The Economist’s 2010 Christmas Special carries an article entitled, The disposable academic, subtitled ‘Why doing a PhD is often a waste of time’.
I imagine the headline and tag-line intended to raise hackles, as plenty of readers of The Economist are bound to have a postgraduate degree. Indeed, the comments were closed after 190, and there were five letters to the editor printed in the next edition.
The article covers many of the negative sides of doing a PhD, asserting that ‘Seven-day weeks, ten-hour days, low pay and uncertain prospects are widespread.’ Of course, they aren’t going to publish a piece which says how wonderful the system is and how happy all PhD students are, because that would be boring, and untrue! But there is clearly some bias in a piece written by someone who admits they themselves ‘slogged through a largely pointless PhD’ (p. 144).
Naturally universities are making use of postgrads as ’cheap, highly motivated and disposable labour’ — with all the cuts to education budgets, they need to. Internships and a general lack of permanent contracts are becoming very common in other industries, such as the media, where eager young things can be paid less than the minimum wage for the privilege of getting a foot in the door. It is only right that universities make use of the skilled people they have nurtured.
The main thrust of the argument is that there are more PhDs being handed out than there are academic posts. The article acknowledges that not every PhD student wants to become an academic, but insists on pursing this point — maybe to be expected in a magazine called The Economist? In any case, that a PhD doesn’t guarantee a job, academic or otherwise, is fairly obvious, but student numbers continue to rise: ‘Between 1998 and 2006 the number of doctorates handed out in all OECD countries grew by 40%’ (p. 142).
The article fails to mention what attracts all these students: access to amazing resources, other researchers, mentors, financial support, and the pleasure of working on something you’re passionate about. As one comment (by Albert Dutch) says, “This is the beauty of a PhD: you love what you do.” (Check out Jobs.ac.uk blogger Heather Doran on this.)
Of course it’s not all pleasure — I have days where I can’t bear to look at my work, I’m living on cash from the odd shift down the pub, staying in a cabin at the bottom of my parents’ drive, and working on a laptop that crashes at least once a day. I looked very hard at all the negatives before deciding to sign up to a PhD — and sign on the dotted line of a rather large loan.
Undergraduate degrees have come in for the same sort of stick as this article gives out, and it filters all the way down to the yearly cries of ‘Exams are too easy these days!’ aimed at GCSEs and A-Levels. Way to cheapen someone’s years of hard work and sense of achievement. We don’t want Mickey-Mouse PhDs, and the difficulties of research means a lot of work on the part of both students and institutions to ensure that they get and deliver excellence.
There’s no guarantee of a great job or better money (and the notes about the narrow gap in salary levels between Masters and PhDs will interest those keen on the money), but students of the calibre needed to succeed in research at a good university can surely be more confident about their prospects.
This is why many universities have research training in things like academic and CV writing, presentations and teamwork — transferable skills which make you valuable in the wider job market. Even without specific training, many of these skills will be gained in the course of doing a PhD.
As one of my research training workshop leaders put it, “Well if you are intending to go into academia, good luck! And make sure you have other options.” His statement was met with wry laughter; much of the negative side of research is well known. If you are thinking of applying and don’t know, grab yourself a book like The PhD Application Handbook by Peter J Bentley.
There’s more to getting a career out of the PhD than simply doing the research — another thing research training often stresses. Researchers should not be isolated. Get out there and network, help in your department, go to conferences, get published — all of which will open up a slew of opportunities. (I’ve met two publishers interested in my work, got the chance to blog here, and had one-on-one tutorials with my favourite author since starting, and none of that came from my department spoon-feeding me).
If the PhD won’t be of any use to you in the career path you are on, if you cannot get onto a good course, can’t get funding or afford to support yourself, don’t do a PhD. This is the common-sense approach. Feel free to ignore it and do a PhD for the love and spend a big wodge of cash if you want to, of course — people definitely do.
The article runs to three pages and I don’t have space to comment on all its assertions, but have a read and see how many times you say, “Yes, but…!”