Is Doing a PhD a waste of time?

This article showed up in the Economist a while ago (December, 2010) but I got to reading it only now. I am currently in what can be described as 'evangelical zeal to read magazines' that have been piling up.

While this article -- The disposable academic: Why doing a PhD is often a waste of time -- might be late in coming, it's still an interesting read in the manner of the perfect 20/20 vision of hindsight.

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....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.
It's true that it takes a number of years, and perhaps your best ones. I sometimes felt that I spent all my youth in school. Of course I was much better off than students in anthropology and physics who on average take 7-10 years. As a PhD who is no longer working in academia, and for the record most of my friends who finished one are not working in academia either, I have never regretted for a moment taking/or wasting years finishing the degree. I enjoyed doing it and I had many rich experiences that were totally unconnected with academics, which I would never have enjoyed if I had a regular 9-5 job.
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.
Now being done, I have not suffered greatly either. I admit that it may not reflect the experience of every PhD as it is in a 'somewhat useful' and currently 'somewhat hot' field of biomedical engineering. It may not make sense for everyone to do one. And as the article points out, everyone does not have the right motivation or reasons for doing one.
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
As the article points out there are about 100,000 PhDs minted each year and only about 16,000 new academic positions. People have to find work elsewhere, or may choose to find work elsewhere. The central assumption of the article that the PhD should lead to a academic job is not entirely correct. There are lots of well-paying, and often better-paying jobs in industry, non-profits, think-tanks, government, and startups. The article states that only 57% of the student actually finish a PhD casting some doubt on the enterprise. People quit for various reasons and I think that for many it might be the right decision. As in most things in life, the training and experience can always come handy later. I do agree that it's best to quit early. I am not quite sure if you can treat it as a 'sunk cost' if you quit in the 6th year of your program.

I do agree that there is an oversupply and universities should practice, as the article calls it, more voluntary birth-control. In addition there should be more training for PhDs who will be looking for non-academic jobs and developing soft-skills given that 90% of the people will not pursue jobs in academia.
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.

1 comment:

me said...

one of my friends just left his phd coz he was getting sick...coz of sick sick