Monday, January 9, 2012

Why Doing a PhD Might be a Waste of Time

I've mentioned this before, but one of my few regrets in life was forcing myself to finish my PhD even though I knew 6 months in to it that I hated what I was doing and did not want to continue in academia. I often reflect upon my time as a PhD student as a waste of time, and that I could easily be doing what I'm doing now with "just" a master's degree.

I often get a terrible feeling in my stomach when I hear someone is entering into a PhD program...especially if they say they're doing it because they don't know what else to do with their life at the moment. I want to yell "DON'T DO IT!!!" at the top of my lungs, and go into the myriad of reasons why they should, at the very least, think twice about it.

The other day, DH was telling me about an article in The Economist about just that (Doctoral Degrees: The Disposable Academic (why doing a PhD is a waste of time)). This article does a wonderful job of explaining those reasons. DH and I agree that this side of the story is rarely written about, so I wanted to share some of the highlights:

- There is a HUGE oversupply of PhD students. Even if someone really, really, REALLY wants to be a tenured professor, there are so few of these jobs out there that the chances of finding one is ridiculously small.

- PhDs are trained for academia, not industry...so your skill set is shit if you "can't" (or don't want) an academic job.
- "PhD courses are so specialized that university careers offices struggle to assist graduates looking for jobs, and supervisors tend to have little interest in students who are leaving academia."

- "...the skills learned in the course of a PhD can be readily acquired through much shorter courses."

- "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."
- "The fiercest critics compare research doctorates to Ponzi or pyramid schemes." Universities love cheap labour. Graduate students and post-docs are cheap, will work long hours, and are disposable. "In Canada 80% of postdocs earn $38,600 or less per year before tax—the average salary of a construction worker." (who, by the way, has not spent years and mucho $$ educating themselves for their job).

- "A PhD may offer no financial benefit over a master’s degree. It can even reduce earnings." An interesting example explains how, 30 years ago, physicists were being hired in the financial sector because of their training in advanced calculus, but that is no longer competitive when MBA students can take one such course AND have the requisite business and financial training. Though, the article does note that a PhD in medicine, the sciences, and business can be beneficial over having a masters...by 3%.

- As I stated above, a lot of students continue to the PhD because they don't know what else to do, or are doing it because "they love it". It's even easier to press the ol' snooze alarm on life when stipends are available (being paid to learn seems attractive, even though the going-rate is abysmal). " But there are penalties, as well as benefits, to staying at university. Workers with “surplus schooling”—more education than a job requires—are likely to be less satisfied, less productive and more likely to say they are going to leave their jobs."

- Yes, the pursuit of knowledge is important for society, but "doing a PhD may still be a bad choice for an individual." because "The interests of academics and universities on the one hand and PhD students on the other are not well aligned."

- Students enter graduate school with a naive and idealistic view that universities are dedicated to training the best and brightest, and actually care about the future of their graduate students.
Few realize that the system is fully designed to benefit others.

The article is definitely worth a read - it's nice to hear a more realistic (albeit, fairly negative) viewpoint of the academic world, rather than the one we all hear when being wooed by professors who want more graduate students.