Monday, December 20, 2010

Is it just a Pyramid Scheme?

Just when we were all feeling really chipper and optimistic about our future employment prospects in 2011, the Economist decided to publish an article called, "The Disposable Academic: Why Doing a PhD is Often a Waste of Time" (Dec. 16, 2010). As we prepare to ring in the new year, either with or without interviews to look forward to next month or the month after, do we want to spare a few minutes in order to dwell, once again, on the disillusionment often accompanying a doctoral degree? Do we feel like rehashing familiar territory in the days leading up to Christmas?

I'm pretty busy, actually, but what the hell, I've always got time to kill when the words/phrases "disposable" and "waste of time" are uttered in the same breath as "PhD." If someone is going to sum up my worst fears so aptly, why not indulge? 

The PhD: another disposable item polluting the planet.
Here's a rather lengthy taste of the article, which I've quoted from in large chunks. Normally I wouldn't do such a thing, but I think this piece deserves wide circulation and discussion:

"In most countries a PhD is a basic requirement for a career in academia," says the Economist. "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."

*Editor's Note: You've heard it before and now you're hearing it again. The PhD is just a basic requirement. It's nothing special. You may have spent 6-9+ agonizing years trying to finish the damn thing, you may have put yourself into debt and gained a ton of weight, but the doctoral degree is nothing to write home about.

"[But] one thing many PhD students have in common is dissatisfaction. . . . Some describe their work as “slave labour”. . . . 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. . . . The fiercest critics compare research doctorates to Ponzi or pyramid schemes."

"But universities have discovered that PhD students are cheap, highly motivated and disposable labour. . . . Indeed, the production of PhDs has far outstripped demand for university lecturers. In a recent book, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, an academic and a journalist, report that America produced more than 100,000 doctoral degrees between 2005 and 2009. In the same period there were just 16,000 new professorships."

"Proponents of the PhD argue that it is worthwhile even if it does not lead to permanent academic employment. Not every student embarks on a PhD wanting a university career and many move successfully into private-sector jobs in, for instance, industrial research. That is true; but drop-out rates suggest that many students become dispirited. In America only 57% of doctoral students will have a PhD ten years after their first date of enrolment."

"In the humanities, where most students pay for their own PhDs, the figure is 49%. Worse still, whereas in other subject areas students tend to jump ship in the early years, in the humanities they cling like limpets before eventually falling off. And these students started out as the academic cream of the nation. Research at one American university found that those who finish are no cleverer than those who do not. Poor supervision, bad job prospects or lack of money cause them to run out of steam. Even graduates who find work outside universities may not fare all that well. PhD courses are so specialised that university careers offices struggle to assist graduates looking for jobs, and supervisors tend to have little interest in students who are leaving academia."

*Editor's Note: What about pay, you ask? Surely a Ph.D. should increase one's earning potential over time? Well, not by much.

"Over all subjects, a PhD commands only a 3% premium over a master’s degree. . . .  The skills learned in the course of a PhD can be readily acquired through much shorter courses."

*Editor's Note: OK, so the salary still sucks. But what about the love? What about the dream? Isn't it worth it to live the life of the mind 24-7? Hmm, maybe in movies? Maybe??

"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. The interests of academics and universities on the one hand and PhD students on the other are not well aligned."

"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."

*Editor's Note: Someone should. But if they did, they'd be even more unemployable than the rest of us.

Irrespective, happy holidays from On the Fence!!


WorstProfEver said...

To answer your question, yes it absolutely is.

And I don't even believe the PhD gets you that 3%; if anything I think it reduces your overall salary compared to getting a masters -- I need to find that study!! Though I am really starting to doubt the need for anyone to write a diss.

And I love how these need people need eight million studies to 'prove' that there's actually a problem. The cleverest people aren't the ones who finish? Shocking!

Michael said...

I was surprised at how little the PhD makes compared to the Master's student. It was rather depressing. Why should I spend the additional few years beyond the Master's for so little money and no job?

As to the above comment that "the cleverest people aren't the ones who finish", in my program we have always said that those who have quit are the most rational. Yet, we can't seem to quit ourselves. Ugh.

I just wonder how this problem can be fixed. Yes, universities could let in fewer grad students, but then you lose money and cheap teachers. They could make the PhD more applicable, but the old farts sitting in department chairs would never do such a thing. Grad schools could be upfront about grad school and the PhD, but then both of the aforementioned problems would occur.

Claire said...

Eliza, I just wanted to say thank you for your blog & writing about academia! Your posts are like a light in the storm.

My husband and I both began our PhDs in the humanities at the same time. The result: he finished last year and I decided to leave the program.

About three years in, I realized I simply had no life outside of the halls of the department. All my time was spent reading, writing, grading, teaching, worrying and crying. I felt like I was up against the world. Professors were feeding me outright lies about my job prospects and the 'higher cause' I ought to devote myself to. Fellow grad students bullied and cut each other down for funding and opportunities. Feeling brainwashed and abused, I started therapy, found a good job outside the university and we decided to have a baby (a radical notion in graduate school!). In short time, I started feeling like I was living--really living--for the first time in years. What I lost was minimal in comparison to what I have gained: self-love, genuine friendship and the audacity to stand up for my family.

As for my husband, this will be our second year 'on the market' (chopping block?) and we're in that very difficult spot of deciding what to do next if the golden job doesn't come through. He's done everything right--book, multiple degrees, great recs--and still the offers have not come through. We've spent a lot of time negotiating about what we're willing to sacrifice and, over time, it's becoming less. Who wants to up and move somewhere you've never been with no support (again)? Who wants to make less than you deserve for some grand ideal (again)? Not us. Here's hoping the 'when a door closes' expression will come to be true.

I can't say enough about how wonderful your blog has been during what has become our journey to find the right place. It's so helpful to know you have an ally out there with the heart and mind to ask the critical questions. Wishing you all the best with your search and wishing you happiness!