Like most bloggers, I suspect, I get frequent random spam-requests from individuals or organizations about doing a guest post. Maybe I am a control freak, but I am not interested in letting someone who sends me a form letter do a guest post on a topic that has little or nothing to do with academia, science, women, or cats.
Recently, however, a colleague of mine was ranting about a Certain Topic, and I was kind of intrigued/entertained, so I asked him "Do you want to do a guest post about that?" It turns out that there are few more effective ways to stop some people in mid-rant, but after thinking about it for a few days, a guest post on the rant-topic appeared in my inbox.
The topic is the belief that doing a PhD may be a colossal waste of time owing to uncertain job prospects, particularly in academia, and the amount of time that may be spent working hard for low wages while in pursuit of a doctorate.
In addition to the link cited in the guest post (see below), I would also mention the humanities-focused articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education by Thomas H. Benton: The Big Lie About the 'Life of the Mind' and Grad School in the Humanities: Just Don't Go. Although my guest blogger is writing about the sciences in particular, some of the arguments about whether a PhD is worthwhile (or not) transcend academic discipline.
PhD Rhapsody, by A Guest Blogging MSP
In addition to the plethora of articles and books (and legislators) attacking universities today, there is relentless questioning of the value of graduate education. Professors are accused of taking advantage of graduate students, using them as energetic and dedicated (and cheap) labor to teach their classes, and conning them into committing a cardinal sin: doing a PhD! See for example "The disposable academic - Why doing a PhD is often a waste of time" (The Economist).
The argument goes as follows: the PhD is designed, almost exclusively, to prepare students to enter academia, and since there are not enough professor positions to go around, we professors are setting students up for a bitter and dissatisfied life. Those in doctoral programs in science, for example, have wasted their most precious years on measurements, analyses, and lots and lots of useless reading. Altogether, the responsible attitude for a professor may be to stop taking graduate students. This makes me think of musicians, a leap that requires some explanation.
I am a professor in the physical sciences, not a musician; I occasionally strum the guitar, but this is confined, thankfully, to the walls of my home (call it workout for the soul). But I have two children in their mid-twenties (contemporaries of my current PhD students), and they are both professional musicians. That is, they have made music their profession, and they are struggling artists. Through their training, they have mastered the limits and the possibilities of their voice and the beautiful implements they blow into. Like all musicians, they use their virtuosity to express the emotions that are encrypted in a piece. It is hard work, it is often teamwork, it takes discipline, stamina, and financial endurance.
Musicians are “invited” to audition for orchestras, all expenses NOT paid; there are typically no sponsors to help purchase their instruments, which in some cases are bought with scary-size loans. Succeeding in music also takes motivation, inspiration, creativity, and the desire to work in harmony with others. Sounds familiar? These are the qualities we like to list in letters of recommendation for our students. I see in my children, like in my PhD students, the desire to develop a profession and make a living, but above all, I see the courage to do something about which they feel truly passionate.
So I’d like to argue, for a moment, in defense of the university PhD experience. Yes, there may be some evil advisers who use and abuse their students, and no, there is no guarantee that a PhD will lead eventually to an academic job.
Nonetheless, the PhD gives a chance, at the age when humans have arguably the right combination of training, creativity, and audacity (all classical composers had defined their styles by that age), to question the established and invent new directions. It seems to me that the conditions under which graduate students develop their creativity are good. In exchange for some hours of teaching and/or research assistantship, the University provides the stage for PhD students to develop their talent. In comparison to other creative fields like music and the arts, this is a good deal, in my view, and it is difficult to think of more effective ways by which society can foster creativity, ingenuity, and inspiration.
8 years ago