Is A Ph.D. A Waste Of Time?
    By Hank Campbell | December 29th 2010 07:04 PM | 10 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    The Economist argues, as they would be expected to argue, given their free market leaning, that due to the glut of Ph.D.s and therefore the poor job market (in academia), it is a waste of time.   A Ph.D. who enters the job corporate world for anything except basic research has the wrong set of skills, according to corporate hiring managers, so it is actually better to hire a bachelor's or Masters degree and spend the time in the corporate world.  Numbers bear it out.  While a Ph.D. earns more than a bachelor's degree today the difference between a Ph.D. and a Masters is barely noticeable.

    They have a point - until recently, any sort of college degree was for either the richest or smartest but once demographics showed that college-educated people make more, it became a political effort to give everyone a college education so they would make more money.

    Except most people recognize it doesn't actually work that way - it simply means the best people will still get hired, regardless of degree, while some with a Ph.D. are mired in debt because the government did not say everyone should have the opportunity to get a college education for free, just the opportunity to get one, which meant student loans which had once been capped became unlimited.   Sensing unlimited money, college tuition spiked accordingly and the status quo was maintained; only the richest or smartest go to the best schools now.

    Result; as I discussed in Why did 17 million of you go to college? there are 5 million janitors with Ph.D.s.   As The Economist notes, from the book “Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids and What We Can Do About It”, America got over 100,000 new Ph.D.s between 2005 and 2009 but just 16,000 new professorships - part of that reason is because academia doesn't need more full-time jobs because they can get PhD students to do the teaching.  Talk about a Catch-22.

    Does it seem to matter?  Not in science.   As the bar has risen, so has the need to accept a post-doctoral position, for less money than what a construction worker makes, to get considered for a lecturer position.    The glut of post-docs is so high that even if faculty jobs in something like the life sciences rose 5% per year, only 1 in 5 Ph.D.s would get one.   And academia is what a Ph.D. is primarily for; the research interests are too narrow otherwise.

    Being a principal investigator is no easy task either; researchers from academia prefer the perception of autonomy under the grant system but it's highly competitive.

    Clearly scientists are doing it for love, not money.  A site like Science 2.0 is proof of it.    However, there are limits to what ethical schools should be allowed to do.  Under the current system, schools will take everyone, knowing full well there are no jobs.   Then they will let them work as post-docs with the promise of better things in the future - though Ponzi scheme isn't the correct term it is certainly vaguely unethical to let students who want to do research underbid each other.   Unions came into play in the early part of the 20th century because corporation would let a glut of workers drive down prices.  Public and private universities now do the same thing.  Certainly unions mean higher wages, and with it fewer jobs, so the solution might be for schools to simply not lining their pockets and accepting far too many people.


    Gerhard Adam
    Unions came into play in the early part of the 20th century because corporation would let a glut of workers drive down prices.  Public and private universities now do the same thing.

    How is this different from the off-shoring of employment to produce an artificial "glut" of workers?
    Mundus vult decipi
    In principle, not at all, though obviously I am talking domestic numbers and scientists. Certainly a lot more PhDs are being produced in the entire world as well.   A Post-doc union is becoming the rage because universities are no different than any other corporation and will let people work for cheap as long as they can get it.
    Gerhard Adam
    I guess my point is that as long as there are countries that have a lower standard of living, it seems that everything will invariably be a race to the bottom, since there is no incentive to provide a decent wage.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Well, so people need to get PhDs so not it isn't universally a waste of time. Although I will admit, if there are more PhDs than the market can bare then it would be nice to see a number of PhDs paired back.

    (Just don't cut me. :))

    If your only reason for getting a PhD is to make more money, and it isn't making more money then obviously, don't do it.

    If your primary reason for getting the PhD is love of the subject and you can find a way to pay for it without taking on a load of debt then go for it! (Even if our modern society considers doing anything for any reason other than money to be deranged).

    Well, if one has a lot of money and has nothing to do but to waste time then go for it ...I believe it is a better way to waste money and time. 
    Seriously, if the answer to your goal in life (whatever is that) is to become a PHD holder then why not pursue it,  chances are,  as a consequence, you can be a better contributor to the community, probably better than when you were not a PhD.
    Who can underestimate what lies ahead?
    Of course, the answer to the question is 'it depends'. Don't do a PhD if you've finished college and simply don't know what to do with yourself. And unless you are really serious about going for highly competitive academic jobs, think twice before enrolling. (And think twice before your really decide you're serious about getting an academic job.) That said, there are in the biotech industry some really fun jobs that do require a PhD - you just won't get there with a BS and internal experience with the company. However, the guy with the BS or MS who works with the company for years has a good chance of doing better financially over the long run than the person who comes in years later with a PhD and 10 years of basically no salary. What the biomedical community really needs more of are meaningful master's degrees, which right now barely exist. In physics and engineering, there are MS programs aimed at people who only want an MS and then want to go out into a cool job in the business sector. Such a thing is virtually non-existent in biology, although that is slowly changing.
    Becky Jungbauer
    What if you don't want a professorship? What if you want to work in industry, government, etc? Unfortunately from what I've seen in the more social/administrative sectors, even a combination of a terminal master's degree and relevant work experience doesn't mean squat. Plus, there's still a glass ceiling that you can't break if you don't have the doctoral degree. I agree with Mike - we need more meaningful master's degrees, and employees to take those seriously.
    I regard universities and government as the same; they have a benefits structure few in the private sector get so the competition is much different - but I don't know of anyone in the private sector not getting a promotion because they lacked a Ph.D.      Obviously, people are diverse, and maybe some guy in some obscure department in IBM materials only promotes people to group leaders with a PhD - but it is just as likely to find people who only promote those from Stanford or any other school.  Favoritism happens but that is on the individual level.
    but I don't know of anyone in the private sector not getting a promotion because they lacked a Ph.D.
    In the 1960's, one of the universities I graduated from (Concordia) was smart enough to hire a part time lecturer from industry, even though he lacked a Ph.D. He was a brilliant analytical chemist and a good teacher, and they promoted him to a professor while he kept close ties with copper refineries. It was a rare occurrence, even in its day, and it's almost nonexistent today with the existing glut of doctorates. Although we have our share of patent-obsessed academics, we don't have enough industrialists in our schools who could bring teaching up a notch.