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the disposable academic, or, more good reasons to jump ship

December 29, 2010

Due to the awesomeness of my roommate’s frequent flyer account with American Airlines, my house is now receiving The Economist, along with a few other random magazines (she was offered a chance to cash out excess expiring miles in magazine subscriptions).  The current edition sitting on our coffee table has a fascinating (and well-timed) article titled “The Disposable Academic.”  It details the ridiculous waste of the research doctorate system, and is the first “real” publication I’ve seen to flat-out say that the system exploits students and postdocs for cheap labor, when most of those students and postdocs won’t ever be able to find an academic position further down the road.

On job prospects and grad student exploitation:

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.

Go to China, it seems, is the moral of every story these days about careers and business opportunities.  An excellent point later in the article takes a look at why the number of PhDs being churned out continues to increase even despite this, with a bonus snapshot of why it sucks to be a woman in academia, part 7382628 (emphasis mine):

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.

Then, of course, there’s the usual commentary about the extremely limited increase in salary that you get for a PhD over a master’s degree.  All in all, it paints a pretty grim picture of the state of PhD work across the world, and for once, hardly gives any article space to the arguments for doing a PhD.

It’s worth noting that I do think there are great reasons for doing a PhD.  I used to subscribe to them wholeheartedly, and believed that a PhD was right for me.  I still think it’s right for a lot of the people I know (probably more than job prospects allow).  I just know now that it’s no longer right for me.

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