A time for a change in the PhD system

Apr 25, 2011 by Deborah Braconnier report
SOURCE: SCIENCE AND ECONOMIC INDICATORS 2010 (via Nature, doi:10.1038/472276a)

(PhysOrg.com) -- According to a series of articles published in Nature, the world has too many PhDs and not enough academic jobs to sustain them. Researchers point out that it is either time to make changes in the system or eliminate it altogether.

While acquiring a PhD requires many years of study and tens of thousands of dollars, many are finding the opportunities of academia work or any type of employment in their field to be few and far between. Back in the 1980s, predictions of professor retirements and higher led to a surge of new PhD students. However, this never happened and the need for more tenured professors was not able to keep up with the supply of PhD graduates, leaving many looking for employment in industrial, government, or not-for-profit sectors.

The United States and Japan are currently the worst for post-PhD employment. Of those receiving PhDs in biological sciences within the last five to six years, 13 percent have secured tenure-track positions, 10 percent are working part-time or unemployed, 33 percent are in other academic positions, 22 percent are working in industry and the remaining are working at , government or non-profit positions. However, on the flipside, those obtaining PhDs in China are able to find jobs easily as their economy is booming and they have found the ability to provide jobs for those with PhDs.

According to Mark Taylor, the system for PhDs needs to be reformed or shut down. Universities are promoting their PhD programs in order to have the graduate students in the laboratories and as teaching assistants. This works as a benefit to the universities, but in the end provides no benefit to the graduate. The PhD programs have become too specialized in subfields and many find they are unable to talk to colleagues in the same general department because their knowledge is too specialized.

Taylor believes that in order for doctorial programs to keep up with the 21st century, they need to eliminate these specializations and move towards more cross-disciplinary knowledge. Curriculum should focus more on applying knowledge to practical problems providing real world solutions. Areas where programs are inadequate or redundant need to be eliminated. PhD students also need to be educated on the true job prospects acquiring a PhD will give them.

Explore further: Can science eliminate extreme poverty?

More information: Education: The PhD factory, Published online 20 April 2011 Nature 472, 276-279 (2011) doi:10.1038/472276a

Reform the PhD system or close it down, Published online 20 April 2011 Nature 472, 261 (2011) doi:10.1038/472261a

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User comments : 19

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6_6
1.4 / 5 (9) Apr 25, 2011
agreed.. so you have a PhD? that don't impress me much.. or at all.. waste of money and time
withstrengthenedwings
4.6 / 5 (7) Apr 25, 2011
Does anyone not see an extremely serious and concerning problem here? 6_6, a PhD should be the farthest thing away from a waste of time and money... these are people that are dedicating their lives to the advancement of our race and science, and our system is unable to let them do so? What is going on here?? Time to evaluate what's important and make some big changes.
stealthc
1 / 5 (2) Apr 25, 2011
We shouldn't be dumbing people down even more, we should be elevating them. Charging people to learn is wrong in the first place.
Noumenal
3 / 5 (4) Apr 25, 2011
Really 66? I guess the other things that come with a PhD aren't worth anything? Self development, reflection, time to look deeply at an aspect of the world? Not everything in this world is done because it is functional within an economic framework. From the article, 90 % of completed PhDs do find some-kind of work, not too bad. Maybe they won't all earn the big bucks, nor will they all be what they dreamed, yet at least they've had the opportunity to become the highest their being can achieve in the time they had towards their PhD work. Which is far more than most people are able to achieve living from paycheck to paycheck, hardly being fully human at all.
ryggesogn2
1.3 / 5 (8) Apr 25, 2011
We shouldn't be dumbing people down even more, we should be elevating them. Charging people to learn is wrong in the first place.

People value what they pay for.
Who will pay the teachers or should teachers be so eager to teach they will work for free?
mkwhite
1 / 5 (1) Apr 25, 2011
This may actually just be a reflection of how primary science has taken a back seat over the past few decades. If the government had been able to keep with their promise of doubling STEM funding over the next decade, we wouldn't have a shortage of positions.
antialias
5 / 5 (3) Apr 25, 2011
PhDs are not all about access to a position or about making big bucks. Some are just achieved for fun (like I did mine). If I wanted to earn loads of money I should have spent those 4 years at some company.

It's nice to know that one has extended scientific knowledge in some field - but it need not be the defining moment of your life (i.e. it need not necessarily lead to an academic position).

I think giving someone who has invested that time a PhD is only proper - after all: the conditions (monetary and work load) under which you do it are pretty harsh.
maxcypher
5 / 5 (2) Apr 25, 2011
I think that the shortage of PhD positions is reflective of budget cuts. Forcing these newly-minted paragons of their subject matter to seek employment in private institutes and industry is not necessarily a bad thing. I believe this might foster a more creative and yet, to-the-point style of thinking.
olinhyde
1 / 5 (1) Apr 25, 2011
Some of the most talented entrepreneurs and engineers are PhDs who could not find positions in academia. Unfortunately, basic research is an area that corporations are NOT investing into as much as they did 20 - 30 years ago. Worse, the US Gov't is cutting basic research budgets. We run the risk of trivializing our research into finding the next online game rather than discovering the mechanisms that allow for transformational innovations. Having a PhD work on a Facebook app rather than working fundamental science squanders our greatest resource - our people.
ryggesogn2
1.7 / 5 (6) Apr 25, 2011
Unfortunately, basic research is an area that corporations are NOT investing into as much as they did 20 - 30 years ago. Worse, the US Gov't is cutting basic research budgets.

Even worse, the 'progressive' govts are intentionally destroying the economy with its bans on energy production and attempts to limit the production with taxation (Caterpillar) and trying to keep Boeing from manufacturing new airliners in SC.
No profits => no taxes => no R&D budgets (public or private).
RobertKarlStonjek
5 / 5 (1) Apr 25, 2011
...but would we really want someone *without* a PhD in chemistry cleaning our toilets? ...
rwinners
not rated yet Apr 26, 2011
And yet I still hear that the US is lacking in engineers of all diciplines. Something definitely is out of wack.
antialias
5 / 5 (2) Apr 26, 2011
In germany the industry has been telling us the same in germany. Turns out it was a lie in order to force universities to turn out more engineers.

The reason behind this lie was: if there actually were a shortage of engineers then engineer salaries would go up (supply and demand). The industry is very well aware that their continued existence is dependent on engineers and that their continued profits are dependent on engineers receiving moderate to low pay (at least when compared to low-level managers).

Heaven forbid those who do the actual work should be paid more than the overseers.
jjoensuu
not rated yet Apr 28, 2011
Back when I lived in Sweden (over 10 years ago) there were some reports in the news about how more students were needed in certain fields. Someone there told me that the industries where behind those reports and that they got them publicized by the news media every so often just to get a large enough pool of candidates to choose from.

Anyway, as to the article, looking at the advancements that have lately (last 2-3 years) been made in some areas of science, I would not surprise if there will be some sort of a merging of disciplines on the horizon.
jonnyboy
1 / 5 (3) May 01, 2011
And yet I still hear that the US is lacking in engineers of all diciplines. Something definitely is out of wack.


the old saying goes "those that can, do; those that can't, teach"

most phd's teach.
ODesign
not rated yet May 01, 2011
I approve of the attention this subject merits, and some parts of this article strike me as true and valuable knowledge, however, parts of this article are suspiciously misleading. for example. . .

"Of those receiving PhD's in biological sciences" for example is used as proof, but the argument is then magically extended to apply to all PhD's.

and the statement in the beginning. . .
"Those obtaining PhDs in China are able to find jobs easily as their economy is booming and they have found the ability to provide jobs for those with PhDs." seems to contradict rather than support the conclusion that "they need to eliminate these specializations and move towards more cross-disciplinary knowledge. Curriculum should focus more on applying knowledge to practical problems providing real world solutions."

It's a common and well practiced tactic in disinformation strategy to mix true and false information in order to confuse the issue and prevent action. Is that happening here?
jwillis84
not rated yet May 01, 2011
I use to be very impressed by academic credentials. Then was depressed working with a few Masters and PhD holders in the field they were trained. It came down to basic people skills and manners.. the higher the academic chain they went the more "allowances" were made for their odd eccentric behavior. If they can afford to continue academic attainment, or maybe because they can.. the basic communications and people skills seem to be tossed to the wayside, and they dont' get as much of an opportunity to develop as real people and co-workers.
antialias
5 / 5 (4) May 02, 2011
the old saying goes "those that can, do; those that can't, teach"

most phd's teach.

And you base this statement on what exactly?

If they teach at universities then they are also (at least over here) expected to participate in scientific research. Which basically means that those who "can't" are actually the ones who go out and get regular jobs in the industry.

Those who can do science (which is what a PhD attests to) are those who ALSO teach.
Javinator
4 / 5 (1) May 02, 2011
so you have a PhD? that don't impress me much..


Who are you? Shania Twain?

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