My last post on this blog, more than a year ago, was a beer-related roundup of 2011. To keep that one year tradition going (and to prevent a total no-show on this blog for 2012), here is a similar post for the current about to end year.
The ever-growing craft-brew culture of San Diego, a burgeoning brew(gatro)-pubs and bottle-shops scene, combined with business travels and a long road-trip meant that I was once again fortunate enough to taste a wide range of quality beers in 2012. The year also witnessed a consolidation of beer-knowledge(/geekery/snobbishness) that started in 2009 with my move to this city and getting into home brewing as a hobby. So here are some beer-related highlights from the year.
To put it another way: this is all I recollect after recovering from terrible hangovers.
Lagers/Pilsners: There wasn’t anything that came close to beating last year’s favorite, Lightning’s Elemental Pilsner, though I did enjoy Lagunitas Pils, Hangar 24 Helles Lager and Mammoth Brewing’s Golden Trout Pils. The last one tasted particularly delicious in the unseasonably hot Mammoth Lake area during a road-trip this August.
American Pale Ale: The style continues to be my favorite as a anytime, anywhere go-to beer. There is a great deal of variety within APAs, but my personal favorites are those that have a good balance between hop bitterness and aroma, specially with a citrus or piney finish. This works well with the general year round San Diego weather as well. The Alesmith X continues to excel, and my other local favorite mentioned last year, Karl Strauss‘ citrusy delight, Pintail Pale Ale, is now a year-round beer rather than a spring seasonal.
Others in this category that I discovered and loved this year include Deschutes’ Mirror Pond, Friestone Walker’s Pale 31, and Port Brewing’s Kung Fu Elvis Pale.The Pale 31 in particular is a delight when consumed fresh on tap – with strong aromas from the big C hops (Chinook, Centennial, and Cascade) being very prominent.
India Pale Ale: Anything with the grown Nelson hops, with its wonderful grapefruit-y aroma, continues to be a favorite. Last year’s top IPA, Alpine’s Nelson remains at the top of the list. This New Zealand grown hops (insert Hobbit joke here) looks to be more readily available here in the US with several breweries trying it out in their IPAs including this humble home-brewer . One of my favorite local brewery, Lightning Brewery also made their foray into (Imperial) IPAs – the Double Strike IPA, dry-hopping it with Nelson. I haven’t had too much of this beer this year, and that is clearly my loss. As with most Lightning beers, this has a strong malty character that goes very well with the blend of hoppy bitterness and aromas. I do hope that head-brewer Jim will consider putting some of this beer into a barrel for aging.
The Duet with Simcoe and Amarillo hops by Alpine was another excellent IPA.
A serendipitous discovery for this year: Kern River Brewing’s Just Outstanding IPA. I was making a pit-stop at Bakersfield, CA while on a business trip and went to local brew-pub, Lengthwise Brewing Co. that had turned up on a Google search. The Lengthwise beers were good, but not exceptional. I was talking to a local at the bar, and she suggested I try out this IPA from this brewery an hour up the mountains from Bakersfield. I am glad for that advice since the IPA blew me away by its floral and citrus aromas. Just Outstanding is not easily available in San Diego, but I made a stop at Kernville – at the southern end of the Sierras and famous for its white water rafting and fishing - during my summer road-trip, even making sure to book a motel right next to the brewery so as to taste more of this deliciousness directly from the source. Apparently their other IPA, a seasonal called Citra is even better, but gets consumed pretty quickly. That simply means - another road-trip!
In other news about IPAs, I am pretty happy to have converted former bitter-beer hating people into this category! I count this as a significant achievement for 2012.
Saison: Continuing the trend from last year, there was a definite uptick in the availability and the brewing of Saisons – the spicy, yet refreshing Belgian-style farmhouse ale. Usually the spiciness of this ale comes from the phenols produced by the yeast, especially at the high tempertures these beers are fermented at (>70-80F compared to 65-72F of most ales). Unfortunately, there has been a trend recently to supplement with real spices and even fruits. Some of them work, but at least for me – most don’t (agave Saison, ugh!). I enjoy my Saisons simple without overbearing added flavors. Having said that, I found two wonderful experimental Saisons this year.
First, all the way from New Zealand, Saison Sauvin by 8-wired Brewery, a Saison that marries the best of the style to my favorite hop Nelson (which is appropriately from New Zealand). Floral and pine aromatics are blended nicely with the natural spiciness produced by the yeast. Unfortunately I have been too lazy to go find more bottles of this awesomeness, found at am equally awesome beer store, Clem’s Bottlehouse, in North Park. If you are a fan of Saisons and aromatic hops, do not miss this one.
Second, an off-beat Saison produced through the collaboration between our local brewery Green Flash, and St Feullien in Bewlgium: the Friendship Brew. This dark Saison, with an oatmeal stout malt-base and a ‘secret’ blend of spices has been the perfect beer for the somewhat chilly evenings we have had in San Diego recently.
Darker (Red/Brown) Ales: Usually I don’t drink much of browns, and reds – something I hope to redress next year by seeking out more varieties. On recommendation from a friend, tried the Moose Drool Brown and liked it. But the best would have to be Mammoth Brewing’s Double Nut Brown Ale. Among reds, I enjoyed a special seasonal, hoppier than usual, version of the La Jolla Rock Bottom’s usual red ale.
Ashamed to Admit I Drank it Beer of the Year: Pacifico lagers (with that piece of lime wedged into the can)! In my defense – this was in Mexico, and most of the consumption was on beach-side taco shops and accompanied with Margaritas.
Most Unlikely Place for Great Beer (and food): At Pappy & Harriet’s in Yucca Valley near the Joshua Tree National Park. The pub is located in Pioneertown, a town built in the 40s as a live-in set for shooting Westerns. Much of the town was destroyed in 2006 by the Sawtooth Complex fire, but most of the movie set and the building where Pappy Harriet’s is located survived. While practically in located in the middle of nowhere in the Californian desert, the place is famous (and gets very crowded quickly) for hosting various notable musicians. (It also happened to be featured on an Anthony Bourdain ‘No Reservations’ episode.)
They had a mesquite coal-fired grill going in the back-yard and the meat servings were appropriately succulent. But they also had an excellent selection of beers on tap, which they serve in mason jars. Several jars of Lagunitas IPA and half a pound of baby back ribs later, I was a happy camper ready to tackle the Ryan Mountain hike in Joshua Tree very early next day. If you are ever driving in this direction, make this a must-stop location.
Best Pub Experience: The Trappist in downtown Oakland. Several dimly-lit rooms with old furniture connected by dark and narrow passageways gives this place a great deal of ambiance. More importantly, there are three separates bars with a wide selection of Belgians, manned by professional and knowledgeable bartenders. Had a great time drinking several Trappists beers and shooting the breeze with an old friend out here.
Favorite New Brewery: 2012 was the year of brewery explosion in San Diego. New breweries opened up at more than one per month, including four new ones just within a 2 mile radius of my work! Quality of beers from each of these range a bit, but the good news is that each brewery seems to excel in at least one style or brew. In case of Societe, pretty much all their beers are awesome (but then they have a strong brewing pedigree as well). However. my personal favorite new brewery was New English Brewing. New English is not exactly a new for 2012 given that head brewer Simon has been brewing on leased space for a few years now. But he opened up his own location along with a tasting room early this year. They focus on English-style ales: the malty Explorer’s ESB is quite easily the best around, and so is the Brewer’s Special Brown. Simon also brews an excellent IPA, the Trooper’s Tippel, which is much lower in alcohol and hop content than the usual west-coast style in-you-face 100+ IBU beers that dominate San Diego. That make it a very refreshing session ale. This is helpful since I have spent most Thurs and Fri evenings of the year at this place, ostensibly avoiding the evening traffic. Additionally, Simon usually has one of these beers on cask, where you get a much smoother taste. The very best are his barrel-aged delights, especially the bourbon barrel-aged brown ale served on nitro.
On top the libations available at New English, the attraction is the friendly neighborhood pub feeling. Through the year, I have gotten to know the brewer, as well as many of the regular patrons.
Home-brewing: Beer brewing activities slowed considerably this year as various things in life intervened. After brewing 30+ beers through ’09-’11, only five got brewed this year. Unfortunately the Oktoberfest lager did not come out as well this year, and was slightly on the sweet side, in contrast to the perfection achieved last year. But the weissbier brewed for the same party was top-notch. Also two brews towards the end of the year were pretty good: a nut brown ale, which came very close to the north English style – hints of roasted malt, and a bit dry. The second one was a Bavarian hefeweizen spiced with cinnamon and cloves made for our annual neighborhood block party. Next up is my own version of the hoppy American Pale Ale with Cascade as the base bittering hops, but lots of added flavor from late additions of Cascade, Challenger, Willamette and Nelson.
Recurring Unfulfilled Wish: I would love to visit Paso Robles and drink Pliny the Younger when it is released in February. Sadly, given my schedule early part of 2013, will have to put it off for another year.
Hope you all have a hoppy new year, and here’s to another year of non-sobriety. Cheers.
‘Tis the season to make lists. So, apropos of my love for beer, a quick list of some of the best I have had in 2011. Also includes best pub, and other oddities.
[Note: Since I tend to drink most of my beers from local breweries (unless travelling) the list is somewhat San Diego-centric. (This is not a disadvantage at all for me given the large number and variety of breweries in the area and the fact that the number seems to be growing by a few every year. But unfortunately, you may not find many of these beers at your local grocery or liquor store. All the more reason to visit or better yet, move to America’s Finest City.)]
Lager/Pilsner: Not my favorite style and hence I tend not to drink a great variety of these. Among those I have tried, Lightning Brewery’s Elemental Pilsner easily wins top spot for its full-bodied malty, yet crisp and abundantly hoppy taste. Without doubt the best beer for the San Diego fall season (when it actually *does* gets hot here).
For lagers, I have to immodestly declare that my home-brewed Oktoberfest Lager beat out many of the commercial beers out there in this category. A hint of diacetyl taste – which I have to admit, was accidental – really put it over the top.
(don’t worry, that’s the only one of my home-brews I’ll praise myself)
Saison: 2011 seems to have been the breakout year for this usually spicy, but refreshing style of beer with origins in the Belgian farmhouse (these beers were brewed in spring for readiness to drink in fall after the harvest). Almost all local breweries produced a version (most of which I tried), and I brewed a few of my own in summer. However the Saison I most enjoyed was the New York-based Ommegang Brewery’s Hennepin Saison. It is also possibly the best beer I’ve had all year. The only downside is that it packs a whopping 7% ABV, so not quite a session beer.
Pale Ale: Found Bell’s Two Hearted Ale late this year – actually just this month on tap at a very nice pub in DC – and loved the intense hop aromas combined with the resinous characteristics of the Centennial hops used in the brew.
Also, though not new for this year, but Alesmith’s X (an Extra Pale Ale) continues to be a regular favorite. Karl Strauss’ Pintail Pale Ale is great as well, especially when it is fresh on the tap during spring – love the strong citrusy aroma of this one.
IPA: Finally had a chance to enjoy Pliny the Elder this year and have to agree with the general assessments of it being the best (American-style) IPA in all of the country. Malt sweetness is brilliantly balanced with hop bitterness and lingering aromas.
A very, very close second would be Swan’s (a brewery based in Vancouver) Dry-hopped Casked IPA, which I had at the Alibi Room (see below). Yet another runner-up, again by just a thin margin, is Alpine Brewery’s Nelson, an IPA made with Nelson Sauvigon hops and small amounts of rye. The Nelson hops, which grow only in New Zealand and are hence pretty rare on this side of the Pacific, possess characteristics of the Sauvigon grapes that add a distinctive characteristic to the beer.
Apart from these, Ballast Point’s Sculping IPA remains a local favorite.
Stouts/Porters: Lightning Brewery’s Bourbon Barrel Black Lightning Porter – loved the vanilla flavor (extracted from the barrels) in this one. Flying Dog’s Gonzo Imperial Porter, served on nitrogen, was another favorite.
Cask Ale: 2011 was also the breakthrough year for cask ales, i.e. beer aged and carbonated naturally in a cask. Just like Saisons, almost every brewery was jumping on the bandwagon and producing special versions of their ales in casks (some going to interesting extents such as adding sumac to the beer while casking). Apart from the Swan cask-IPA mentioned, the casked version of Alesmith’s Anvil ESB was quite good.
Barley Wine: Actually this was the only Barley Wine I had all year, but Alesmith’s barrel-aged Old Numbskull is a brilliantly complex beer and deserves a mention.
Honorable Mentions: Unibroue’s (a Quebc-based brewery) Blanche de Chambly – a Belgian White with subtle spice and citrusy freshness. Also, a red ale made with Thai rice that I had at a brewery in Singapore called Brewerkz (run by an American). Can’t remember the name of that beer though.
Most Absurd Beer: A Green Lager at the Red Dot Brewery in Singapore. It was made green by the addition of spirulina, a dietary supplement made from cyanobacteria. The description of the beer claimed it had health benefits, noting that spirulina is supposed to help in ‘regression & elimination of AIDS virus’! Taste was only a small step above the locally available Tiger lager.
Best Beer Name: The Polygamy Porter from the Wasatch Brew Pub in – where else? – Utah.
Ashamed to Admit I Drank it Beer of the Year: Kingfisher Lager. Choices in India were limited.
Pub: The Abili Room in Vancouver. I would have loved this place just for its location right next to a railway yard, allowing you views of the locomotives shunting as you sip a cold one. The fact that they have over 30 beers, many local, and served some awesome food made it even better. Tucked in at the edge of Vancouver’s downtown, I also loved the quaint indoor décor – often designed with a sense of humor (a stacked bunch of non-working antique TVs in one corner instead of the usual big LCDs showing sports).
Close second: Tiger Tiger – the newly opened pub in San Diego. Love the big open space inside and their selection, and their wide range of choice for lower-alcoholic session beers.
A special mention to St Augustine’sin Vancouver for their innovative use of the space in front the urinals in men’s restroom: LCD screens displaying live status of remaining beer in all the kegs served.
Beer Epiphany of the Year: That I do enjoy sour beers, especially the low-alcoholic, highly carbonated Berliner Weisse, called the ‘champagne of the north’ by the Napoleonic army invading Germany. The Lightning Brewery version of this beer, Sauerstrom Ale, was the best, and I did not even require the traditional syrup which is often mixed in to counter the sourness, to enjoy this.
Serendipitous Beer Discovery of the Year: The Central Coast Brewing Company at San Luis Obispo, CA. We were walking towards downtown SLO for dinner and found this brewery just a few blocks from our hotel. Enjoyed their Topless Blonde Ale – a mild pale ale, but was really blown away by the Catch-23 Rye IPA. These guys are generous with their rye addition, which provides an additional malty spiciness to the beer.
Beer Disappointment of the Year: Dog Fish Head 90min IPA. Supposedly one of the best IPAs made in the USA, I just could not enjoy its overtly fruity, and sweet taste. Perhaps it tastes better on tap, so my judgement could change.
The debate about electronic book (e-book) formats seems to be cropping up quite a lot lately. Arguments have happened on Twitter, and there’s even been discussions amongst friends in (gasp!) real life.
As is usual with such discussions, there are the extreme viewpoints. Some people are absolutely dead set against electronic formats for reading, considering the whole practice as sacrilegious, while enthusiastic adopters of the technology accuse the former of Luddism.
Then there is the boring middle of the spectrum people like me (though perhaps I am closer to being an e-book convert). I have used a Kindle for close to a year now, have read quite a few books and regularly read the New Yorker on the device. But I have also enjoyed reading paper books during this time.
So, here goes a rather subjective look at both formats. Fair warning – there is little new ground broken here on the debate. There are ample blogs or articles that have made similar points. I just wanted to jot out my own thoughts, and also – I have nothing better to do right now.
Love or hate it, e-books are here to stay – this summer Amazon passed the milestone of selling more books in electronic formats compared to hardcopies. The practical advantages of e-books are difficult to argue with. The devices are (usually) light and small, hence portable and their massive capacity enables you to carry range of reading materials. On a recent trip to India that involved over 48 hours of travel time, I took my Kindle (the latest non-touch version) loaded with about ten different novels of varying genres from serious literature to sci-fi, fantasy, mystery etc as well as couple of the latest New Yorker editions. And these were just the unread stuff. I also had a collection of old Wodehouse, Agatha Christie and classic short-story compilations – stuff I love re-reading occasionally and are available for free or cheap on Amazon. All this in the convenience of a sleek device that holds like a paperback in my hands, but much lighter. Having the Kindle allowed me to jump easily between various books or magazine articles depending on my mood (I like reading a few different books simultaneously, especially when I am travelling). In the pre-electronic book days I would have been limited by perhaps one or two. Given that I travel somewhat regularly and enjoy catching up on my reading during flights, this easing of burden on the shoulders is quite a boon.
At this juncture, I should mention that I strongly favor the Kindle as my reading device. I have tried the Kindle app and iBook on iPad as well, but the iPad is not built for reading books. It is too heavy and the screen glare is too harsh for any kind of extended reading. Then there is the distraction of a device that is usually connected to the internet tempting you away from reading. The iPad is however excellent for reading magazines, news articles or scientific/technical papers where colored graphics are important. I also think that it could be a great substitute for academic text books.
Amazon has recently introduced couple of new lending features that makes the Kindle even more attractive. Firstly, you can now lend e-books from the local library. Second, Amazon will allow you to lend certain books indefinitely from their own collection. There are some caveats though. The local library, at least in my city, ‘stocks’ only few copies of an e-book, usually just one or two licenses for the entire library system as opposed to a few hardcopies of the same book per branch. Thus there is typically a very long waiting list for the popular books (but I did manage to borrow couple of books that were best sellers only a few years ago). The Amazon lending feature is also somewhat limited – only members of its Prime program can borrow, and borrowing is restricted to only one book at a time and also one per month. Additionally, they do not have any system by which you can list books you want be borrowing next e.g like a Netflix queue. But the collection of lendable books is pretty good, and I have a feeling that the program will be extended as e-books gain more popularity.
Also, as a side-effect, and if you are into that kind of thinking – reduction of traditional books should help the environment by reducing paper usage. Saving trees and the rain-forests is probably not a bad idea (Used electronics is a source of environmental pollution too – not sure if they balance out).
On the flip side of all these wonderful advantages that technology provides, the reasons for coveting regular books are usually sentimental and romantic – the touch and smell of paper, the physical act of turning of the pages, the memories associated with the dog-eared copy of that one favorite novel and so on. I have to agree that there is some intangible feeling provided by a paper book that does not convey as well on e-formats.
On a more mundane, practical level, paper books are still the best when you want to lend or borrow. This is important especially if you have friends who share similar reading habits. Sharing books makes it so much easier on your pockets. Finally, if you extensively read any Indian vernacular language books, e-book options are practically non-existent.
In the end, the Kindle/e-book versus paper debate obviously comes down to a personal choice. I would however, encourage skeptics of e-book format who haven’t tried reading on proper reading devices (e.g Kindle or Nook) to give the format a shot. Personally, I see myself moving gradually over to e-books just for the convenience, while continuing to buy some paper books, especially those I would love to display on my bookshelf.
1. And somehow kick re-start the moribund blog.
2. Never tried the Nook.
<A hastily written tribute the great man on his death anniversary>
He had a vast oeuvre, but Satyajit Ray is often remembered, quite justly, for that iconic scene in Pather Panchali where Apu and Durga see a train for the first time in their lives. The majestic steam train billowing black smoke in the backdrop of of the white kaash fields juxtaposed with the innocence of the kids makes it a memorable scene.
Thinking of this scene last night, it occurred to me that Ray had an eye for shooting in and around the railway tracks: from Apu looking out of the window as the train leaves Kashi in Aparajito, or a grown up Apu living next to a railway yard in Apur Sansar, the famous Feluda and company chasing a train on a camel in Sonar Kella, to Nayak, made completely within the cramped confines of a train over the course of half-a-day’s journey. Whatever was his motivation for shooting such amazing sequences, those of us who love anything to do with trains are richer for it.
There are others, but here are my three favorite scenes from Ray movies involving trains.
First, the Pather Panchali sequence as already mentioned:
This following scene from Abhijaan is rather under-rated. As such, Abhijaan wasn’t among Ray’s best works (Ray wasn’t even supposed to direct originally and took over at the last minute) – Soumitra as a hard-boiled, cynical Jat did not really cut it. But Rabi Ghosh, playing Soumitra’s side-kick really stole the show, especially here as Soumitra is trying to overtake a train on his car. Keep an eye for the tensed expression on his face:
And of course, the other iconic scene – camels chasing a train in the deserts of Rajasthan:
(unfortunately, this is not the complete scene but could not find the full sequence on youtube)
I have not come across any article talking about this particular aspect of Ray’s film-making, and not aware if he had any particular fascination for trains. But it is obvious from Ray’s own writings and others that the scenes from both Pather Panchali and Sonar Kella were shot meticulously (but then, meticulous attention to detail was his hallmark anyway). It is also amazing how some of these incredible scenes were shot on minimum budget, personnel and equipment. The story of how he was financially-strapped during Pather Panchali and how the movie still got made against all odds is that of legends. But even the relatively complicated scene involving camels and trains in Sonar Kella was shot with a single camera mounted on a jeep and finished in three takes! As Ray describes in Ekei Bole Shooting (This is What Shooting is About), three takes were required only because in the first one, the engine driver stopped the train when he saw Feluda’s signal! In the second instance, the engine driver’s assistant was busy watching the shoot and forgot to feed coal resulting in no smoke coming from the steam engine, which would have totally ruined the effect!
It’s that day of the year again, when the ceremony that you love to hate but then end up watching anyway (because, who else will make those snarky comments) arrives on your TV with the pomp, pageantry and grandeur that only Hollywood can muster (add hyperbole to the list, like I just indulged in).
But, it’s not just the TV now, find yourself online tonite and you will have a barrage of live coverage, including live-blogs and of course the inescapable, live-tweeting. Why, even I had unleashed a live-blogging of the event many years ago on an unsuspecting public. And what did help me through that evening was several ice-cold martinis (Sapphire, stirred not shaken).
So here is a helpful list of alcohol that you could help you get through watching/tweeting/ignoring the Oscars ceremony later tonite. On a whim, I have tried to link them approximately to the theme of the movie nominated for Best Pictures. Since I haven’t actually watched all the films, feel free to share your own interpretive drink.
So here goes:
(Note: I am not liable for alcohol poisoning.)
Toy Story 3: Not that adults do not enjoy this movie (I didn’t, I still have fondness for the first in the series), let’s get the kid’s stuff out the way first. Drink some OJ; actually plenty of it, you need to stay hydrated for the real drinking, right.
The Social Network: The movie starts in a college dorm, so tequila shots and beer chasers might be appropriate. But unless you are in an actual dorm room, do try something other than Jose Cuervo Gold, and Budlight.
Take a shot at Patron or Don Julio blanco with a craft brew lager from your area. East coast people should try Yeungling or Boston Lager (though neither are strictly craft brew). East coast
And stop reading further if you think Corona Extra with a lemon slice is the epitome of classy beer drinking. And no, neither is Heineken. Or Stella. No matter how suave their ads are.
The Fighter: Continuing on the beer theme, but upping the ante: drink some hard-core, in your face hoppy IPA or Imperial IPAs. Dogfish Head’s 90min or Avery’s Maharaja is recommended.
True Grit: Shots of bourbon or rye whisky, preferably with names such as Tanglefoot, Forty-Rod, Tarantula Juice, Taos Lightning, Red Eye, and Coffin Varnish. Drink neat.
127 Hours: Pause now, and drink some water. Gotta keep that hydration thing going.
Inception: This one is too easy – a shot consisting of several layers. B52 – with Kahlua, Irish cream and Cointreau – is recommended. Unfortunately bars nowadays prepare B52 mostly as a mixed shot and not in layers. But try the layer, and even better, flame it before drinking.
The Kids Are All Right: One of the four nominated movies that I did watch . Kept scratching my head about how it got nominated. But then, we are talking about a category that felicitated Shakespear in Love and Titanic.
Eithery way, drink-wise the movie shows a lot of fine reds. So you could go with that.
Winter’s Bone: Probably the movie that should win the best picture category, but probably won’t since very few people have seen it, and it was released ages ago. Was really moved while watching. Given the themes of drug abuse, can’t think of any drink. Perhaps down a lot of cheap scotch and brood.
Black Swan: Hmmm……ballet, lust, jealousy. For some reason, I see absinthe in the picture. Make a drink with equal parts of gin and dry vermouth, half parts absinthe (Green Chartreuse if you can’t get hold of the green fairy), shaken with ice and strained into a martini glass. Add a splash of dry white wine. Careful with this.
The King’s Speech: Hopefully, they will introduce this movie at the end and you can start sipping some port. Or a single-malt scotch.
Happy imbibing. Don’t drink and drive, tweet instead.
Seems like everyone and their grandma have forwarded (via e-mail, how quaint is that?), Facebook-ed, Tweet-ed or in some way social media-ed the heck out of this story in The Economist on the worth of PhDs. I will spare you some effort with the spoiler: PhDs are a waste, the author – apparently a recovering PhD – claims. Having gone through the process myself, I will agree – but to a certain extent only, and with great deal of qualifiers (more on that later).
However, the manner in which the article is written is very disappointing. The author does a good job bringing up many of the issues and challenges facing PhD students everywhere: the low (or in some cases, no) pay, the slave-like status, the lack of proper mentoring for and opportunities in the ‘real’ world outside of academia etc. Unfortunately, she does so in a shallow, rambling manner that is short on cohesive arguments, and long on regurgitating clichés and anecdotes about the life of PhDs. It’s almost as if the author eavesdropped on a bunch of ranting graduate students sitting around beer and chicken wings (after-midnight happy hour half-price special, of course) and fashioned the conversation into a story. There is nothing new here that you haven’t already read in a PhDcomics.
What I was rather hoping for when I read the headline, and generally from a magazine like The Economist , was more in-depth analysis such as discussing the opportunity costs of a PhD degree – either in terms of economics (lost wages), social status (delayed marriage/starting family), gender issues (much more difficult for women PhDs to balance family/career) etc. But statistical figures in the story are few, and when provided, are often meaningless without context. For example, it says the number of PhDs have risen all over the world, but doesn’t mention if this has happened in the backdrop of rising number of bachelor-level college graduates, increase in population, changing economies or other factors. The author seems to contend that this rise is directly correlated to the fact that PhDs are cheap sources of labor in research and teaching. While that is certainly a factor, it cannot be the only one.
One of the few other places where numbers are provided, they seem to suggest that having a PhD could be useful:
The earnings premium for a PhD is 26%. But the premium for a master’s degree, which can be accomplished in as little as one year, is almost as high, at 23%. In some subjects the premium for a PhD vanishes entirely. PhDs in maths and computing, social sciences and languages earn no more than those with master’s degrees. The premium for a PhD is actually smaller than for a master’s degree in engineering and technology, architecture and education. Only in medicine, other sciences, and business and financial studies is it high enough to be worthwhile. Over all subjects, a PhD commands only a 3% premium over a master’s degree.
Firstly, I am sure no one goes into a PhD program in comparative literature expecting a huge return of investment. In fields like engineering or computation, it is a given that a Master’s degree is enough for good job prospects and only a handful motivated people go into a PhD program. Additionally, if the percentages indicated above include MBAs as ‘master’s degree’ (which, IMHO is nothing but a professional accreditation for BS-ing your way to higher salaries ) then it highly inflates the numbers for the latter. Therefore it is difficult to put a real value on the premium provided by PhD – at least by the numbers stated here. As such, it would be foolish to define PhDs by the monetary benefit alone, considering how many people take it up as a labor of love.
Another problem with the article is that it lumps a vast swathe of diverse people under one group. The author mentions briefly, but never goes on to expand on the fact that a PhD in Literature is different from one in Economics (even though both come under ‘Humanities & Social Scienses’) and is very different from those in Chemistry or Biology. This is not even taking into consideration the flux of relevant PhD subject matters within disciplines (e.g Bioinformatics, not that popular couple of decades ago, is a hot topic now) or the variety in different countries. Such geographic, economic and disciplinary diversity needs to be taken into account to define what is worthless or not.
There are many more issues and fisking the full article might be a good sized thesis by itself! So here are only some of the comments I found most glaringly strange.
This statement, supposedly about the drawback of a PhD, is actually an universal issue:
The post-Sputnik era drove the rapid growth in PhD physicists that came to an abrupt halt as the Vietnam war drained the science budget
Changes in fashion, technology or local economy could affect any profession (just ask the car-factory workers in Detroit with little transferable skills).
Other statements are just confusing:
Monica Harris, a professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky, is a rare exception. She believes that too many PhDs are being produced, and has stopped admitting them.
So is it that just one professor has stopped mentoring PhD students (which has as much affect as peeing into the Niagara Falls) or has the whole department stopped their PhD program, which arguably sends a stronger message? The author does not clarify.
Then there is some confusion about correlation-causation:
The rise of the postdoc has created another obstacle on the way to an academic post. In some areas five years as a postdoc is now a prerequisite for landing a secure full-time job.
I think most people will agree that lack of academic jobs (a very real concern highlighted here) is the reason that post-docs are going on for so long, not the other way around.
But this bit towards the end is the biggest head-scratcher:
The organisations that pay for research have realized that many PhDs find it tough to transfer their skills into the job market. Writing lab reports, giving academic presentations and conducting six-month literature reviews can be surprisingly unhelpful in a world where technical knowledge has to be assimilated quickly and presented simply to a wide audience.
Actually, learning how to research a topic and presenting them to a broader audience is one of the most valuable lessons that one learns during a PhD. At the same time, there are law-firms, consulting companies (e.g McKinsey) etc that highly value the analytical skills and disciplined approach towards problem solving that PhDs bring to the table.
And of course there is the rather tired argument about ‘foreigner’s driving down PhD incomes’:
In some countries, such as Britain and America, poor pay and job prospects are reflected in the number of foreign-born PhD students. Dr Freeman estimates that in 1966 only 23% of science and engineering PhDs in America were awarded to students born outside the country. By 2006 that proportion had increased to 48%. Foreign students tend to tolerate poorer working conditions, and the supply of cheap, brilliant, foreign labour also keeps wages down.
I somewhat agree about the foreign students perhaps tolerating poor working conditions, but (and I have argued this in details before) pay-scales for both post-docs and PhDs have been low even when the foreign talent pool was small. Also, not sure how this argument reconciles with the flatlining of foreign enrollments in US universities.
In addition to some of the issues mentioned here, Madhusudan has done an excellent job on his blog, in proposing that the answer to the PhD ‘problems’ stated in the article are staring in the face of the author.
Let me get this straight: we have MORE students enrolling in college, competing to get into overfull classes taught by FEWER faculty every year, and TOO MANY PhDs who would love to have those faculty jobs that are clearly needed to teach all the new students! Does that sound about right? How does this make any kind of economic sense even with a supply-and-demand analysis? Seems to me that the demand is there, as is the supply, yet they aren’t exactly meeting up!
(do read in full)
I guess the point of this post is not to vehemently defend the PhD process, or to to say that doing a PhD is not “a waste of time”. As with almost everything in life, if you do a PhD, your mileage may vary. I have gone through 10 years of semi-wilderness earning a PhD followed by a post-doc. There have been stressful times, times of self-doubt; but overall, when I look back at it, I don’t really regret the decision (one decision I do regret is not moving directly to the industry after graduation, but there were other factors beyond my control in that respect). The trick is to be aware of what is coming to you and not just drift into graduate school because it is the easiest available option and then carp about it later. You wouldn’t buy a car without doing a bit of research on what you’re getting into – same principle applies to your life.
However, to dismiss without any nuance, an entire complicated and varied system such as obtaining a PhD as a waste of time simply based on a bunch of personal stories, is rather unfair.
: Perhaps I was too optimistic, considering how badly Economist handled an earlier story about rise of Asian science.
: Without any malice and heart-felt apologies to my MBA friends :-) Scientists always need to rib MBAs till they get one themselves!