Time for a PhD reform?

I’ve mentioned before on the blog that I think there could be some beneficial changes to PhD programmes, so I was interested to see a link to this Nature article on another blog (Genomicrepairman).

Mark C. Taylor, writing in Nature, claims the common, current graduate system is “broken and unsustainable”, creating nothing but a fantasy of future job security for many. For such strong statements I found his main arguments to be less dramatic and controversial, the crux of his argument resting on the fact that graduate programmes create highly specialised academics with no ability to work interdisciplinary or solve current social, political and environmental challenges.

Now I agree that some aspects of the specialised PhD research that most graduate students undertake does have its problems. I can see, for example, why one might consider encouraging some of the so-called brightest minds to spend their time writing a large and unwieldy book that about three people in the world will ever read a waste of time. But the fact is, and I say this as someone who doesn’t want to be a specialised academic, specialism does have other benefits. Since I’ve started my PhD my attention to detail has increased immeasurably. I gather in huge volumes of information (both physically on my computer and mentally in my brain, although the digital copy is probably the more reliable source!) and synthesis and distil them down into logical sections and groups. I work on an analytical instrument almost every day, and I don’t just come in, use it and get out. I learnt all about it; both theoretical and practical. Sure, I may never use it again after I finish my PhD but just to get good data from it has taken a good deal of life skills; organisation, filing, trial-and-improvement, perseverance, attention to detail, problem solving, inventiveness, communication and a knack with spanners and screwdrivers to name but a few. The point of a PhD is that you focus on a narrow area of research; that’s your USP.

As Taylor also points out, there is a thorny issue of over-employment relative to the number of faculty positions available; this is the issue focused upon in the post by genomicrepairman. Postgraduates are cheap labour; we do the man-hour intensive, crap hours in the lab and, especially so in the US, work as teaching assistants or demonstrators. Firstly, it’s important to realise that academia is nothing special in this respect. Every sector that I can think of has a pyramid structure of employment. McDonalds is always going to have more people flipping burgers and deep-frying apple pies than it is managing. The NHS is always going to have more auxiliary nurses than it is heart surgeons. Maybe I’m more accepting of this fact as I knew right from the get-go that only 30% of PhD students end up working long-term in academia, a fact that still shocks many of my PhD friends when I tell them today.

So my ten cents worth…what should we do about the PhD system? Taylor wants to see radical change but only pays lip service to what this may be, mentioned buzz words such as cross-disciplinary investigation and practical problem solving and describing a system where there is less intense competition between universities and more cooperation. I’m not sure this is feasible, after all much of the drive to create novel and rigorously executed science comes from healthy inter-institutional competition.

I agree with Taylor on the need for cooperation; the worst part of the PhD for me is a lack of team-work involved in my day-to-day working life. There should be more opportunities to carry out a PhD whilst working in industry, as a technician, TA or other complementary role, with the work you do in that capacity carrying weight towards your final application for PhD candidature. This would put postgrads back in the “real world” and give their work real-time benefits to the public or private sector and the country as a whole. We need a much more, well, down to earth, PhD programme; not one that moves in a one-step-removed alternate world like so much of academia. Which also fits in well with my last point; if we’re going to reform the PhD system lets reform funding whilst we’re at it. In the UK PhD students are paid for three years (3.5 if you’re lucky, 4 if you’re very lucky/crazy) which is a time period most people ove

rshoot. I don’t know the exact figures, but it seems like a majority steps over that mythical three-year mark and has to work unpaid. In what other sector does that occur? If the government feels PhD’s are worth doing they need to be funded properly, and that’s either more money as a whole or fewer people doing longer PhDs.

No system, especially one so obsessed with title and position as academia, will change quickly. But now questions of reform seem to be raising their head with increasing regularity. Perhaps it is the recent financial issues – an uncertain future in the job market means more students are aiming to stay in university for as long as possible. Deciding upon the best plan of action? Sounds like a new PhD topic to me…

Taylor M. (2011). Reform the PhD system or close it down. Nature, 472 (7343) PMID: 21512530


3 thoughts on “Time for a PhD reform?

  1. The issue is that by dumping more money in the system will not lead to better/more trained PhD’s, in fact it will exacerbate an already tumultuous situation. The historic doubling of the NIH budget led to opening the floodgates of trainees into biomedical research but there was nowhere for these folks to move up once they finished their training.

    I don’t think reforming the PhD is the answer so much as clamping down on the number of trainees that we allow into the system in order to get back to a more manageable situation. Think about how many trainees each PI trains in the span of their career. Some labs it could north of 30-50 trainees. Now there aren’t that many positions open.

    Sorry to run off on a tangent but some postdocs do train in the real world. They take industry postdocs where they are treated as human beings with hope, dreams, and aspirations. They are made to work a more normal (not quite 40 hours/week) schedule and receive fair compensation.

    Liked the post and the blog.

    • I do agree that there possibly are too many trainees, but then we are cheap labour so I’m not sure that system is likely to change any time soon! Then again, perhaps it’s not the number of trainees that needs to be changed (it is everyone’s own responsibility to find a job afterall) but the culture and preconcieved ideas about doing a PhD – that you will continue on in a job in academia. If it was better understood that only 30% of PhD students find a long-term career in academia and that a PhD is no guarentee to a permenant contract, and if more support was given highlighting transitions between academic research and industrial/other jobs then this may alleviate some of our problems.

      The main problem I have with the number of PhD students is that there doesn’t currently seem to be the money to support this many students; with everyone I know struggling for research money, enough funds to write up, 20 year old lab equipment…

      Thanks for the comment

  2. Pingback: Opinion :: NERC PhD skills review | Pipettes & Paintbrushes

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