Viewpoint: The Death of the Ph.D. Is Not So Greatly Exaggerated

18. April 2011

By Danny Rogers

You are a young, enthusiastic student who loves the rigor of science, the excitement of discovery, and the creativity of piecing together new knowledge about the world. You go to grad school to get your Ph.D., but you find that your advisor is aloof and the work is irrelevant.

You wait, wallowing in self-doubt as your peers go on to productive careers, hoping that one day your hard-earned credentials might mean something in the world.

I know a graduate student in this situation. She is among countless silent, disenfranchised young researchers. As she prepares to graduate, she is finding the supposedly rock-solid science job market to be softer than ever. She asks herself every day, “Was this worth it?”

A recent article in The Economist argues that it isn’t. The subtitle reads “Why doing a Ph.D. is often a waste of time.” On the surface, it’s difficult to argue with the author. Why do we sacrifice our late twenties, when we are often at our most energetic and creative, to do academic research for a third of the minimum wage while our business school friends are pulling down six figure salaries?

It’s a good question, especially when research dollars are waning and state budgets are in shambles. Tuition is outpacing inflation even as unemployment remains high. Many tenured researchers who contribute little to their field may be living on borrowed time. There may come a point when schools simply won’t be able to pay them all, and their Ph.D. students will have to look elsewhere for gainful employment.

Does all that mean that the Ph.D. was a waste of time? Despite these concerning forecasts and statistics, I argue that it is not. Here’s why:

• Graduating with a Ph.D. demonstrates that you have tackled at least one objectively difficult problem early in your career.
• Finishing your doctoral degree shows that you have the intelligence and flexibility to gain an independent level of expertise in a field that was new to you only a few years ago.
• Having a Ph.D. means you may not be quite as intimidated as the next person when presented with complex challenges.

If you are a graduate student looking for a job, these are important assets to highlight as you approach employers. The experience of doing Ph.D.-level research still carries significant weight in the professional world.

But that doesn’t let academia off the hook. Schools must adapt in order to prepare their students with more diverse skills as academic jobs dwindle and alternative careers dominate. Professional degree programs have been doing this for years; medical and law degrees routinely come with courses in ethics, communications, and finance. Science education needs to catch up or risk becoming irrelevant.

We already see innovative schools offering graduate programs tailored toward industrial careers or curricula that include communications skills such as writing or delivering effective presentations. Georgetown University offers a Ph.D. in industrial physics that includes an internship at an industrial firm. Cooper Union requires its students take winter-term courses in presentation skills.

These innovations will be the future of academia. Schools that embrace them will survive; those that don’t may not.

Yes, the death of the Ph.D. is exaggerated, but not by as much as you might expect. If we want the degree to remain relevant, academic science must come down from the ivory tower and start teaching the skills that the world demands.

Danny Rogers ( graduated with his Ph.D. in chemical physics from the University of Maryland in 2008. He is currently a member of the professional staff at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Md., U.S.A.

Note: The opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of OPN or OSA.


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