Monday, April 08, 2013

Why doing a PhD might still be a waste of time.

I was fascinated to read this first-person account of a PhD trainwreck by the brave Rebecca Schuman--a story that has gone viral on Slate and deservedly so. She argues that her humanities PhD was a waste of her time, something that seems to have disturbed many of those who have commented on her piece. She has hit a nerve. Something that struck me greatly about her piece was that she argues that academia remakes people in its own image. In other words it mints people who are designed to work well within the system. But then of course offers few opportunities for working within it. Worse, PhD graduates feel that their own brilliance depends on whether they are absorbed into this system as tenured professors and can therefore leave feeling dispirited.

Some of Dr Schuman's critics would like to take comfort from the fact that her failure to obtain a position means that she must be academically inferior in some kind of way. It is, of course, far harder to accept the alternative hypothesis. This is that the system is broken and that Dr Schuman is just one of the many students who wasted too much time in a system designed to train and hire academics. I covered a great deal of this territory in a piece called: The Disposable Academic for The Economist a few years ago. Today it is the top-most commented piece on our web page. The debate continues.

Updates to this piece:

More resources for those wondering whether to do a PhD:
1. This article last year from NPR about PhD students on food stamps, and its primary source from the excellent Chronicle of Higher Education.

2. Another piece on April 11th, 2013: Academia's indentured servants.

3. In the UK, the Guardian considers the financial worth of a PhD and explains that the thrill of having "Dr' in front of one's name soon wanes, Is a PhD the right option for you?

4. A piece about PhD's in international relations from Foreign Policy magazine, Should you get a PhD? Makes the interesting point (again) that many doing PhDs end up feeling that if they do not get a job within academia they are failures in some way.

5. Good roundup from Lifehacker, "Should I go to Grad School?". Also worth reading how to figure out which degrees are worthwhile and how much you should borrow.

An excellent article about why one SHOULD do PhD:
Shimi Rii, writing on the Nature blog, explains his (?) decision to take a PhD.

New reports about the job market in academia:
1.Gap Widens for Faculty at Colleges, Report Finds. NYT, Published: April 8, 2013

Other articles by me on the emerging problems in US higher education:
1. Not what it used to be, The Economist.
2. The college-cost calamity, The Economist.

Last updated: September 12th, 2013