Recurring Decimals…..

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PhDs are worthless? Perhaps (not?)

with 4 comments

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 [1], 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 [2]) 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.

[1]: Perhaps I was too optimistic, considering how badly Economist handled an earlier story about rise of Asian science.

[2]: Without any malice and heart-felt apologies to my MBA friends :-)  Scientists always need to rib MBAs till they get one themselves!

(Cross-posted here)

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Written by BongoP'o'ndit

December 21, 2010 at 10:16 pm

Posted in General, Rants

Tagged with , ,

4 Responses

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Rohit Pradhan and others. Rohit Pradhan said: RT @bongopondit: My response to the Economist article about PhDs being worthless: http://wp.me/p38r-pR #blogpimp […]

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  4. If PHDs are worthless then the Graduation is no good either.

    Hampton Bay

    December 18, 2011 at 7:32 am


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