Escaping The Black Hole Of The PhD Program
    By Michael White | October 30th 2009 02:05 PM | 10 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Harvard Magazine excerpts Louis Menand on "Professionalization in the academy. If you're thinking of going to graduate school, you need to read this.

    This is the premise behind academic scholarship:

    It is a self-governing and largely closed community of practitioners who have an almost absolute power to determine the standards for entry, promotion, and dismissal in their fields. The discipline relies on the principle of disinterestedness, according to which the production of new knowledge is regulated by measuring it against existing scholarship through a process of peer review, rather than by the extent to which it meets the needs of interests external to the field. The history department does not ask the mayor or the alumni or the physics department who is qualified to be a history professor. The academic credential is non-transferable (as every Ph.D. looking for work outside the academy quickly learns)... The return to the disciplines for this method of organizing themselves is social authority: the product is guaranteed by the expertise the system is designed to create. Incompetent practitioners are not admitted to practice, and incompetent scholarship is not disseminated.

    That's the rationale for the way the system is set up, but of course, no system is without its drawbacks and design compromises. And of course real, fallible human beings populate the system of academia, which means that even a well-designed system will have its failures.

    The question is, do we need to rethink how academia functions? How well are we meeting the system's stated goal? And should the only goal of the modern academic discipline be a 'guaranteed product' that meets high standards of scholarship?

    The answer to the second question is obviously no - teaching more people than just future academics is of course a major reason for the existence of universities, and improved public health is the primary reason Congress appropriates $30 billion per year for the NIH.

    Menand argues that we're not even meeting the primary goal of scholarship very well. "The academic profession in some areas is not reproducing itself so much as cloning itself." The way we train doctoral students and award faculty positions results in "a narrowing of the intellectual range and diversity of those entering the field, and a widening of the philosophical and attitudinal gap that separates academic from non-academic intellectuals." The academic career path is increasingly selecting for like-minded people.

    Professors tend increasingly to think alike because the profession is increasingly self-selected. The university may not explicitly require conformity on more than scholarly matters, but the existing system implicitly demands and constructs it.

    As a result, academia and the rest of the community drift apart, which "increases the hostility of the non-academic world toward what goes on in university departments, especially in the humanities."

    This is because over the last few decades two trends have conspired to produce today's oversupply of PhDs:

    The shift was the consequence of a bad synchronicity, one of those historical pincer effects where one trend intersects with its opposite, when an upward curve meets a downward curve. One arm of the pincer has to do with the increased professionalization of academic work, the conversion of the professoriate into a group of people who were more likely to identify with their disciplines than with their campuses. This had two, contradictory effects on the Ph.D.: it raised and lowered the value of the degree at the same time. The value was raised because when institutions began prizing research above teaching and service, the dissertation changed from a kind of final term paper into the first draft of a scholarly monograph. The dissertation became more difficult to write because more hung on its success, and the increased pressure to produce an ultimately publishable work increased, in turn, the time to achieving a degree. That was a change from the faculty point of view. It enhanced the selectivity of the profession.

    The change from the institutional point of view, though, had the opposite effect. In order to raise the prominence of research in their institutional profile, schools began adding doctoral programs. Between 1945 and 1975, the number of American undergraduates increased 500 percent, but the number of graduate students increased by nearly 900 percent. On the one hand, a doctorate was harder to get; on the other, it became less valuable because the market began to be flooded with Ph.D.s.

    Universities have slowly begun to recognize the problem, both in terms of its humanitarian costs and its detrimental effect on the quality of scholarship itself. Menand is concerned with the humanities, but the sciences aren't immune to this trend of an increasingly contrained intellectual range.

    As a solution, there have been proposals to reinvent the PhD degree:

    These efforts are a worthy form of humanitarianism; but there is no obvious efficiency in requiring people to devote 10 or more years to the mastery of a specialized area of scholarship on the theory that they are developing skills in research, or critical thinking, or communication... The ability to analyze Finnegans Wake does not translate into an ability to analyze a stock offering. If a person wanted to analyze stock offerings, he should not waste his time with Joyce. He should go to business school. Or get a job analyzing stock offerings.

    The situation in the life sciences isn't quite so dire. Field-appropriate non-academic job opportunities for people with doctorates in the biomedical sciences have grown tremendously in the last 40 years as the biotech industry has taken off. But do you really need a 7-year PhD in cell biology, followed by a 3-year postdoc to work for Merck doing drug discovery? In many cases, the answer is no, and this is why proposals are floating around for creating professional masters degree programs in the biomedical sciences, much like those that already exist in engineering. Menand is right - there is a huge inefficiency in the training system.

    And, as I've noted on this blog before, there is a social and humanitarian cost to all of this:

    Lives are warped because of the length and uncertainty of the doctoral education process. Many people drop in and drop out and then drop in again; a large proportion of students never finish; and some people have to retool at relatively advanced ages. Put in less personal terms, there is a huge social inefficiency in taking people of high intelligence and devoting resources to training them in programs that half will never complete and for jobs that most will not get.

    Menand's got his own proposal to reinvent the PhD. Lots of people apparently want them, so lets make them easier to get:

    If Ph.D. programs were determinate in length—if getting a Ph.D. were like getting a law degree—then graduate education might acquire additional focus and efficiency. It might also attract more of the many students who, after completing college, yearn for deeper immersion in academic inquiry, but who cannot envision spending six years or more struggling through a graduate program and then finding themselves virtually disqualified for anything but a teaching career that they cannot count on having.

    But that doesn't solve this problem of relevance. So you spend 4-5 years instead of 6-10 doing something that has little relevance for your subsequent non-academic career. Still, maybe we just have to face the fact that a lot of people want to go to graduate school:

    Most people who get Ph.D.s, whether they end up teaching or not, report high job satisfaction. (Job satisfaction is actually higher among Ph.D.s with non-academic careers than it is among academics, partly because spousal problems—commuting marriages—are not as great outside academia.) And the majority say that they do not regret the time they spent in graduate school (although they have a lot of complaints about the quality of the mentorship they received). Students continue to check into the doctoral motel, and they don’t seem terribly eager to check out. They like being in a university, and, since there is usually plenty of demand for their quite inexpensive teaching, universities like having them.

    On the surface, making PhDs easier to get would appear to make it more difficult to maintain quality control on scholarship - how do we pick the next generation of academic researchers if PhDs are easier to get? But Menand's solution might in fact improve the selection process - the selection of new faculty could be based less on sheer endurance, and more on quality and originality. Getting a tenure-track job at a top research university would still be a highly competitive prospect, as it should be, but the selection process wouldn't ruin so many lives, and it might "oxygenate" the academic world with "people who are much less invested in their paradigms."

    Maybe. I'm not exactly sure how this plan will make faculty selection and promotion more open to iconoclasts. Just because the candidate pool is more intellectually diverse, that doesn't mean departments will hire more diverse faculty.

    This challenge is not trivial. On the one hand, academic communities need to avoid becoming excessively conformist and insular. On the other, as Menand says, they can't just become "an echo of the public culture."

    That would be a catastrophe. It is the academic’s job in a free society to serve the public culture by asking questions the public doesn’t want to ask, investigating subjects it cannot or will not investigate, and accommodating voices it fails or refuses to accommodate. Academics need to look to the world to see what kind of teaching and research needs to be done, and how they might better train and organize themselves to do it. But they need to ignore the world’s demand that they reproduce its self-image.

    This is exactly why so many people are interested in academic jobs, but as the demand for such jobs goes up, without a concurrent increase in demand for specialized teaching and research, the process is inevitably going to get more competitive. Such extreme competition does anything but foster non-conformity.

    Hat tip to the Redneck Geneticist.

    Read the feed:


    Gerhard Adam
    Perhaps the most obvious question is what is the point of having a PhD?  It can hardly be argued that it is a guarantee of quality or excellence.  Similarly it doesn't guarantee credibility.

    It seems that in many ways this may be more of a political recognition vehicle than a scholarly one, since it suggests that the PhD is the gatekeeper to financing.  It doesn't even ensure that the best ideas are being explored, since it tends to be exclusionary.  This is paralleled by the situation with scientific publications being openly available versus closed subscriptions.  It tends to become a self-contained cocoon creating a bigger separation between the public and the practice of science.

    Mundus vult decipi
    The degree itself is only a guarantee that the holder knows how to perform passable specialized research. Excellence comes from more selective communities - departments at top research universities do a reasonably good job at quality control. As far as financing goes, not even a PhD gets you access to financing. As Menand points out in his article, you need an institutional affiliation to get access to financing. Which is the right thing - if the NIH is going to give you $1 million for a 5-year project, they need to be sure that you have the infrastructure support to do it. Universities and other institutions provide the lab space and ensure that the money is spent in accordance with federal law and NIH policies.
    1) PhDs need to stop apologizing or being modest about doing things most people don't have the endurance, discipline or maybe intelligence to do. 

    2) I don't worry about the quantity of PhDs any more than I worry about the quantity of BS degrees.   Better people will still get ahead and worse will not and that has little to do with numbers.  

    3) On time, if I knew I could get a PhD for meeting fixed requirements rather than taking a chance on getting an arbitrary kook making that decision about my life, I'd have gotten one by now, so there is something to be said for the argument about making them 'easier'.  Makes more money for universities too.
    1) PhDs need to stop apologizing or being modest about doing things most people don't have the endurance, discipline or maybe intelligence to do.
    Even under the best circumstances, I agree that endurance or persistence is an important trait to have if you're going to do research. But just being able to put the rest of your life on hold and endure years of doing very conventional research (instead of having the freedom to pursue your own ideas) isn't necessarily a great qualification. Great scientists are rightly prized for their independence - their willingness to buck trends and explore their own ideas in the face of criticism. Our current system doesn't nurture that kind of independence.
    On time, if I knew I could get a PhD for meeting fixed requirements rather than taking a chance on getting an arbitrary kook making that decision about my life, I'd have gotten one by now,
    Maybe the issue isn't so much making them easier, but more predictable. PhD programs are too unpredictable, in terms of how much of your life you have to invest and what your job prospects are after getting out.
    Gerhard Adam
    Great scientists are rightly prized for their independence - their willingness to buck trends and explore their own ideas in the face of criticism. Our current system doesn't nurture that kind of independence.
    This also raises the question of whether science is a viable career if no one is actually willing to pay much for it to succeed.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Great scientists are rightly prized for their independence - their willingness to buck trends and explore their own ideas in the face of criticism. Our current system doesn't nurture that kind of independence.
    Eh?  But what's the matter with following mom's sage advice and "give 'em what they want, because you can always do what you want after getting the degree"?

    If PhD candidates are too dumb to realize this, they shouldn't be in their programs.  ;)
    This is a good analysis, based on my experience, Mike.  Thanks for sharing it.  It reminds me of an essay William James wrote (March 1903) called "The PhD Octopus" (I actually think it was an address he gave at Harvard on the occasion of receiving an honorary doctorate there -- that is, after having been teaching psychology and philosophy there for a couple of decades with nothing more than a college degree). 

    Interesting connection too because Menand wrote a terrific history of Pragmatism called "The Metaphysical Club." 
    Michael, thank you for the excellent post. It rings true on so many levels. I am one of those unfortunate people who's life was "warped" by a lengthy PhD program and ultimately left the program with all but my dissertation complete. In the subsequent years I've worked outside academia, I've come to realize just how important having the PhD is to gaining full respect of peers and in granting access to the full array of opportunities. You're right that a PhD itself isn't necessary for many jobs, but without that hard-earned piece of paper admitting me to the exclusive PhD club, many doors are shut for advancement, funding, etc. I applaud your suggestion to make the PhD more determinate in length, much like it is in Europe. If the PhD were more on par with other terminal degree programs like a JD or MD, we'd all be better off.

    Good article.

    The MD is another example of an academic degree poorly tailored to real world demand.

    A distressed colleague up for tenure remarked to me that the problem is that it's a life-appointment. Publications and high-caliber scholarship are important, but she said that what department are also concerned about whether this is a person they can work with for the rest of the their career.

    Granting tenure is at least partly responsible for the 'self-selection' you point out. I genuinely don't understand what the practice of tenure adds to academia; arguments for it have always struck me as vague and generally applicable to fields which would never adopt the practice.
    Just a recommendation, for those who are interested in linking up with other PhD's who have succeeded, failed, or trying to use their doctorates outside the academy, this is the subscribe page for a sometimes excellent listserv.   Not only do people help each other out with specific leads on non-academic jobs for PhD's, but they also run workshops over e-mail where people who have escaped successfully give specific advice to the queries on the people on the list.  Sometimes the complaining can be a bit much, but overall it's an interesting and useful resource.