Educational Goals

Some years ago, GG was working with a more senior geoscience professor who offered one day the opinion that as he had mentored a student through his PhD, he had now successfully replaced himself and therefore need not advise any more students to get a doctorate. This came to mind upon seeing a piece by Roger Pielke Jr. that essentially was advocating for a course of study for professional athletes.

Basically Pielke’s point is that at top tier sports schools, the student-athletes have a pretty good chance of turning pro, so they should be trained in being a pro athlete.  He comes up with an estimate that power-5 conference football players have a 20% chance of landing in the NFL and a similar percentage from the top 16 basketball schools. But then he made this comparison: “…for the new PhD, the odds of landing a job as a professor, assuming all these positions are filled with new graduates, is only about 8 percent.”

So, according to an academic at a top-tier research school, the only true goal of a PhD is to be a professor.  So we should be teaching classes in grant-writing, course development, and classroom management, right? It is bad enough this impression exists outside of the academy, but it is insulting to have it offered from one who has lived in the academy and worked side-by-side with PhDs who are not professors.

So as a public service, a reminder: a PhD is degree that should reflect an ability to not only identify solvable problems but problems worth solving and to create and execute a plan of attack to solve such problems. Although you also pick up a lot of particulars about your field along the way, those main skills are very transferable.

In GG’s field, most PhDs in fact go into industry or government service, but GG is aware of several who have found more exotic paths where their training was important. One went on to work in Congress and then the White House and then government agencies.  A student of GG’s recently emailed to note that his PhD training was important in teaching him skills he uses daily in working for an investment firm.

We do graduate education a huge disservice if we think all we are doing is training future professors.  Although we academics are typically lousy career advisers (which is probably why so many graduates suffer through postdoc purgatory), we need to be clear that there are good paths for PhDs outside the ivory tower.

So yes, we probably only need to train one professorial replacement per career, but we also are training many other people for diverse futures. So if only 8% of our PhDs get to be professors, that is fine–there are places to go for the other 92% with the skills we teach. GG wonders if Pielke’s pro athlete training program would serve equally well the 80% of football and basketball players who do not hit the big time.


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  1. Educational (Un)Employment | The Grumpy Geophysicist - May 9, 2017

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