Friday, December 24, 2010

The disposable academic

In this year's special double Christmas issue of The Economist I have a piece on doctoral degrees. Our Christmas issue is always our most popular issue of the year, with lots of fabulous stuff for the holiday period. Go buy a copy.

Happy Christmas everyone.

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

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.”

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  1. I somehow feel it's a unidimensional article. There are many issues which have not been considered. Grad students do PhD because they don't get the same kind of satisfaction in thir run-of-the mmill job.

    but still, it was very informative.

  2. Although you make a convincing argument that the number of PhD’s being produced far exceed suitable employment opportunities available to them at the end of their long arduous academic journeys [“The disposable academic”, Economist Dec 16th 2010], your article fails to mention the ground breaking contributions elite PhD graduands have made to the pinnacle of research in the humanities and the sciences. This is a particular omission in the Nobel Prize’s 100th year, when there have been 216 PhD’s among Nobel laureate autobiographies filed at [accessed 26th Dec 2010]. Assuming single laureates for each Nobel Prize category (Physiology and Medicine, Physics, Chemistry, Literature, Peace-all first awarded in 1901; Economic Sciences, first awarded in 1969) and not taking into account the intercession of both 20th century world wars when no prizes were awarded, there have been approximately 542 Nobel laureates for the 216 PhD’s referred to. This gives an approximate ratio of 0.4 PhD per Nobel Prize awarded since 1901, a testament to the PhD being an incubator of priceless ideas, innovation and invention that have and will continue to benefit mankind. Admittedly most PhD graduates do not go on to win Nobel Prizes, but the handful who do could well have honed the critical skills and stamina requisite to Nobel summiteering during their PhD studies. The positive view I offer is not meant, however, to detract from the plight of large numbers of PhD’s marooned in under-remunerated and/or non-gainfully employed post-graduation lives.