The Great PhD Scam

Nothing against those who are seeking PhDs–they are usually very hardworking folks who embarked on that venture in search of a career path that they thought would be awaiting them upon receipt of that terminal degree.

The problem is the system that awards them, and–I would add–the Academic-Governmental Complex that has fed that beast through widespread malinvestment. At any rate, Nature is picking up on the problem.

According to the multipart series in the journal Nature, the world is awash in Ph.D.s, most of them being awarded after years of study and tens of thousands of dollars to scholars who will never find work in academia, the traditional goal for Doctors of Philosophy.

“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,” the cover article says.

Of people who received Ph.D.s in the biological sciences five to six years ago, only 13% have tenure-track positions leading to a professorship, says Paula Stephan, who studies the economics of science at Georgia State University in Atlanta.

All together, 10% are working part time or out of the labor force entirely, 33% are in academic positions that don’t lead to a professorship positions, 22% are in industry and 20% are at community colleges or working in government or non-profit jobs, she says.

That 33% of Ph.D.s in non tenure-track positions is especially troubling, she says. It used to be that “post-docs,” post doctoral research positions in a professor’s lab, were a steppingstone to one’s own lab and professorship. But now one-third of Ph.D.s are permanently stuck “basically working as research assistants.” They have no job security and salaries start at $39,000 a year. “That’s appalling: You could get that with a bachelor of science degree,” Stephan says.

It’s not necessarily the education that needs to change, but how the endpoint is presented, says Maresi Nerad, director of the Center for Innovation and Research in Graduate Education at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Even the way anything but being a professor is termed is a problem, she says. People refer to “alternative careers,” which just screams “It’s not the real thing, the real thing is becoming a professor,’ ” she says. The presumption is that if they don’t become a professor, “something isn’t right with them.” But that track hasn’t really existed for the majority for a long time.

In fact, her studies have found that about half of the science Ph.D.s end up working outside of academia in industry, government or at not-for-profits, and they’re very happy and actually make more money and have more autonomy.

The glut tracks back to predictions in the 1980s that an impending wave of professor retirements and rising college enrollment would require a hoard of new Ph.D.s. This didn’t prove to be true, but Ph.D.-track students flooded universities and then couldn’t find jobs.

10 thoughts on “The Great PhD Scam

  1. I am not a PHD, but I play one on the internet.

    I suspect that the major chunk of PHDs not in a tenured position are working for the public school system. Many school systems pay extra to teachers for academic credentials and even have tuition assistance to pay the way. Add that to a normal work schedule that is less than demanding and you have an easy path to a useless degree and a ready made market to absorb those people.

  2. Maybe the standard for PHD’s should be raised.

    When an elite standard ceases to be elite, something is not working as it should. By selecting a small proportion of PHD-qualified people for elite jobs, the market is indicating that the standard is probably too low.

  3. @Peter

    The problem is that in some places that is true, and in some places that is not true. Scholarship is not something you buy; it is something you do. For example, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School is an awesome school for studying Hebrew and Semitic languages. However, I have met people from other universities who are not even close to the level of an average Trinity student. There are even many secular universities that do not match up. For example, you cannot take a Phd from TEDS, Harvard, The University of Wisconsin, the University of Chicago, or some other good school for Hebrew and compare it with a cheap, easy school that doesn’t challenge its students.

    In other words, all Phd’s are not created equal. That is why what is happening is that many university and seminary employers are starting to look at degrees from these top notch schools as being preferable for hiring, and many of these schools are starting to look at degrees from each other as a prerequisite to get into their Phd program.

    God Bless,

  4. This: “In fact, her studies have found that about half of the science Ph.D.s end up working outside of academia in industry, government or at not-for-profits, and they’re very happy and actually make more money and have more autonomy.”

    Currently a Ph.D. candidate – not really anticipating that a tenured Professorship is where I’ll end up. In my field the fraction of those not headed to academic careers is probably substantially higher than 50%

    Peter: That would seem to apply across the board – not just at the Ph.D. level

  5. I’d love in the middle of my years to snag some time and money to work out a PHD (or EDD; which I think I’d like better…..).

  6. I was once told that Ph.D. meant “piled higher and deeper.”

    In some limited circumstances, Ph.D.’s can do well in private industry. I spent over 20 years at an engineering firm which counted several Ph.D.’s among their senior staff experts. However, that seems to be more the exception rather than the rule.

  7. In Asia, if you hold a PhD, you are little below god status, but in USA/UK/EU, you are a shit if you hold a PhD, because you cannot even find a good pay job, and a lot of them said even waitress or waiter at restaurant make > $$$ than a PhD holder…so sad….come to Asia, you will be the best! God bless you..

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