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Education: The PhD factory
(See attached pdf for original)
Scientists who attain a PhD are rightly proud — they have gained entry to an academic elite. But it is not as elite as it once was. The number of science doctorates earned each year grew by nearly 40% between 1998 and 2008, to some 34,000, in countries that are members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The growth shows no sign of slowing: most countries are building up their higher-education systems because they see educated workers as a key to economic growth (see 'The rise of doctorates'). But in much of the world, science PhD graduates may never get a chance to take full advantage of their qualifications.
In some countries, including the United States and Japan, people who have trained at great length and expense to be researchers confront a dwindling number of academic jobs, and an industrial sector unable to take up the slack. Supply has outstripped demand and, although few PhD holders end up unemployed, it is not clear that spending years securing this high-level qualification is worth it for a job as, for example, a high-school teacher. In other countries, such as China and India, the economies are developing fast enough to use all the PhDs they can crank out, and more — but the quality of the graduates is not consistent. Only a few nations, including Germany, are successfully tackling the problem by redefining the PhD as training for high-level positions in careers outside academia. Here, Nature examines graduate-education systems in various states of health.
Japan: A system in crisis
Of all the countries in which to graduate with a science PhD, Japan is arguably one of the worst. In the 1990s, the government set a policy to triple the number of postdocs to 10,000, and stepped up PhD recruitment to meet that goal. The policy was meant to bring Japan's science capacity up to match that of the West — but is now much criticized because, although it quickly succeeded, it gave little thought to where all those postdocs were going to end up.
Academia doesn't want them: the number of 18-year-olds entering higher education has been dropping, so universities don't need the staff. Neither does Japanese industry, which has traditionally preferred young, fresh bachelor's graduates who can be trained on the job. The science and education ministry couldn't even sell them off when, in 2009, it started offering companies around ¥4 million (US$47,000) each to take on some of the country's 18,000 unemployed postdoctoral students (one of several initiatives that have been introduced to improve the situation). "It's just hard to find a match" between postdoc and company, says Koichi Kitazawa, the head of the Japan Science and Technology Agency.
This means there are few jobs for the current crop of PhDs. Of the 1,350 people awarded doctorates in natural sciences in 2010, just over half (746) had full-time posts lined up by the time they graduated. But only 162 were in the academic sciences or technological services,; of the rest, 250 took industry positions, 256 went into education and 38 got government jobs.
With such dismal prospects, the number entering PhD programmes has dropped off (see 'Patterns of PhD production'). "Everyone tends to look at the future of the PhD labour market very pessimistically," says Kobayashi Shinichi, a specialist in science and technology workforce issues at the Research Center for University Studies at Tsukuba University.
China: Quantity outweighs quality?
The number of PhD holders in China is going through the roof, with some 50,000 people graduating with doctorates across all disciplines in 2009 — and by some counts it now surpasses all other countries. The main problem is the low quality of many graduates.
Yongdi Zhou, a cognitive neuroscientist at the East China Normal University in Shanghai, identifies four contributing factors. The length of PhD training, at three years, is too short, many PhD supervisors are not well qualified, the system lacks quality control and there is no clear mechanism for weeding out poor students.
Even so, most Chinese PhD holders can find a job at home: China's booming economy and capacity building has absorbed them into the workforce. "Relatively speaking, it is a lot easier to find a position in academia in China compared with the United States," says Yigong Shi, a structural biologist at Tsinghua University in Beijing, and the same is true in industry. But PhD graduates can run into problems if they want to enter internationally competitive academia. To get a coveted post at a top university or research institution requires training, such as a postdoctoral position, in another country. Many researchers do not return to China, draining away the cream of the country's crop.
The quality issue should be helped by China's efforts to recruit more scholars from abroad. Shi says that more institutions are now starting to introduce thesis committees and rotations, which will make students less dependent on a single supervisor in a hierarchical system. "Major initiatives are being implemented in various graduate programmes throughout China," he says. "China is constantly going through transformations."
Singapore: Growth in all directions
The picture is much rosier in Singapore. Here, the past few years have seen major investment and expansion in the university system and in science and technology infrastructure, including the foundation of two new publicly funded universities. This has attracted students from at home and abroad. Enrolment of Singaporean nationals in PhD programmes has grown by 60% over the past five years, to 789 in all disciplines — and the country has actively recruited foreign graduate students from China, India, Iran, Turkey, eastern Europe and farther afield.
“Everyone tends to look at the future of the PhD labour market very pessimistically.”
Because the university system in Singapore has been underdeveloped until now, most PhD holders go to work outside academia, but continued expansion of the universities could create more opportunities. "Not all end up earning a living from what they have been trained in," says Peter Ng, who studies biodiversity at the National University of Singapore. "Some have very different jobs — from teachers to bankers. But they all get a good job." A PhD can be lucrative, says Ng, with a graduate earning at least S$4,000 (US$3,174) a month, compared with the S$3,000 a month earned by a student with a good undergraduate degree.
"I see a PhD not just as the mastery of a discipline, but also training of the mind," says Ng. "If they later practise what they have mastered — excellent — otherwise, they can take their skill sets into a new domain and add value to it."
United States: Supply versus demand
To Paula Stephan, an economist at Georgia State University in Atlanta who studies PhD trends, it is "scandalous" that US politicians continue to speak of a PhD shortage. The United States is second only to China in awarding science doctorates — it produced an estimated 19,733 in the life sciences and physical sciences in 2009 — and production is going up. But Stephan says that no one should applaud this trend, "unless Congress wants to put money into creating jobs for these people rather than just creating supply".
The proportion of people with science PhDs who get tenured academic positions in the sciences has been dropping steadily and industry has not fully absorbed the slack. The problem is most acute in the life sciences, in which the pace of PhD growth is biggest, yet pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries have been drastically downsizing in recent years. 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."
The poor job market has discouraged some potential students from embarking on science PhDs, says Hal Salzman, a professor of public policy at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Nevertheless, production of US doctorates continues apace, fuelled by an influx of foreign students. Academic research was still the top career choice in a 2010 survey of 30,000 science and engineering PhD students and postdocs, says Henry Sauermann, who studies strategic management at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. Many PhD courses train students specifically for that goal. Half of all science and engineering PhD recipients graduating in 2007 had spent over seven years working on their degrees, and more than one-third of candidates never finish at all.
Some universities are now experimenting with PhD programmes that better prepare graduate students for careers outside academia (see page 280). Anne Carpenter, a cellular biologist at the Broad Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is trying to create jobs for existing PhD holders, while discouraging new ones. When she set up her lab four years ago, Carpenter hired experienced staff scientists on permanent contracts instead of the usual mix of temporary postdocs and graduate students. "The whole pyramid scheme of science made little sense to me," says Carpenter. "I couldn't in good conscience churn out a hundred graduate students and postdocs in my career."
But Carpenter has struggled to justify the cost of her staff to grant-review panels. "How do I compete with laboratories that hire postdocs for $40,000 instead of a scientist for $80,000?" she asks. Although she remains committed to her ideals, she says that she will be more open to hiring postdocs in the future.
Germany: The progressive PhD
Germany is Europe's biggest producer of doctoral graduates, turning out some 7,000 science PhDs in 2005. After a major redesign of its doctoral education programmes over the past 20 years, the country is also well on its way to solving the oversupply problem.
Traditionally, supervisors recruited PhD students informally and trained them to follow in their academic footsteps, with little oversight from the university or research institution. But as in the rest of Europe, the number of academic positions available to graduates in Germany has remained stable or fallen. So these days, a PhD in Germany is often marketed as advanced training not only for academia — a career path pursued by the best of the best — but also for the wider workforce.
“The relatively low income of german academic staff makes leaving the university after the PhD a good option.”
Universities now play a more formal role in student recruitment and development, and many students follow structured courses outside the lab, including classes in presenting, report writing and other transferable skills. Just under 6% of PhD graduates in science eventually go into full-time academic positions, and most will find research jobs in industry, says Thorsten Wilhelmy, who studies doctoral education for the German Council of Science and Humanities in Cologne. "The long way to professorship in Germany and the relatively low income of German academic staff makes leaving the university after the PhD a good option," he says.
Thomas Jørgensen, who heads a programme to support and develop doctoral education for the European University Association, based in Brussels, is concerned that German institutions could push reforms too far, leaving students spending so long in classes that they lack time to do research for their thesis and develop critical-thinking skills. The number of German doctorates has stagnated over the past two decades, and Jørgensen worries about this at a time when PhD production is growing in China, India and other increasingly powerful economies.
Poland: Expansion at a cost
Growth in PhD numbers among Europe's old guard might be waning, but some of the former Eastern bloc countries, such as Poland, have seen dramatic increases. In 1990–91, Polish institutions enrolled 2,695 PhD students. This figure rose to more than 32,000 in 2008–09 as the Polish government, trying to expand the higher-education system after the fall of Communism, introduced policies to reward institutions for enrolling doctoral candidates.
Despite the growth, there are problems. A dearth of funding for doctoral studies causes high drop-out rates, says Andrzej Kraśniewski, a researcher at Warsaw University of Technology and secretary-general of the Polish Rectors Conference, an association representing Polish universities. In engineering, more than half of students will not complete their PhDs, he says. The country's economic growth has not kept pace with that of its PhD numbers, so people with doctorates can end up taking jobs below their level of expertise. And Poland needs to collect data showing that PhDs from its institutions across the country are of consistent quality, and are comparable with the rest of Europe, says Kraśniewski.
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Still, in Poland as in most countries, unemployment for PhD holders is below 3%. "Employment prospects for holders of doctorates remain better than for other higher-education graduates," says Laudeline Auriol, author of an OECD report on doctorate holders between 1990 and 2006, who is now analysing doctoral-student data up to 2010. Still, a survey of scientists by Nature last year showed that PhD holders were not always more satisfied with their jobs than those without the degree, nor were they earning substantially more (see 'What's a PhD worth?').
Egypt: Struggle to survive
Egypt is the Middle East's powerhouse for doctoral studies. In 2009, the country had about 35,000 students enrolled in doctoral programmes, up from 17,663 in 1998. But funding has not kept up with demand. The majority comes through university budgets, which are already strained by the large enrolment of students in undergraduate programmes and postgraduate studies other than PhDs. Universities have started turning to international funding and collaborations with the private sector, but this source of funding remains very limited.
The deficit translates into shortages in equipment and materials, a lack of qualified teaching staff and poor compensation for researchers. It also means that more of the funding burden is falling on the students. The squeeze takes a toll on the quality of research, and creates tension between students and supervisors. "The PhD student here in Egypt faces numerous problems," says Mounir Hana, a food scientist and PhD supervisor at Minia University, who says that he tries to help solve them. "Unfortunately, many supervisors do not bother, and end up adding one more hurdle in the student's way."
Graduates face a tough slog. As elsewhere, there are many more PhD holders in Egypt than the universities can employ as researchers and academics. The doctorate is frequently a means of climbing the civil-service hierarchy, but those in the private sector often complain that graduates are untrained in the practical skills they need, such as proposal writing and project management. Egyptian PhD holders also struggle to secure international research positions. Hana calls the overall quality of their research papers "mediocre" and says that pursuing a PhD is "worthless" except for those already working in a university. But the political upheaval in the region this year could bring about change: many academics who had left Egypt are returning, hoping to help rebuild and overhaul education and research.
Few PhDs are trained elsewhere in the Middle East — less than 50 a year in Lebanon, for example. But several world-class universities established in the oil-rich Gulf States in recent years have increased demand for PhD holders. So far, most of the researchers have been 'imported' after receiving their degrees from Western universities, but Saudi Arabia and Qatar in particular have been building up their infrastructure to start offering more PhD programmes themselves. The effect will be felt throughout the region, says Fatma Hammad, an endocrinologist and PhD supervisor at Al-Azhar University in Cairo. "Many graduates are now turning to doctoral studies because there is a large demand in the Gulf States. For them, it is a way to land jobs there and increase their income," she says.
India: PhDs wanted
In 2004, India produced around 5,900 science, technology and engineering PhDs, a figure that has now grown to some 8,900 a year. This is still a fraction of the number from China and the United States, and the country wants many more, to match the explosive growth of its economy and population. The government is making major investments in research and higher education — including a one-third increase in the higher-education budget in 2011–12 — and is trying to attract investment from foreign universities. The hope is that up to 20,000 PhDs will graduate each year by 2020, says Thirumalachari Ramasami, the Indian government's head of science and technology.
Those targets ought to be easy to reach: India's population is young, and undergraduate education is booming (see Nature 472, 24–26; 2011). But there is little incentive to continue into a lengthy PhD programme, and only around 1% of undergraduates currently do so. Most are intent on securing jobs in industry, which require only an undergraduate degree and are much more lucrative than the public-sector academic and research jobs that need postgraduate education. Students "don't think of PhDs now, not even master's — a bachelor's is good enough to get a job", says Amit Patra, an engineer at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur.
Even after a PhD, there are few academic opportunities in India, and better-paid industry jobs are the major draw. "There is a shortage of PhDs and we have to compete with industry for that resource — the universities have very little chance of winning that game," says Patra. For many young people intent on postgraduate education, the goal is frequently to go to the United States or Europe. That was the course chosen by Manu Prakash, who went to MIT for his PhD and now runs his own experimental biophysics lab at Stanford University in California. "When I went through the system in India, the platform for doing long-term research I didn't feel was well-supported," he says.
Join the discussion on the future of the PhD
[ Modified: Friday, 29 April 2011, 10:11 AM ]
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Once More, With Feeling: National Research Council Unveils Revised Doctoral Rankings
By David Glenn
The National Research Council released on Thursday a revised edition of its 2010 rankings of American doctoral programs that corrects four types of errors discovered in the original report, which was issued last September. But the new rankings do not deal with certain other concerns that scholars have raised about the project.
In the revised edition, almost all programs' positions on the council's "ranges of rankings" have changed at least slightly, but in most cases the changes are not substantial. In a few academic fields, however, the numbers have changed significantly for at least 20 percent of the programs. Those include geography, linguistics, and operations research.
A spreadsheet of the new rankings is available for download at the council's Web site. The council has also released a separate, much smaller spreadsheet that summarizes the changes in programs' "R" and "S" rankings. (R rankings reflect how similar a program is to the programs in its field with the strongest reputations. S rankings more directly reflect a program's performance on variables that scholars in the field say are most important, such as faculty research productivity or student diversity.)
The new edition makes four kinds of corrections. The original report in many cases undercounted faculty members' honors and awards, the proportion of new graduates who find academic jobs, and the proportion of first-year students who are given full financial support. In nonhumanities fields, the report also used faulty data for faculty members' 2002 publications, which in turn caused errors in calculations of citation counts.
Big Changes for One Program
One program that fares significantly better in the revised report is Cornell University's doctoral program in French language and literature. In the original report, that program had an R-ranking range from 12 to 30 (meaning that there is a 95-percent probability that the program is between the 12th-best and the 30th-best of the country's 43 doctoral programs in French). Its S-ranking range was between 16th-best and 30th-best in the country. In the new report, Cornell's R-ranking range is from 7 to 21, and its S-ranking range is from 11 to 26.
What changed? The number of awards and honors per faculty member has been revised upward from 0.52 to 1.11. And the percentage of new graduates with academic jobs has been revised upward from 62.5 percent to 100 percent.
Those two changes were enough to propel the estimated rankings of Cornell's French program up substantially. That illustrates how sensitive the council's model is to relatively modest variations, especially in fields, like French, where the overall number of programs is small. That kind of sensitivity is why Stephen M. Stigler, a professor of statistics at the University of Chicago, has criticized the project. He believes that the ranges of R- and S-rankings do not carry much meaning if tiny changes in a single variable or two can cause large swings in the rankings.
Other programs with significant upward movement in the revised edition include the applied-mechanics program at the California Institute of Technology, the biomedical-engineering program at the City University of New York, the molecular-genetics program at the University of Chicago, and the linguistics and philosophy programs at the University of California at Los Angeles.
One program that The Chronicle highlighted last fall for its unexpectedly strong rankings—the physics department at the University of Hawaii-Manoa—still scores well in the revised edition. In fact, its R- and S-rankings have improved slightly in the new version.
Intensity of Interest
Will graduate-program directors greet the revisions with the same intensity of interest that the original report drew last fall? Lou McClelland, director of institutional analysis at the University of Colorado at Boulder, believes not. She said in an interview on Thursday that she had notified program directors at her campus on Wednesday about the coming revisions, but no one replied to her message.
The new revisions do not address some of the most widespread concerns aired last fall about the council's report, including complaints about incorrect lists of faculty members and the NRC's decision not to count book-length publications in the social sciences.
Andrew Bernat, executive director of the Computing Research Association, said in an interview on Thursday that the revisions did little to satisfy his organization's discomfort with the rankings. He believes that the council used faulty calculations when it tallied computer scientists' presentations at conferences, which are the most prestigious form of scholarly communication in his field.
"I have the utmost respect for the National Academies," Mr. Bernat said. "But this report was done very poorly. They took on a very difficult, perhaps an impossible, problem, by trying to compute rankings in a concrete way across all of these fields at once. But that doesn't absolve them of the problems in their data collection."
The Chronicle will soon update and correct its own presentations of the NRC data. The Chronicle's interactive data tool will be updated by Friday afternoon, and its summary tables for each academic discipline will be updated next week.
[ Modified: Friday, 29 April 2011, 10:08 AM ]
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April 20, 2011, 10:16 am
By Marybeth Gasman
It’s that time of year. Students are scrambling to defend their dissertations so that they can graduate on time. Some students are almost done, printing their dissertations on 100% rag cotton paper. Others, unfortunately, are desperately writing their last chapter, hoping to get it to their committee with enough time for a thorough read. I work with both types of students and everyone in between. Since I became a faculty member in 2000, I have chaired over 35 dissertations. I have learned a lot about what gets a student to completion and what doesn’t.
As someone who cherishes my relationships with students, I often write about how to succeed in graduate school. Today, however, I would like to point out the things students do to block their own success. I should start by saying that I think that we as professors can also block students success, and that just because I’m looking at what students do, doesn’t let us off the hook.
Over the years, I have noticed that some students are their own worst enemies when it comes to success. All too often, students don’t believe in their own intellectual abilities. Perhaps faculty members have failed to communicate a belief in these students. However, more often than not, I find that students are held back by past experiences and messages given to them about their intellect. When I encounter such students, I spend time convincing them that they know more than they think and indeed have become experts on their topic.
Some students look for ways to give up—weekly, even daily. I’m not sure why this happens. Perhaps they are afraid of their own success. I’ve had students write to me week after week telling me that they can’t complete the dissertation. I write back telling them to keep working, keep writing, and that I have absolutely no intention of giving up on them.
Other students tell me they have writers block and they’ll never be able to finish. I tell these students to do other things when they have writers block—such as editing, putting together the reference list, reading more literature, and writing acknowledgments. Sometimes taking a break from academic writing and doing something mundane is a good idea.
Some students are perfectionists and become immobilized when they get fixated on a particular issue. Sometimes that “issue” is having the most up-to-date literature review (can’t stop reading) or obsessing over an interview question or making a paragraph perfect. I tell these students that a dissertation is just that—a dissertation—it’s not a Pulitzer Prize-winning book. It’s never going to be perfect because nothing is perfect. I also work to get these students focused by simplifying the process as much as possible. Sometimes I do this with a quick outline, but I have also asked students to write a paragraph while sitting in front of me. Having to write in front of me, free of distractions, gets them focused, plus they also receive feedback immediately, which can be motivating.
Still other students tell me that they don’t have time to finish—that “life” is getting in the way. I remind these students about how much they wanted to learn and explore their topic of choice and how deserving they are of the time to do this. I try to bring them back to their reasons for earning a doctoral degree in the first place. I also show them ways to better manage their time by helping them better manage the research and writing process.
Lastly, I have students who worry that because they took so long to finish they have disappointed people, including me and their committee members. I tell these students that not finishing is the only disappointment. I have found that people finish at their own pace even with prodding from me.
Although I’d prefer that all of my students finish their doctoral degrees in 4-6 years, some do not and the best thing I can do is be in constant contact with them to ensure they succeed. A little straight talk, tough love, and support goes a long way toward student success.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged doctoral, doctorate, Ed.D, graduate students, Marybeth Gasman, PH.D., roadblocks, success. Bookmark the permalink.
[ Modified: Friday, 29 April 2011, 10:12 AM ]
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En 2007, plus de 137 000 chercheurs (en personnes physiques) ont une activité de R&D en entreprise, ils étaient 81 000 en 1997, et deviennent pratiquement aussi nombreux que leurs homologues opérant dans les administrations.
Les deux tiers d’entre eux sont regroupés dans six secteurs économiques : composants électroniques, services informatiques, automobile, aéronautique, instruments de mesure et pharmacie.
La forte augmentation du nombre de chercheurs en entreprise au cours de ces dix dernières années profite en premier lieu aux services informatiques. Cette population est jeune et fortement masculine. En 2007, leur moyenne d’âge est inférieure à 40 ans. Ces chercheurs sont formés en école d’ingénieurs, pour plus de la moitié d’entre eux. Les femmes sont en moyenne plus jeunes et plus diplômées que les hommes.
Pour accéder à la note
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Defining the characteristics of the UK doctoral degree
The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education
Based on discussions and researches that have taken place to date, QAA intends to publish a document defining the characteristics of doctoral study in the UK. (This will complement the Masters degree characteristics document already published.) The new publication will give guidance to higher education professionals who set and assess standards for postgraduates wishing to do a doctorate (PhD, DPhil or other level 8 award). A companion document, the Rough Guide to the UK Doctorate, will provide information for students interested in doing a doctorate.
Both documents are already at draft stage. We now seek feedback from those with an interest in postgraduate education. The Doctoral degree characteristics document (PDF) defines what is expected of doctoral candidates and describes different types of doctorate, their purpose, their structure and how they are assessed.
The Rough guide to the UK doctorate, supplies relevant information for current and prospective doctoral candidates. It is intended to help them make decisions about their study and know what to expect - and what will be expected of them.
A Rough Guide to the UK doctorate
Doctoral degree characteristics
[ Modified: Friday, 29 April 2011, 10:12 AM ]
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Colloque de la CPU 2010 - Doctorat, doctorants et Docteurs
Les colloques annuels de la CPU ont pour vocation d’élaborer des points de vue stratégiques sur des grands sujets de l’enseignement supérieur et de la recherche.
Celui de 2010 était consacré au troisième niveau du LMD, le doctorat. Les actes de ce colloque sont maintenant disponibles sur notre site Internet. Vous pourrez y retrouver les débats et analyses, sur des questions au cœur de la vie de nos établissements, et qui nous ont permis de formuler des propositions qui devraient contribuer à la poursuite de la modernisation de l’enseignement supérieur et de la recherche de notre pays
[ Modified: Wednesday, 16 February 2011, 02:48 PM ]
Anyone in the world
By Leonard Cassuto
When I wrote last month about the need for professional-development seminars for graduate students, my only intention was to offer some straightforward advice to the profession. Instead, I tapped a vein—no, an artery—and released a lot of pent-up emotion in readers that went way beyond the subject at hand.
Foremost among those emotions was anger. In the comments section of my column, one reader lashed out at tenured professors who have "seemingly no clue about the realities of the current higher-ed job market." Another complained that "the system wouldn't be in such a bad state as it is if faculty didn't blatantly mislead students, whether through their own ignorance or lying intentionally, about the actual value of a graduate degree."
I will venture to say, backed by common sense if not not by quantitative data, that such comments represent the views of many current and former graduate students nowadays. Unemployed, or fearful of becoming so, they are feeling more than a little enraged at their advisers and their institutions for failing to hold up our end of the deal. Have we?
No doubt it varies from professor to professor, and from campus to campus. But collectively, at the very least, we have failed to help graduate students in the ways that they have expected us to. There is a yawning gap between what we've been doing and what many of our graduate students believe we can and should do. That gap points to a failure of understanding. How many of us sit down with our graduate students and ask them what they want from us? The default assumption is that they want to be like us—but some do not, and most will not. One of the fundamental problems in graduate teaching right now is a failure of communication, and the results are hot to the touch.
That failure rests absolutely on us. We're the teachers, and the initiative is ours. The communication gap between graduate teachers and graduate students is an intramural version of the crisis facing academe writ large: Professors are only lately waking up to the need to take their assigned part in the continuing and necessary discussion of the role of the university in society today.
We need likewise to rethink our role in the education of our graduate students. Professional-development seminars, which I discussed last month, help stake out common understanding between professors and graduate students, but communication only starts there. Advisers need to advance it. We shouldn't wait for students to ask what's out there careerwise. It's part of our job to tell them. To mend the gap, we must mind the gap—or else corrosive anger will widen it.
Last month's column provoked more than anger. I also got a hatful of personal e-mails from graduate students asking me for guidance: "Here's my situation," one wrote. "Should I get a Ph.D.?" Or: "I have a Ph.D., and now what? What should I do?"
Their questions made me wonder what I should do. They also provoked some survivor's guilt—as well as the recollection that the job market was a lot better for my own teachers than it was for me. Ultimately, I resolved to advise the people asking me for help as a teacher would.
Such advice is unavoidably personal. In last month's column I told the story of a frustrated Ph.D. named Jack who imagined himself as a tenure-track professor but never reached his goal. This month I'll speak of a different Ph.D.: myself. Everyone comes from somewhere, and my background and goals contrast with Jack's in some important ways.
I went to graduate school for its own sake, not necessarily to get a tenure-track job. Academe certainly looked attractive to me when I enrolled in the early 1980s, but the job market wasn't very good then, either. Moreover, I wasn't sure that I would be willing to relocate to wherever a job was, so I concluded before I began that I might well wind up taking my degree, whether M.A. or Ph.D., in search of nonacademic employment.
I had spent a year working as a computer programmer before entering graduate school, and was confident that I could find interesting work someplace, somehow, eventually. That confidence later helped to sustain me. But before all that, I thought that graduate study might be fun.
Every year that I was in graduate school I asked myself, "Is this still what I want to be doing?" And it was. I loved teaching, and I found a dissertation topic that I enjoyed working on (or perhaps I should say that it found me). After a few years it became clear to me that I would certainly finish the Ph.D.
Like so many graduate students, I didn't start thinking carefully about the job market until it was upon me. When I got a good job, it felt less like an achievement than an improbable success in the lottery. (I recall my father saying soon afterward that if he had known how horrendous the academic job market was, he would have tried harder than he did to talk me out of going to graduate school.) My professional life lacks the arc of a heroic narrative but it does offer an example of thinking outside the library carrel.
One of the readers of last month's column refused to blame professors or the academic workplace for the diminished employment prospects of graduate students. It's "absurd," that reader wrote, "to expect our advisors—who are already overworked and underpaid—to continue to baby-sit us." Their job, the reader continued, is "not getting us a job. That is up to us to figure out."
I'm not sure I'd let the teachers off the hook so easily, but we should pay attention to the reader's larger point, namely: Graduate students, as well as their professors, have responsibility for the choices they make.
School is a place where teachers tell students what to do. At the same time, school is supposed to prepare students to make choices for themselves. In between those two realities lie a lot of teaching and learning—and professional development. Both professors and students have to adapt to the rapidly changing conditions before us: We both must learn how to work together so that our students can leave us with every possible advantage. We all need to keep our eyes open.
A Ph.D. may not prepare a student explicitly for any one profession, but it remains a credential that people respect, and it frees its holder to live creatively outside as well as inside the university walls. There is good counsel to be had about how to do that, but all graduate students—like all lawyers and business executives—must enter the world on their own terms, whether inside or outside the usual workplace that corresponds to their training. It's a personal journey. Store some patience for the trip, and watch the view change with every step you take.
Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University, writes regularly about graduate education in this space. He welcomes comments and suggestions from readers to email@example.com.
[ Modified: Friday, 29 April 2011, 10:12 AM ]
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Doctoral degrees Dec 16th 2010 | from PRINT EDITION
The disposable academic
Why doing a PhD is often a waste of time
ON THE evening before All Saints’ Day in 1517, Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg. In those days a thesis was simply a position one wanted to argue. Luther, an Augustinian friar, asserted that Christians could not buy their way to heaven. Today a doctoral thesis is both an idea and an account of a period of original research. Writing one is the aim of the hundreds of thousands of students who embark on a doctorate of philosophy (PhD) every year.
In most countries a PhD is a basic requirement for a career in academia. It is an introduction to the world of independent research—a kind of intellectual masterpiece, created by an apprentice in close collaboration with a supervisor. The requirements to complete one vary enormously between countries, universities and even subjects. Some students will first have to spend two years working on a master’s degree or diploma. Some will receive a stipend; others will pay their own way. Some PhDs involve only research, some require classes and examinations and some require the student to teach undergraduates. A thesis can be dozens of pages in mathematics, or many hundreds in history. As a result, newly minted PhDs can be as young as their early 20s or world-weary forty-somethings.
One thing many PhD students have in common is dissatisfaction. Some describe their work as “slave labour”. Seven-day weeks, ten-hour days, low pay and uncertain prospects are widespread. You know you are a graduate student, goes one quip, when your office is better decorated than your home and you have a favourite flavour of instant noodle. “It isn’t graduate school itself that is discouraging,” says one student, who confesses to rather enjoying the hunt for free pizza. “What’s discouraging is realising the end point has been yanked out of reach.”
Whining PhD students are nothing new, but there seem to be genuine problems with the system that produces research doctorates (the practical “professional doctorates” in fields such as law, business and medicine have a more obvious value). There is an oversupply of PhDs. Although a doctorate is designed as training for a job in academia, the number of PhD positions is unrelated to the number of job openings. Meanwhile, business leaders complain about shortages of high-level skills, suggesting PhDs are not teaching the right things. The fiercest critics compare research doctorates to Ponzi or pyramid schemes.
For most of history even a first degree at a university was the privilege of a rich few, and many academic staff did not hold doctorates. But as higher education expanded after the second world war, so did the expectation that lecturers would hold advanced degrees. American universities geared up first: by 1970 America was producing just under a third of the world’s university students and half of its science and technology PhDs (at that time it had only 6% of the global population). Since then America’s annual output of PhDs has doubled, to 64,000.
Other countries are catching up. Between 1998 and 2006 the number of doctorates handed out in all OECD countries grew by 40%, compared with 22% for America. PhD production sped up most dramatically in Mexico, Portugal, Italy and Slovakia. Even Japan, where the number of young people is shrinking, churned out about 46% more PhDs. Part of that growth reflects the expansion of university education outside America. Richard Freeman, a labour economist at Harvard University, says that by 2006 America was enrolling just 12% of the world’s students.
But universities have discovered that PhD students are cheap, highly motivated and disposable labour. With more PhD students they can do more research, and in some countries more teaching, with less money. A graduate assistant at Yale might earn $20,000 a year for nine months of teaching. The average pay of full professors in America was $109,000 in 2009—higher than the average for judges and magistrates.
Indeed, the production of PhDs has far outstripped demand for university lecturers. In a recent book, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, an academic and a journalist, report that America produced more than 100,000 doctoral degrees between 2005 and 2009. In the same period there were just 16,000 new professorships. Using PhD students to do much of the undergraduate teaching cuts the number of full-time jobs. Even in Canada, where the output of PhD graduates has grown relatively modestly, universities conferred 4,800 doctorate degrees in 2007 but hired just 2,616 new full-time professors. Only a few fast-developing countries, such as Brazil and China, now seem short of PhDs.
A short course in supply and demand
In research the story is similar. PhD students and contract staff known as “postdocs”, described by one student as “the ugly underbelly of academia”, do much of the research these days. There is a glut of postdocs too. Dr Freeman concluded from pre-2000 data that if American faculty jobs in the life sciences were increasing at 5% a year, just 20% of students would land one. In Canada 80% of postdocs earn $38,600 or less per year before tax—the average salary of a construction worker. The rise of the postdoc has created another obstacle on the way to an academic post. In some areas five years as a postdoc is now a prerequisite for landing a secure full-time job.
These armies of low-paid PhD researchers and postdocs boost universities’, and therefore countries’, research capacity. Yet that is not always a good thing. Brilliant, well-trained minds can go to waste when fashions change. The post-Sputnik era drove the rapid growth in PhD physicists that came to an abrupt halt as the Vietnam war drained the science budget. Brian Schwartz, a professor of physics at the City University of New York, says that in the 1970s as many as 5,000 physicists had to find jobs in other areas.
In America the rise of PhD teachers’ unions reflects the breakdown of an implicit contract between universities and PhD students: crummy pay now for a good academic job later. Student teachers in public universities such as the University of Wisconsin-Madison formed unions as early as the 1960s, but the pace of unionisation has increased recently. Unions are now spreading to private universities; though Yale and Cornell, where university administrators and some faculty argue that PhD students who teach are not workers but apprentices, have resisted union drives. In 2002 New York University was the first private university to recognise a PhD teachers’ union, but stopped negotiating with it three years later.
In some countries, such as Britain and America, poor pay and job prospects are reflected in the number of foreign-born PhD students. Dr Freeman estimates that in 1966 only 23% of science and engineering PhDs in America were awarded to students born outside the country. By 2006 that proportion had increased to 48%. Foreign students tend to tolerate poorer working conditions, and the supply of cheap, brilliant, foreign labour also keeps wages down.
A PhD may offer no financial benefit over a master’s degree. It can even reduce earnings
Proponents of the PhD argue that it is worthwhile even if it does not lead to permanent academic employment. Not every student embarks on a PhD wanting a university career and many move successfully into private-sector jobs in, for instance, industrial research. That is true; but drop-out rates suggest that many students become dispirited. In America only 57% of doctoral students will have a PhD ten years after their first date of enrolment. In the humanities, where most students pay for their own PhDs, the figure is 49%. Worse still, whereas in other subject areas students tend to jump ship in the early years, in the humanities they cling like limpets before eventually falling off. And these students started out as the academic cream of the nation. Research at one American university found that those who finish are no cleverer than those who do not. Poor supervision, bad job prospects or lack of money cause them to run out of steam.
Even graduates who find work outside universities may not fare all that well. PhD courses are so specialised that university careers offices struggle to assist graduates looking for jobs, and supervisors tend to have little interest in students who are leaving academia. One OECD study shows that five years after receiving their degrees, more than 60% of PhDs in Slovakia and more than 45% in Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany and Spain were still on temporary contracts. Many were postdocs. About one-third of Austria’s PhD graduates take jobs unrelated to their degrees. In Germany 13% of all PhD graduates end up in lowly occupations. In the Netherlands the proportion is 21%.
A very slim premium
PhD graduates do at least earn more than those with a bachelor’s degree. A study in the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management by Bernard Casey shows that British men with a bachelor’s degree earn 14% more than those who could have gone to university but chose not to. The earnings premium for a PhD is 26%. But the premium for a master’s degree, which can be accomplished in as little as one year, is almost as high, at 23%. In some subjects the premium for a PhD vanishes entirely. PhDs in maths and computing, social sciences and languages earn no more than those with master’s degrees. The premium for a PhD is actually smaller than for a master’s degree in engineering and technology, architecture and education. Only in medicine, other sciences, and business and financial studies is it high enough to be worthwhile. Over all subjects, a PhD commands only a 3% premium over a master’s degree.
Dr Schwartz, the New York physicist, says the skills learned in the course of a PhD can be readily acquired through much shorter courses. Thirty years ago, he says, Wall Street firms realised that some physicists could work out differential equations and recruited them to become “quants”, analysts and traders. Today several short courses offer the advanced maths useful for finance. “A PhD physicist with one course on differential equations is not competitive,” says Dr Schwartz.
Many students say they are pursuing their subject out of love, and that education is an end in itself. Some give little thought to where the qualification might lead. In one study of British PhD graduates, about a third admitted that they were doing their doctorate partly to go on being a student, or put off job hunting. Nearly half of engineering students admitted to this. Scientists can easily get stipends, and therefore drift into doing a PhD. But there are penalties, as well as benefits, to staying at university. Workers with “surplus schooling”—more education than a job requires—are likely to be less satisfied, less productive and more likely to say they are going to leave their jobs.
The interests of universities and tenured academics are misaligned with those of PhD students
Academics tend to regard asking whether a PhD is worthwhile as analogous to wondering whether there is too much art or culture in the world. They believe that knowledge spills from universities into society, making it more productive and healthier. That may well be true; but doing a PhD may still be a bad choice for an individual.
The interests of academics and universities on the one hand and PhD students on the other are not well aligned. The more bright students stay at universities, the better it is for academics. Postgraduate students bring in grants and beef up their supervisors’ publication records. Academics pick bright undergraduate students and groom them as potential graduate students. It isn’t in their interests to turn the smart kids away, at least at the beginning. One female student spoke of being told of glowing opportunities at the outset, but after seven years of hard slog she was fobbed off with a joke about finding a rich husband.
Monica Harris, a professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky, is a rare exception. She believes that too many PhDs are being produced, and has stopped admitting them. But such unilateral academic birth control is rare. One Ivy-League president, asked recently about PhD oversupply, said that if the top universities cut back others will step in to offer them instead.
Many of the drawbacks of doing a PhD are well known. Your correspondent was aware of them over a decade ago while she slogged through a largely pointless PhD in theoretical ecology. As Europeans try to harmonise higher education, some institutions are pushing the more structured learning that comes with an American PhD.
The organisations that pay for research have realised that many PhDs find it tough to transfer their skills into the job market. Writing lab reports, giving academic presentations and conducting six-month literature reviews can be surprisingly unhelpful in a world where technical knowledge has to be assimilated quickly and presented simply to a wide audience. Some universities are now offering their PhD students training in soft skills such as communication and teamwork that may be useful in the labour market. In Britain a four-year NewRoutePhD claims to develop just such skills in graduates.
Measurements and incentives might be changed, too. Some university departments and academics regard numbers of PhD graduates as an indicator of success and compete to produce more. For the students, a measure of how quickly those students get a permanent job, and what they earn, would be more useful. Where penalties are levied on academics who allow PhDs to overrun, the number of students who complete rises abruptly, suggesting that students were previously allowed to fester.
Many of those who embark on a PhD are the smartest in their class and will have been the best at everything they have done. They will have amassed awards and prizes. As this year’s new crop of graduate students bounce into their research, few will be willing to accept that the system they are entering could be designed for the benefit of others, that even hard work and brilliance may well not be enough to succeed, and that they would be better off doing something else. They might use their research skills to look harder at the lot of the disposable academic. Someone should write a thesis about that.
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[ Modified: Friday, 29 April 2011, 10:14 AM ]
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[ Modified: Friday, 29 April 2011, 10:13 AM ]
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Les études menées par le Céreq montrent qu’en général l’obtention d’un diplôme de l’enseignement supérieur permet de se protéger des effets de conjoncture. En d’autres termes, plus un jeune sera diplômé, moins il aura de chances d’être au chômage. Pourtant, certains titulaires de doctorat ont de plus en plus de difficultés d’insertion. De nombreuses enquêtes à travers le monde montrent leur difficulté croissante à se
stabiliser dans l’emploi. Les docteurs français n’échappent pas à la règle : près de 10 % d’entre eux, diplômés en 2004, sont au chômage trois années après leur soutenance de thèse, soit en 2007.
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[ Modified: Friday, 29 April 2011, 10:16 AM ]