new
professorships. Using PhD students to do much of the undergraduate
teaching cuts the number of full-time jobs. Even in Canada, where
the output of PhD graduates has grown relatively modestly,
universities conferred 4,800 doctorate degrees in 2007 but hired
just 2,616 new full-time professors. Only a few fast-developing
countries, such as Brazil and China, now seem short of PhDs.

*A short course in supply and demand*

In research the story is similar. PhD students and contract staff known as
“postdocs”, described by one student as “the ugly underbelly of academia”,
do much of the research these days. There is a glut of postdocs too. Dr
Freeman concluded from pre-2000 data that if American faculty jobs in the
life sciences were increasing at 5% a year, just 20% of students would land
one. In Canada 80% of postdocs earn $38,600 or less per year before tax—the
average salary of a construction worker. The rise of the postdoc has
created another obstacle on the way to an academic post. In some
areas five years as a postdoc is now a prerequisite for landing a
secure full-time job.

These armies of low-paid PhD researchers and postdocs boost universities’,
and therefore countries’, research capacity. Yet that is not always a good
thing. Brilliant, well-trained minds can go to waste when fashions
change. The post-Sputnik era drove the rapid growth in PhD
physicists that came to an abrupt halt as the Vietnam war drained
the science budget. Brian Schwartz, a professor of physics at the
City University of New York, says that in the 1970s as many as 5,000
physicists had to find jobs in other areas.

In America the rise of PhD teachers’ unions reflects the breakdown of an
implicit contract between universities and PhD students: crummy pay now
for a good academic job later. Student teachers in public universities such as
the University of Wisconsin-Madison formed unions as early as the 1960s, but
the pace of unionisation has increased recently. Unions are now spreading to
private universities; though Yale and Cornell, where university
administrators and some faculty argue that PhD students who teach are
not workers but apprentices, have resisted union drives. In 2002 New
York University was the first private university to recognise a PhD
teachers’ union, but stopped negotiating with it three years

In some countries, such as Britain and America, poor
pay and job prospects are reflected in the number of foreign-born PhD
 students. Dr Freeman estimates that in 1966 only 23% of scienceand
engineering PhDs in America were awarded to students born
outside the country. By 2006 that proportion had increased to 48%.
Foreign students tend to tolerate poorer working conditions, and the
supply of cheap, brilliant, foreign labour also keeps wages down.

A PhD may offer no financial benefit over a master’s degree.
It can even reduce earnings

Proponents of the PhD argue that it is worthwhile even if it does not lead
to permanent academic employment. Not every student embarks on a PhD wanting
a university career and many move successfully into private-sector jobs in,
for instance, industrial research. That is true; but drop-out rates suggest
that many students become dispirited. In America only 57% of
doctoral students will have a PhD ten years after their first date
of enrolment. In the humanities, where most students pay for their
own PhDs, the figure is 49%. Worse still, whereas in other subject
areas students tend to jump ship in the early years, in the
humanities they cling like limpets before eventually falling off.
And these students started out as the academic cream
of the nation. Research at one American university found that those who
finish are no cleverer than those who do not. Poor supervision, bad job
prospects or lack of money cause them to run out of steam.

Even graduates who find work outside universities may not fare all that
well. PhD courses are so specialised that university careers offices
struggle to assist graduates looking for jobs, and supervisors tend
to have little interest in students who are leaving academia. 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

*A very slim premium*

PhD graduates do at least earn more than those with a bachelor’s degree. A
study in the *Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management* by Bernard
Casey shows that British men with a bachelor’s degree earn 14%
more than those who could have gone to university but chose not to.
The earnings premium for a PhD is 26%. But the premium for a
master’s degree, which can be accomplished in as little as one
year, is almost as high, at 23%. In some subjects the premium for a
PhD vanishes entirely. PhDs in maths and computing, social sciences
and languages earn no more than those with master’s degrees.
The premium for a PhD is actually smaller than for a master’s
degree in engineering and technology, architecture and education.
Only in medicine, other sciences, and business and financial studies is
it high enough to be worthwhile. Over all subjects, a PhD commands
only a 3% premium over a master’s degree.

Dr Schwartz, the New York physicist, says the skills learned in the course
of a PhD can be readily acquired through much shorter courses.
Thirty years ago, he says, Wall Street firms realised that some
physicists could work out differential equations and recruited them
to become “quants”, analysts and traders. Today several
short courses offer the advanced maths useful for finance. “A
PhD physicist with one course on differential equations is not
competitive,” says Dr Schwartz.

Many students say they are pursuing their subject out of love, and that
education is an end in itself. Some give little thought to where the
qualification might lead. In one study of British PhD graduates, about a
third admitted that they were doing their doctorate partly to go on being a
student, or put off job hunting. Nearly half of engineering students
admitted to this. Scientists can easily get stipends, and therefore
drift into doing a PhD. But there are penalties, as well as
benefits, to staying at university. Workers with “surplus
schooling”—more education than a job requires—are
likely to be less satisfied, less productive and more likely to
say they are going to leave their jobs. The interests of universities
and tenured academics are misaligned with those of PhD students

Academics tend to regard asking whether a PhD is worthwhile as
analogous to wondering whether there is too much art or culture in
the world. They believe that knowledge spills from universities into
society, making it more productive and healthier. That may well be
true; but doing a PhD may still be a bad choice for an individual.

The interests of academics and universities on the one hand
and PhD students on the other are not well aligned. The more bright
students stay at universities, the better it is for academics.
Postgraduate students bring in grants and beef up their
supervisors’ publication records. Academics pick
bright undergraduate students and groom them as potential graduate
students.It isn’t in their interests to turn the smart kids away, at least
at the beginning. One female student spoke of being told of glowing
opportunities at the outset, but after seven years of hard slog she
was fobbed off with a joke about finding a rich husband.

Monica Harris, a professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky,
is a rare exception. She believes that too many PhDs are being
produced, and has stopped admitting them. But such unilateral
academic birth control is rare. One Ivy-League president, asked
recently about PhD oversupply, said that if the top universities cut
back others will step in to offer them instead.

*Noble pursuits*

Many of the drawbacks of doing a PhD are well known.
Your correspondent was aware of them over a decade ago while she
slogged through a largely pointless PhD in theoretical ecology. As
Europeans try to harmonise higher education, some institutions are
pushing the more structured learning that comes with an American

The organisations that pay for research have realised
that many PhDs find it tough to transfer their skills into the job
market. Writing lab reports, giving academic presentations and
conducting six-month literature reviews can be surprisingly
unhelpful in a world where technical knowledge has to be
assimilated quickly and presented simply to a wide audience. Some
universities are now offering their PhD students training in soft skills
such as communication and teamwork that may be useful in the labour market.
In Britain a four-year NewRoutePhD claims to develop just such skills in

Measurements and incentives might be changed, too. Some university
departments and academics regard numbers of PhD
graduates as an indicator of success and compete to produce more.
For the students, a measure of how quickly those students get a
permanent job, and what they earn, would be more useful. Where
penalties are levied on academics who allow PhDs to overrun, the
number of students who complete rises abruptly, suggesting that
students were previously allowed to fester.

Many of those who embark on a PhD are the smartest in their class and will
have been the best at everything they have done. They will have amassed
awards and prizes. As this year’s new crop of graduate students
bounce into their research, few will be willing to accept that the
system they are entering could be designed for the benefit of
others, that even hard work and brilliance may well not be enough to
succeed, and that they would be better off doing something else.
They might use their research skills to look harder at the lot of
the disposable academic. Someone should write a
thesis about that.

from PRINT EDITION | Christmas Specials

ope mailing list

Received on Thu Dec 30 08:58:12 2010

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.8 : Fri Dec 31 2010 - 00:00:02 EST