What it really means to get a PhD

Being part way through the first year of my own PhD program, I probably shouldn’t open my blog with a summary of critiques of the system. However a series of articles recently published in Nature, as well as the daily struggles, doubts and insecurities my friends and I frequently face and lament, makes me wonder about the shrewdness of this path that we have chosen.

Most notably, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of PhD candidates and degrees awarded in the last 15 years, coupled with a simultaneous dearth of jobs available in academia and other markets. According to Cyranoski et al. in the April 21st issue of Nature, there has been a 40% rise in the number of science doctorates earned worldwide since 1998. However, it should be noted that a majority of those have come out of China, which has actively and enthusiastically encouraged the doctorial boom, increasing PhD production by nearly 80% since the mid-90s. Fortunately, the demand and market for these positions in China is still high, fostering this culture of higher learning and expertise. But back in the US, the second highest producer of doctorates, the supply far outreaches the demand for academic positions.

Universities are no longer offering as many tenure track positions (which is a debate and system needing reform all on its own), and older professors are not retiring at the rate that was predicted back in the 1980s and 90s. Now only 15% of PhD graduates are in a tenure track, compared to 55% in the 1970s. Instead, graduates are turning to industry and the private sector to apply their knowledge and make a living. However, due to the flood of PhDs in the market, even that distinction can no longer distinguish you from the pack, and the system has been saturated with over-qualified individuals looking for fulfilling work in academia, and instead finding low-paying postdoc and research positions. In fact, PhD recipients now have a negligible advantage over their non-PhD counterparts in average annual salary, and are frequently being forced to settle for junior positions in labs or companies for which they are over-qualified. Finally, the initial intellectual curiosity and passion that are promised to lead us to eventual feelings of fulfillment and satisfaction in our careers are also appearing to be much of a farce. Individuals with a PhD are only mildly more satisfied with their life’s work, and complain that their benefits and salary are inadequate and a source of dissatisfaction.

So with all of this daunting and demoralizing information, why continue? I suppose it’s for that glimmer of hope, the light at the end of the tunnel that you will be one of the lucky ones. That naïve doggedness that got us into this position in the first place, and yes that misplaced passion and fascination with an arcane miniscule facet of the world in which we will (hopefully) one day become experts. And, if we do succeed in reaching those ivory towers, or whatever is left of them, the sense of contribution to society, degree of independence and intellectual challenge do still provide a high incentive and source of satisfaction for those who have paved the way and achieved before us.

On the flip side, there is also the hope that this perseverance and hard work will not be for naught. That even if we don’t achieve our dream positions, or anything resembling them, that it cannot be a disadvantage to have this added expertise. That the skills, both personal and professional, industrial and academic, that we have acquired during our own tenures will not fail us and will be able to provide a foray into another field if need be.

And in this current economy, let’s be honest, there’s not really anything else we’d rather be doing. After all, at least we’re not in law school.

(Thanks to Gonzalo Urcelay for the articles and Louise Cosand for the PhD illustration.)


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