More PhDs? Graduation Edition

Yes, it is that time of year when oddly frocked academics flock to stage the annual ritual of sending their now former students out into the world. And so perhaps this is a good time to consider just how much education society needs…and why we have as many PhDs as we do.

This past year an article showed up in Chemistry World basically saying that the research education complex in universities was a big pyramid scheme. We produce too many PhDs for the jobs out there. We should have more pure research people and fewer training programs, in essence, is the argument. And I think in some fields that may well be true (but at the moment, the oil and gas industry is absorbing anything with a pulse and a geology degree). But in earth science, we have had these pure research people in certain places (think Scripps and Lamont); the jobs are called soft money because there is no continuing support: fail to get some grants in time and you can’t pay the mortgage. Such positions used to be much more common than now; why would that be?

Fail to get funded as soft money and you are on the street: it is hard to write more proposals from the homeless shelter. Worse, these grants are always more expensive than regular university grants. Years ago, when GG was on soft money, an NSF program manager was questioned about the difficulty of getting funded as soft money because the overall cost was higher than a typical university proposal. He simply said, you have to be twice as good in what you are doing because you cost twice as much.

One problem is that research is no longer really regarded as the justification for programs like the National Science Foundation (NSF). NSF proposals have to have a “broader impacts” section, and unless you are saving humanity from a plague or a meteorite impact, that is most likely going to be in the form of educating somebody, which usually means supporting a student.

Why might this be? Well, it is really easy to go to Congress and say “we need to train more scientists because, well, there are all the science-y problems out there.” It is almost Mom and apple pie kind of stuff. But go in and discuss, say, the need to study clinoforms in subglacial lakes or the variation of Poisson’s ratio with melt and temperature and watch eyes roll to the back of heads in the process of slamming forward into desks. Or, heaven help you in today’s Congress, go in with why we need to do work with evolution or climate change. This isn’t a new phenomenon: in the mid to late 1860s, as J.D. Whitney was at loggerheads with the California State Legislature, Whitney’s California Geological Survey published its first volume ever: the Paleontology volume. Some of its contents on some Mesozoic reptiles were read on the floor of the Legislature as an argument to end funding for the survey (and, in fact, the Legislature chose not to fund the survey that year). So the odds of increasing the research side of the “research education complex” seem remote.

So if scientists believe they have a pyramid scheme and want to end it, it will take going to Congress and suffering the blows of ignorance as, for instance, politicians rail against studying fruit flies (which has of course been a seminal source of investigation into genetics). Or, of course, we can return to the pre-WW II model of research either being done on summer break by university faculty or in R&D labs for industry.

So maybe before we end the pyramid scheme, we need to redirect a bunch of those excess PhDs into politics….[this link, BTW, is a fun read]

GG recalls a faculty member who, years ago, said that once he trained a single PhD, he was essentially done training PhDs: he had trained his replacement, and since numbers of faculty were now relatively stagnant, that was all that was needed.  This sentiment captures the whole issue: the decline in growth of higher education from its meteoric rise after WWII restricting the traditional academic career path and the sense that this is what PhDs are for. So are PhDs just good for being university professors?

GG isn’t on that bandwagon.  The problem is obvious in some ways: when you go to study under a university professor, you are working with someone who made the choice, long ago, to be a university professor and accept all the perks and drawbacks of such a position (“drawbacks?”-GG hears you mutter-“what drawbacks?”–well, right now our current BS students have in many instances walked directly into jobs with higher salaries than those of professors with 30 years of experience). So professors as guidance counselors are really a pathetic lot. Is there really room for PhDs elsewhere?

Yes. What really do you learn in getting a PhD?  Well, to get a BS or BA, you learn how to carry out some kind of analysis.  Nobody seems to have a problem with a BA in Fine Arts becoming an accountant with some training. With an MS, you should be able to decide which available analysis is suitable for a particular problem. Also a skill set that can translate between fields. But a PhD is often viewed as somebody who knows everything about nothing, which seems like a useless skill set unless that fractional bit of knowledge is central to something more important.  This, in GG’s view, is a misreading of a PhD.  What a STEM PhD should be able to do is to recognize which problems can be solved and are worth solving, because in doing the research necessary (at least in earth science) to get the PhD, the student should be learning why they are doing what they are doing, and they should be learning through the very old-fashioned school of hard knocks to recognize what approaches will and will not advance a research program. And this is a skill very much in demand in the real world–if the real world would recognize the need.

GG is aware of examples; Wall Street, for instance, often raided Lamont-Doherty for talented employees despite the fact they were hiring them to do financial work and not, say, seismology.  And given the glut of science-related challenges facing the body politic ranging from global warming to determining the origin of a body of pollutants to evaluating the safety of oil and gas exploration, there is a pressing need for individuals with the skills and background to not only study these issues but to be able to question advocates carefully about the facts and assumptions in their work and make sensible conclusions about courses of action to take.

So are there too many PhDs?  For the academic job market, certainly.  For society as a whole? No, but we need the word to get out that a PhD is a lot more flexible than folks like to think.

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3 responses to “More PhDs? Graduation Edition”

  1. honeymustardseeds says :

    Looks like the Franklin’s List website doesn’t work. I hope it’s just down for maintenance.

    Thanks for posting this, it’s really going to help when I start to consider a PhD.


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