Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Guest Post: PhD Rhapsody

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.


Anonymous said...

Indeed. It is up to the individual to decide if it is worth it for them.

However, a professor should tell prospective students what to expect. That is, tell those undergrads that the average PhD takes 6 years, and after that 95% go on to do a postdoc, and after that only 40% land a faculty position, typically at some no-name liberal college (or, whatever the numbers are for your field). Also, point out that all the profs. in your department got their PhDs at one of the top-20 schools, and not the school you are teaching at.

High school students think that if they just work hard and get good grades they will make lots of money and not have to work long hours. That is only true if they go into Finance, where the median starting salary is $200K and goes up to $1M.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

I have posted and commented on this topic numerous times, and already made the analogy to professional musicians, professional athletes, law firms partners, and pretty much any other pyramid structured profession, with a small number of people reaching the highly desired positions at the top. The entire *reason* why there are a lot more people willing to enter at the bottom of the pyramid is because the positions at the top are so desirable.

Here's a pretty good example:

TJR said...

While I do agree with the author, I think the issue goes beyond his point. PhDs are also invaluable if you want to have any sort of leadership role in industry!

Almost all high ranking people within industry (at least within the scientific track of the company) have a PhD. Even if you aspire to be a group leader, with maybe a few people under you, most of these positions require doctorates!

Anonymous said...

The difference is that music and the arts have for a very long time had a reputation of low pay and strong competition. Academia has changed dramatically in the past 10-20 years, and its reputation had yet to catch up. Creative, inspired, but more risk-averse people were taken by surprise; it would be fair to criticize them for not having researched their desired professions sufficiently. I'm one of those people who's most creative and happy competing against myself in a vacuum, and overt competition with others and limited choice as to where I live (assuming I want a shot at TT) make me anxious and unhappy. I probably would've chosen a different direction had I known 10 years ago how uncertain things would be. At the very minimum, I would've followed up on those consulting or i-banking offers so that I had a financial cushion before starting a PhD. Science is beautiful stuff, but its practice in this climate means a lot of talent will go to waste.

Stephanie said...

I think a PhD can be a great thing, if it is the right thing for you. What bothers me is that a PhD degree can take from 4 years (theorists! don't have to actually DO anything in the real world.) to up to 8 years (experimentalists with tough experiments) and even 11 years for one person I know. It doesn't make any sense to me that the same degree and learning skills would really take that much of a time difference. I know every experiment is different and whatnot, but they manage to get people out in 4 years of research (no classes) in Europe. So now when people ask me if they should get a PhD, I tell them to do it in Europe. It's a good chance to study abroad and will ensure that you finish in a reasonable time frame, since it doesn't seem like hard work and discipline necessarily get you your PhD any faster in the USA, just luck in choosing an adviser and experiment.

Hope the European universities appreciate all the good students I'm sending their way.

Anonymous said...

MSP, I appreciated your comment that "the University provides the stage for PhD students to develop their talent" and your connection with academic life and the arts. I am a first-year doctoral student in my mid-30s pursuing a social science and my parents were artists. I appreciate the connection you made as I, too, have found that scholarly pursuits require dedication, passion, and creativity in much the same way as artists. I understand that some departments have toxic work environments; this dynamic is not exclusive to the University as I found it in the business world as well. As a first-year doctoral student I have been nurtured and mentored by faculty in my department and in other departments. It is a rare gift to be supported in this way. As a funded doctoral student, I am not even close to maxing out my IRA contributions and paying monthly bills can be tricky sometimes. This must be understood in the context that the grand total of my tuition remission, fees, monthly stipend, year-round health care coverage, regular access to mentoring and supervision (which prior to school used to cost me $80-$140 per hour) FAR exceeds my monthly earnings. I understand that my experience is not everyone's experience, but I defend the PhD experience with you and I am deeply grateful for the opportunity.

Anonymous said...

Dear Guest, Thank you for the very nice analogy. I often think about science careers as being similar to the careers of actors for the a number of reasons. (1) They both (usually) include an intensive amount of training and sacrifice when you are young. (2) A person's ability to advance is not necessarily related only to their absolute skill set but also to being a desired "type". (3) There is an element of salesmanship of oneself in both careers that can be somewhat distasteful. (4) Both careers subject you to an intense amount of scrutiny from your colleagues and higher-ups (and in the case of actors, from the general public). (5) And finally, both actors and scientists are deemed to be only as good as their latest reviews. That said, the odds of making it as an academic scientist is probably a couple orders of magnitude greater than making a living as an actor. I'm glad I'm a scientist (full disclosure: one who made it) rather than someone like my son who is actually thinking about a career in acting.

bsci said...

This rhapsody is all well and good as long as advisors AND departments realize that this is what they are doing. Are they pretending that tenured faculty positions are the destinations for most grad students? Do they consider anything else "alternate" careers?

There is one huge difference to a music career. Until you've already reached a fairly high level, your teachers and mentors are the people who didn't reach the top. For many, teaching music is one of many sources of income because they can't earn a full income through performance. As part of the learning process, you see a wide range of careers.

In grad school, your mentors are almost all tenured faculty. There isn't a clear view of what else is out there unless the faculty, department, or university brings them into the education process. The issue isn't the limited number of faculty positions, but more truth in advertising and including career mentorship as a core part of the process.

Anonymous said...

Most of the articles these days are talking about PhDs in the humanities where, unlike in the sciences, the PhD can rack up some large student loan debt. That changes the equation.

Anonymous said...

Some supervisors and some fields (theoretical physics in particular) are MUCH worse about this than others. I agree with CPP that it is hugely desirable and that the competition makes the system "better" and so on. BUT, we need to be up front with people about the odds and give them proper mentorship.

I was recently an external examiner for a marginal candidate and when asked "Now what?" he said he planned to get a job at top university across town. No one there would ever have taken him as a student let alone give him a tenure track job! I was shocked that his committee let him get this far with no real idea how the system works.

Anonymous said...

All this talk of the arts is rather shocking coming from a science professor, who I would assume is more used to talking in numbers. Have you managed to place most, if not all, of your PhDs and postdocs? The first most important question is if your students are getting careers after they leave your lab (full-time positions with a future, not just postdoc-type temporary work).

If they are, then that's great, and then feel free to rhapsodize about a comparison to the arts to explain the low pay and opportunity cost of a PhD but the reward of the career. But unfortunately, most PhDs, even in science, are left without sufficient mentoring from their advisor and school, toiling in postdocs or other non-career temporary positions until they finally give up. In those cases, the PhD was probably a waste. There are certainly worse things you can do with your time, but my guess is that they entered grad school for a fulfilling career, not a low-pay decade-long slog ultimately ending in a crushed ego and career reset.

DrDoyenne said...

Echoing some other comments, I would add that science positions in the government (including research positions) often require Ph.D.s or equivalent (at least the higher-level, more desirable positions). This includes positions in State and Federal government (US agencies such as EPA, NOAA, NASA, USGS, NPS, FWS). In my agency, the top-level positions are mostly held by Ph.D.-level people, many of whom started out in research and then advanced into science management. Even if your choice is to stay in research, you can advance up the pay and grade scale based on your scientific accomplishments and recognition in the broader scientific community. In fact, some very well-known scientists are employed by government agencies (for example, James Hansen works for the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies).

There are even internships within some agencies that students can apply for and that place them in line for a government science position once they complete their degrees.

My impression is that many graduate programs fail to educate students about the various career paths someone with a Ph.D. in a science field may take. These "alternate" careers may not be for everyone, but they're worth considering.

When I give seminars at universities, I am often asked by students about working in government--they really have no insight, and some appear to think that their only real option is an academic job.

A good mentor will help their students develop skills and options that include more than one limited career path.

mathgirl said...

I come from a third world country where I lived until I got my first university degree. When I got the offers for graduate school, I couldn't believe that TAships paid so much! Even during my time in grad school, I was very happy with my TA salary. I couldn't believe that I was able to live with my own salary, without my parent's help (that would have been the case in my home country).

Of course, now that I've grown up and I have a TT, I also agree that grad students are low paid, I also wonder whether the PhD is worthwhile, etc.

Anonymous said...

We're very up-front about employment of our grad students:

Anonymous said...

anonymous at 5:34. If only it were true that academic finance jobs were uniformly well paid and didnt entail lots of work. Ivy Leaguers get paid what you mention, but they work uniformly extraordinarily hard. I dont perceive any 'lesser' effort by finance professors. It often shocks sciences to learn that it can take up to 2 years to get from a submitted to published paper due to the intensity of the reviewing process. This does not make it easy for a junior researcher to 'produce' and show their wares. Add to that we often teach large classes (producing much money for the university) and pay unreasonably high overheads on grants (again producing money for the university) which money then goes to infrastructure for relatively more infrastructure intensive disciplines ...such as sciences. So every discipline has its gripe and probably best not to swipe at others undeservedly.

Anonymous said...

None of the faculty I have encountered consider their students research slaves to be exploited. However, most faculty do seem to have the overly optimistic attitude that with a PhD and a postdoc and a reasonable publication record their students will get the exact jobs they want and be happy productive faculty (or industry / govt staff) for the rest of their careers. I don't think most faculty have adjusted to the realities of the job market in the past few years - they're still basing their expectations on the way things worked 10 years ago when they were looking for jobs. They got a great job, so no doubt their students will too.

Anonymous said...

It's still up to the student to do the PhD or not. I think that departments and/or institutions should publish data about the employment of their graduates, but it is still the responsibility of the grad student or postdoc to weigh the options and make their own decisions.

Becca said...

I hope the author of this letter is doing outreach... to children in painting and music classes. We shouldn't be telling people there ARE solid careers in science. If it's honest starving artist career space fine, but you will loose all the creative minds to other fields. Where you can be passionate, and creative, and starve, with much less of the hierarchy bullshit found in science. The apprentice model of exploited labor makes sense if you control the certification process sufficiently to ensure job security. There's a carrot at the end of the long hard slog. If there are no jobs, you have to start treating students as colleagues from day one.
Students who feel nurtured and supported often feel it is worth the process. Students who go through hell and get TT positions often feel it is worth the process. Students who feel abused and then get nothing... that is the all-too-common subset we need to fix.

Alex said...

One thing that has always annoyed me is that people who fund undergraduate research seem to be particularly interested in how many students go on to PhD programs as a result of participating in research. I don't understand what would be so awful if somebody did research, acquired some skills, and then decided to go get a job after graduation. But the funding agencies seem to be interested in seeing more students go into the PhD pyramid scheme.

Anonymous said...

Agree totally, but counting up the undergrads who go into PhD programs is something you can easily report as an outcome as part of the assessment we are all supposed to be doing to show that we aren't just wasting everyone's time and money by spending the summer advising a student on a research project.

Alex said...

part of the assessment we are all supposed to be doing to show that we aren't just wasting everyone's time and money by spending the summer advising a student on a research project

According to my department's tenure document, advising a student on a research project is an important activity. However, I suppose that we are just being old-fashioned by not assessing whether it was valuable.

Now, if your assessment shows that it's valuable, then we could assess whether your criteria for calling it valuable are in fact meaningful criteria. Assessment of assessment, or ass^2 for short.

But even if we establish that those criteria are valuable and meaningful, we still used some criteria to establish that. So assessment of assessment of assessment. ass^3

Does it ever end? Do we wind up with a "who assesses the assessors?" problem like in political philosophy, or a halting problem like in computer science?

Guest MSP said...

Thanks for the comments! In response to Anon 1:59, I will say that I feel lucky that, after 25 years of advising at a rate of nearly 1 PhD/year, all of my PhD students have gone on to fulfilling careers, most in academia, but also as science writer, research administrator, or senior envoy in a branch of government.

Comrade PhysioProf's pyramid is the key to a successful system, and as he mentions, the pyramid exists in all upper-level career paths. My job as a PhD advisor is to enhance the fastest pathway to the top of the pyramid for each of my students. Many ideas to achieve this have been proposed in response to this post. Bad/adverse mentoring can be very detrimental because it affects the psychology of the PhD experience; abuse of any kind may kill all prospects of a future career in academia and may leave deep scars in students.

Yet, in my experience, what counts the most is to do exciting and original research. My contribution has been to help define PhD projects that were always current and at the leading edge of my field. I have sought collaboration with lab scientists outside my University, for example, whenever I felt this would give the student an edge. In many cases, advisors who stay entrenched in the projects they developed during their own doctoral time set their students up for severe disappointment. This is particularly true in the US where research evolves fast, and funding agencies (reviewers and panels) appreciate new directions. Some may not agree with this assessment about funding agencies, but if you look at Europe, you will see a much more conservative pattern, at least until recently.

Nicole said...

A huge difference is that the vast majority of science PhD students DO NOT think they are going into something with an uncertain future like an artistic career. I'm actually still reeling from your comparison.

Nicole said...

Now I've read all the other comments, subjecting myself to more shock, people are still talking seriously about the "mentoring" professors are supposed to give PhD students to help them navigate other career possibilities! Hilarious. What do professors know about other career options? Nothing. How could they possibly help students? Other than keeping a network of their former PhD students who left science up-to-date (so they can give you an email address or two when it's clear you're leaving academia). How many professors do you know that do that? Not many. More likely they can tell you about their former student/postdoc who's now at Yale .

To succeed in academia one has to scale very particular mountains very, very well. One is so focused on those mountains, there is no time to learn how to traverse the many nearby hills, valleys, and mountains. So expecting professors to be able to successfully mentor students along other paths just makes me laugh.

Science PhD students are brimming with intellect and creativity, but most are also pragmatic enough to want a stable, well-paying career. They scarcity of jobs for which they've been trained does surprise most of them. And I sympathize and empathize.

Anonymous said...

Oh please, Angry Mother. Don't assume all professors are as horrible as yours presumably were.

I think MSP's arguments work least well for grad students at middling institutions. They have less of a chance of succeeding because their training is not so hot, their degrees lack the cachet of the top schools, their mentors are less connected, less active, and/or knowledgeable, etc etc etc. AND, since they are usually weaker students, they are also less motivated and less likely to look into the track records of their grad program, or listen to someone telling them something they don't want to hear. Blah - now I'm depressing myself. Maybe these programs shouldn't exist -- but is that really a solution?

Alex said...

keeping a network of their former PhD students who left science

This attitude is just as destructive as the attitudes of those at the top of the pyramid. People who work in non-academic careers are not "leaving science" if they are still using their training.

I'm sensitive to this, because I teach and do research in an undergraduate institution, and on my last day as a postdoc at a major research institute a colleague said "Alex is leaving science." Um, no.

Yes, I still got a tenure-track job, so most people (quite possibly including you) would say that I didn't "leave science", but the point is that when people deviate from somebody else's "ideal" path they are referred to as "leaving science." If you see faculty as the be-all and end-all of science, then I didn't leave but people in industry did. If you see R1 schools as the be-all and end-all, then I did leave. If you see publishable research as the be-all and end-all, then I didn't leave (and neither did some people in industry) but people at community colleges did.

This isn't a healthy attitude.

Madscientistgirl said...

Stephanie - your statements about PhDs in Europe are incorrect. First of all, systems vary widely. France and England have strict time limits which I believe are 3 years (although France might be 4), but in the Czech Republic, it's 8. Second, European students come in with the equivalent of a master's degree so if you're going to compare you really have to add 1.5-2 years to the time in Europe for a fair comparison. Third, in countries with very strict time limits, they aren't always equivalent to a PhD who took more time in the US. If someone manages to gain as many skills, as much expertise, and as much exposure, yes, but it's not guaranteed. Summary: Comparing PhDs from Europe and from the US is complicated.

I'm all for critiquing the US system, but let's make sure we're comparing accurately to other systems.

Anonymous said...

It is so easy to get some clues about potential career paths after a PhD, and the chances to be successful at them, that I can't understand how prospective PhD-students could enter grad school convinced that everyone of them will get a TT-track job at some Ivy-league university. Embarking on such a project without researching how the system works just seems rather stupid to me. If this happens, why aren't the relevant students to blame?

Nicole said...

My advisors were not horrible, and I know MANY more professors than the ones that trained me. A great deal of experience is behind my comment.

And it is "leaving science". Unless you still do some science as part of your job. I'm in Corporate America, it's it is most definitely another world.

akajb said...

Interesting article and discussion. I know that article has been flying around my department - both among faculty and grad students.

I know, realistically, that my changes of ending up with a TT job are not great. I still have a couple of years left, so things may swing around. However, I don't think I'm researching in an area where people will be searching me out to hire. And that's okay - because I'm researching something I'm interested in and I think a PhD would be unbearable if that wasn't the case.

I'm lucky that I am and will be debt free when I finish. But I do wonder about what my next steps will be and what career path I'll end up on.

Is it worth it? I don't know - I guess it depends on how you look at it. I'm loving the experience so right now I would argue yes. Ask me again in 10 years. :)

Anonymous said...

If you have the drive, dedication, talent, etc to do well in a music performance degree, you can be successful anywhere. I'm a professional musician with performance degrees, and though I'm not in a professional orchestra (the traditional culmination for my training), I'm very successful where I'm at. I'm realistic with students who want to major in performance, but am encouraging when they exhibit the best qualities. I think that all this applies to PhD's as well. (I've got a DM, and know lots of PhD's). I've got lots of performance major friends who are entirely out of the profession, but very successful in their fields. The skills transfer.

The Guest MSP says in the comment posted 1/19/2011 06:01:00 PM, that he (I'm assuming MSP means Male Science Professor) has many students doing other things. I think that's fantastic, but I suspect that universities tout their tenured graduate statistics the most, which puts pressure on the students to go strictly into academia.

(By the way, I've also got lots of friends in professional full-time orchestras - it's not always a bed of roses!)

Anonymous said...

In fact, universities are quite proud of their successful graduates in industry and government, among other careers. Non-academic alums are useful as role models for students (showing the different careers that are possible with a science degree), and of course very successful alums (typically in industry) make more $$ than academics and therefore are more useful as donors.

iGrrrl said...

I think it should be noted that the unemployment level for PhDs in 2009 was 2.5 % ( I seem to recall reading that it had edged up to 3% in the current economy. Graduate training in science is not a novitiate to holy orders, nor is it a vo-tech school. It's not worth doing unless you want to do it, and it's okay to go on to do something else besides R1-level research. Clearly people do, given the numbers.

I went on to do something else, but I couldn't do it with any credibility without the three letters after my name. I wonder about Angry Mother, whether she finished with an MS or PhD, and whether would have been interviewed for her current corporate job without that credential. It's not just a matter of the perceptions of others. Graduate training in science, if the process is done well by both mentors and students, teaches one to think critically. It's more broadly applicable than the narrow field in which I received my degree.

Anonymous said...

MSP, like many other commenters, I appreciate you point. But it's important to recognize that it's a point many STEM departments fail to make. Instead, these departments often refer to those who don't land TT positions as failures. I can't speak to whether music departments do the same. I don't think getting a PhD is a waste, but I think many people get one having unrealistic expectations of the job market. We could fault them, or provide them with better information. Despite having some major problems with the Economist article, I appreciate that they are putting the information out there.

Anonymous said...

"And it is "leaving science". Unless you still do some science as part of your job. I'm in Corporate America, it's it is most definitely another world."

(S)he was clearly referring to industry jobs that are still doing science research. How is that "leaving science"?

Nicole said...

I have a PhD, and I have no real idea how much that helped or hindered my hiring. I think it was a positive for some (most importantly the main hiring person), and a negative for others in my group.

Since leaving science (I do no science whatsoever), I've learned a great deal more about positions that could've been available to me. I think Corporate America is starting to realize there are alot of smart people with advanced training and learning how to absorb them. That's good for PhDs.

Doctor Pion said...

Audacity. I really liked that.

The first comment by Anon @ 5:34AM only left out one thing, and that is median salary across various academic areas -vs- in industry. There is a lot of ignorance there. The point that the top schools feed most of the PhDs hired by lower tier schools is of particular importance. Even if you get a tt job, it is unlikely to be at a place nearly as cool as where you got your degree.

Anon @ 6:15AM seems to be living under the delusion that Academic Science careers where easy to get in the 1970s and 1980s. Conditions are MUCH better today than they were in, say, 1975 in physics. The first blogs in my "jobs" series show the crash that other fields might be facing in the near term.

The upside of Science is that the 60 to 70% of physics PhDs who don't work in academia (the historic average for many decades) have some pretty good options unless they are doing theoretical astrophysics with a side of string theory. Your advisor may not know about those jobs, but they are out there in the companies that pay the taxes to support your research.

Anonymous said...

Since we are talking about science PhDs, it may not be unreasonable to assume that students and their mentors are familiar with the concept of "number" and "back of the envelope". The size of doctoral programs is public knowledge, and so is the size of faculty at R1 institutions. It is not hard to get estimates of the chances of getting a "desirable" job...

BTW, we DO mentor students and tell them of realistic alternatives to Ivy League chairs.

European doctorates, as pointed out earlier, vary widely. With very few exceptions they are noot as good as doctorates in the US: many programs have minimal breadth requirements, and for many reasons, the atmosphere is less "electric" than in many US programs (of course, for some his may be a plus....)