Reform the PhD System or Close It Down

SmeagolMark Taylor writes:

The system of PhD education in the United States and many other countries is broken and unsustainable, and needs to be reconceived. In many fields, it creates only a cruel fantasy of future employment that promotes the self-interest of faculty members at the expense of students. The reality is that there are very few jobs for people who might have spent up to 12 years on their degrees.

Most doctoral-education programmes conform to a model defined in European universities during the Middle Ages, in which education is a process of cloning that trains students to do what their mentors do. The clones now vastly outnumber their mentors. The academic job market collapsed in the 1970s, yet universities have not adjusted their admissions policies, because they need graduate students to work in laboratories and as teaching assistants. But once those students finish their education, there are no academic jobs for them.

“Most doctoral programmes conform to a model defined in the middle ages.”
Universities face growing financial challenges. Most in the United States, for example, have not recovered from losses incurred on investments during the financial fiasco of 2008, and they probably never will. State and federal support is also collapsing, so institutions cannot afford to support as many programmes. There could be an upside to these unfortunate developments: growing competition for dwindling public and private resources might force universities to change their approach to PhD education, even if they do not want to.:

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  • http://bastardette.blogspot.com Marley Greiner

     For me the problem is the whole idea that any degree, even a doctorate, has much value in the real world . I’m an ABD in American History  I didn’t finish because life interfered with it  I’d finish it now, if I could, but I can’t. I made it clear when I applied to grad school that I did not want an assistantship and that I would pay my own way ,which I did. I loathe academia and would never have considered teaching. One of my professors once told me I was the only one in his class with any sense since the rest of them actually thought they’d get jobs. I;’d rather be a secreatary with a Ph.D that stuck in a university.

  • http://bastardette.blogspot.com Marley Greiner

     For me the problem is the whole idea that any degree, even a doctorate, has much value in the real world . I’m an ABD in American History  I didn’t finish because life interfered with it  I’d finish it now, if I could, but I can’t. I made it clear when I applied to grad school that I did not want an assistantship and that I would pay my own way ,which I did. I loathe academia and would never have considered teaching. One of my professors once told me I was the only one in his class with any sense since the rest of them actually thought they’d get jobs. I;’d rather be a secreatary with a Ph.D that stuck in a university.

    • Hadrian999

       well there isn’t much of a practical application for history PhD’s outside academics or writing, same for many fields.

      • http://bastardette.blogspot.com Marley Greiner

         True, but why ;not study what you are interested in. That’s more fulfilling than making money, though it’s nice if you can mix the two.  Once you get a job in your field, there is a tendency to hate it . I worked iin an academic department at Ohio State for over 17 years.  Some of our faculty despised what they were teaching and were quite open about it.

        • Hadrian999

           i think you misunderstand me, i was only trying to say you can’t really judge PhD’s by employment, certain kinds of knowledge isn’t marketable in industry or business but is very useful in academic circles or personal passion

          • http://bastardette.blogspot.com Marley Greiner

             Oh, I didn’t ‘take offense.  You’re rigiht.  Just for me there was never a thought of going into teaching. I just watned the degrees, which people though strange!  

          • http://www.facebook.com/leonidbasin Leonid Basin

             What about a Masters degree? Specifically, in Psychology.

  • Hadrian999

    we need PhD’s to push the boundaries of knowledge, cross training is great but we still need those people who will obsess of the minutia of narrow subjects too. that said some fields of study will never really lead to much regular employment.

  • Hadrian999

    we need PhD’s to push the boundaries of knowledge, cross training is great but we still need those people who will obsess of the minutia of narrow subjects too. that said some fields of study will never really lead to much regular employment.

    • http://hormeticminds.blogspot.com/ Chaorder Gradient

       I think the problem is that students do have preferences in the niches that they want to deal with. Chances are if you are dumb enough to have a particular advisor at your current school convince you to do a PhD next, you won’t be doing something you actually are interested in. I think we need to have a long arduous talk with the entire country that if you want a PhD, Do some damn research on what you want to study, and what professors are going to actually be interested in it.

      The key is not to fight the fact that the professors will demand you work within their own interests, but to find that professor that is actually studying what you want to study, so you can click in place correctly. There are too many PhD students just doing it to get a PhD, rather than doing it for the sake of exploring the narrow subjects that need studying.

  • http://twitter.com/JasonRHolstein Jason Holstein

     I agree with Hadrian. I’ve been in the corporate world for awhile now but it is not nearly as fulfilling as the intellectual stimulation of my academic years. I am yearning to go back for a master’s and maybe even a doctorate – not for job security but because I would rather spend my days studying, researching and writing than peddling my knowledge and skills for a little more luxury. It is not a path for everyone but the world does need scholars who are searching for something deeper than merely a piece of paper to secure a better a career.

  • http://twitter.com/JasonRHolstein Jason Holstein

     I agree with Hadrian. I’ve been in the corporate world for awhile now but it is not nearly as fulfilling as the intellectual stimulation of my academic years. I am yearning to go back for a master’s and maybe even a doctorate – not for job security but because I would rather spend my days studying, researching and writing than peddling my knowledge and skills for a little more luxury. It is not a path for everyone but the world does need scholars who are searching for something deeper than merely a piece of paper to secure a better a career.

  • Hadrian999

     well there isn’t much of a practical application for history PhD’s outside academics or writing, same for many fields.

  • http://bastardette.blogspot.com Marley Greiner

     True, but why ;not study what you are interested in. That’s more fulfilling than making money, though it’s nice if you can mix the two.  Once you get a job in your field, there is a tendency to hate it . I worked iin an academic department at Ohio State for over 17 years.  Some of our faculty despised what they were teaching and were quite open about it.

  • http://bastardette.blogspot.com Marley Greiner

     True, but why ;not study what you are interested in. That’s more fulfilling than making money, though it’s nice if you can mix the two.  Once you get a job in your field, there is a tendency to hate it . I worked iin an academic department at Ohio State for over 17 years.  Some of our faculty despised what they were teaching and were quite open about it.

  • Hadrian999

     i think you misunderstand me, i was only trying to say you can’t really judge PhD’s by employment, certain kinds of knowledge isn’t marketable in industry or business but is very useful in academic circles or personal passion

  • Hadrian999

     i think you misunderstand me, i was only trying to say you can’t really judge PhD’s by employment, certain kinds of knowledge isn’t marketable in industry or business but is very useful in academic circles or personal passion

  • http://bastardette.blogspot.com Marley Greiner

     Oh, I didn’t ‘take offense.  You’re rigiht.  Just for me there was never a thought of going into teaching. I just watned the degrees, which people though strange!  

  • Anonymous

    Universities are not worried about making any improvements right now.  I doubt there will be any improvements made in this area anytime soon, especially with less and less funding coming from the state and federal governments.  If anything, it will get worse as universities jack up their tuition to compensate and lower the standards in these areas even more.  I may be skeptical in this area, especially as a student, but I just don’t see us benefiting from these “unfortunate developments.”  But this is a nice little fantasy discussion.

  • emperorreagan

    I was working on a PhD in mechanical engineering, first as a full-time student then on a part-time basis while I had a job.  I ultimately gave up on it because it’s not a particularly useful degree.  I enjoyed the stimulation of the research, but it wasn’t going to lead me to any further job prospects.  Even my MS degree left me overqualified for many of the available entry level engineering jobs when I was first applying for jobs.  To me, the PhD seemed like it was only going to lead to one of two places: (1) Years of post-doc work, while trying to get a professorship someplace or (2) a means of starting higher on the pay scale with a federal agency.

    My personal opinion is that it’s easier to pursue deeper study and intellectual stimulation on your own than it is within the current academic structure.  Outside of the high cost equipment needed for experimental studies, most of the resources are available to everyone (through university libraries, open courseware initiatives, etc.). And even some of the equipment for experimental studies can be built at home and/or salvaged from businesses. 

    My experience with academia was this: 
    I was pumping out research for my advisor’s grants.  Most of what I did was bullshit that the companies sponsoring his grants were turning over to the university because it’s cheaper to pay a grad student $15K to do it and it looks good on marketing materials to sponsor university programs.  Most of the intellectual stimulation came from talking to other students, not interacting with the professors.  The professors, largely, were chasing grants with their time.  Most of my interaction with my advisor was trying to get him to edit papers or my thesis in a timely fashion.  Most people I know had more or less the same experience – fighting with your advisor to get them to pay attention to your research for a few minutes each week.  Until deadlines, of course.  Then the argument would be…why isn’t this done?…it’s not done because the paper has been sitting on your desk for the last month waiting for you to edit it…why didn’t you tell me?…i did, here’s the string of emails…

    • http://voxmagi-necessarywords.blogspot.com/ VoxMagi

      No kidding mate. One of my best friends is an archeologist/anthropologist…focussed on the Americas, and working largely in Latin America. The post grad/grant research game is an endless heap of snarls and knots that survives only because its the only game in town and nothing better has come along. 

      I regret not pursuing further accreditation…but I don’t regret spending my time doing the research I chose of my own volition. I haven’t got the extra sheepskins…but I’m also not 70K in debt and I got the knowledge I wanted just the same.  

  • emperorreagan

    I was working on a PhD in mechanical engineering, first as a full-time student then on a part-time basis while I had a job.  I ultimately gave up on it because it’s not a particularly useful degree.  I enjoyed the stimulation of the research, but it wasn’t going to lead me to any further job prospects.  Even my MS degree left me overqualified for many of the available entry level engineering jobs when I was first applying for jobs.  To me, the PhD seemed like it was only going to lead to one of two places: (1) Years of post-doc work, while trying to get a professorship someplace or (2) a means of starting higher on the pay scale with a federal agency.

    My personal opinion is that it’s easier to pursue deeper study and intellectual stimulation on your own than it is within the current academic structure.  Outside of the high cost equipment needed for experimental studies, most of the resources are available to everyone (through university libraries, open courseware initiatives, etc.). And even some of the equipment for experimental studies can be built at home and/or salvaged from businesses. 

    My experience with academia was this: 
    I was pumping out research for my advisor’s grants.  Most of what I did was bullshit that the companies sponsoring his grants were turning over to the university because it’s cheaper to pay a grad student $15K to do it and it looks good on marketing materials to sponsor university programs.  Most of the intellectual stimulation came from talking to other students, not interacting with the professors.  The professors, largely, were chasing grants with their time.  Most of my interaction with my advisor was trying to get him to edit papers or my thesis in a timely fashion.  Most people I know had more or less the same experience – fighting with your advisor to get them to pay attention to your research for a few minutes each week.  Until deadlines, of course.  Then the argument would be…why isn’t this done?…it’s not done because the paper has been sitting on your desk for the last month waiting for you to edit it…why didn’t you tell me?…i did, here’s the string of emails…

  • http://hormeticminds.blogspot.com/ Chaorder Gradient

     I think the problem is that students do have preferences in the niches that they want to deal with. Chances are if you are dumb enough to have a particular advisor at your current school convince you to do a PhD next, you won’t be doing something you actually are interested in. I think we need to have a long arduous talk with the entire country that if you want a PhD, Do some damn research on what you want to study, and what professors are going to actually be interested in it.

    The key is not to fight the fact that the professors will demand you work within their own interests, but to find that professor that is actually studying what you want to study, so you can click in place correctly. There are too many PhD students just doing it to get a PhD, rather than doing it for the sake of exploring the narrow subjects that need studying.

  • http://voxmagi-necessarywords.blogspot.com/ VoxMagi

    No kidding mate. One of my best friends is an archeologist/anthropologist…focussed on the Americas, and working largely in Latin America. The post grad/grant research game is an endless heap of snarls and knots that survives only because its the only game in town and nothing better has come along. 

    I regret not pursuing further accreditation…but I don’t regret spending my time doing the research I chose of my own volition. I haven’t got the extra sheepskins…but I’m also not 70K in debt and I got the knowledge I wanted just the same.  

  • http://www.facebook.com/leonidbasin Leonid Basin

     What about a Masters degree? Specifically, in Psychology.

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