The journal Nature’s latest issue features The Future of the PhD as the provocative cover story. The Future of PhD special topic its own contents page, where you can see all of the articles in the series. Thankfully, few of these stories are behind the Nature paywall so they are all viewable online. They discuss both the statistics of the growing number of PhDs, possible reforms, and two opinion pieces calling for change. For example, there is an Editorial from the Nature editors, Fix the Phd:
That is because increased government research funding from the US National Institutes of Health and Japan’s science and education ministry has driven expansion of doctoral and postdoctoral education — without giving enough thought to how the labour market will accommodate those who emerge. The system is driven by the supply of research funding, not the demand of the job market.
After some discussion of how to fix the PhD, “One way in which governments can bring about change is to better match educational supply with occupational demand”, and arguing for more interdiscplinary programs they conclude with a message that I now give to all potential grad students:
Until any of this becomes commonplace, it is up to prospective graduate students to enter a science PhD with their eyes open to the opportunities — or lack of them — at the end. Not all mushrooms grow best in the dark.
In a very strong Op-Ed, humanities professor Mark Taylor says, Reform the PhD System or close it down:
The system of PhD education in the United States and many other countries is broken and unsustainable, and needs to be reconceived. In many fields, it creates only a cruel fantasy of future employment that promotes the self-interest of faculty members at the expense of students. The reality is that there are very few jobs for people who might have spent up to 12 years on their degrees.
Another article dives into the data:
In 1973, 55% of US doctorates in the biological sciences secured tenure-track positions within six years of completing their PhDs, and only 2% were in a postdoc or other untenured academic position. By 2006, only 15% were in tenured positions six years after graduating, with 18% untenured (see ‘What shall we do about all the PhDs?‘). Figures suggest that more doctorates are taking jobs that do not require a PhD. “It’s a waste of resources,” says Stephan. “We’re spending a lot of money training these students and then they go out and get jobs that they’re not well matched for.”.
If this all sounds familiar to you, it’s because the idea that we are producing too many PhDs in science is not new, and has been garnering recent attention. The Economist published The Disposable Academic last December. Beryl Benderly wrote The Real Science Gap and has many other articles on the topic. The situation is even more dire in the humanities. The problem is even creeping into law programs, where students take on crippling debt to finance their degrees, with no promise it’ll lead to a job.
In science, the pyramid is upside down with too many students and postdocs and way too few places for them to work when they finish. This is simply because there is money to fund students and postdocs – money uncorrelated to the number of permanent positions that will exist 7 years down the road. Ideally, it would be more difficult to get into graduate school, but with better job opportunities after graduation.
All the articles in the series are worth a read. Perhaps landing the cover of a science journal such as Nature is a turning point in getting the older guard to take this issue seriously. Meanwhile all of us need to tell it straight to undergrads aspiring to science: they need to enter graduate school with their eyes wide open.