The disposable academic?

My attention was recently drawn to this 2010 Economist article on academia. A few points that stood out to me:

OK, firstly; “intellectual masterpiece”…really? My thesis? Sure I’m proud of it, but it’s not something I’d consider a masterpiece. Perhaps I should make sure everyone I know gets a copy for Christmas…

Now, getting down to the rest of the piece! If you’re undertaking a PhD with the hope of landing an academic job it’s a depressing read. A rapid increase in doctoral students (their figures quote that between 1998 and 2006 the no. of PhDs awarded rose 40% amongst OECD* countries), without a corresponding increase in permanent academic positions means many postgraduates have to leave academia.

Many people see this as a huge problem. I tend to agree, although I think it doesn’t necessarily need to be one. When I told a friend and soon-to-be PhD student that only about 30% of UK PhD students end up in academia she was shocked. She just hadn’t conceived of any other career path. But a PhD, packaged correctly, could be a brilliant stepping stone into higher-level public or private sector careers. The problem is little help, support or guidance is available to PhD students wanting to make the transition. And very little positive advertising and marketing of postgraduates is made to encourage a demand in them and their skills. After years of being told that degrees and higher degrees will set me apart in the employment stakes it’s sobering to read that, in economic terms at least, a PhD may only give me about a 3% edge, if that, on my MSc colleagues.

The problem of ‘excess’ postgraduates and postdoctoral researcher isn’t likely to go away any time soon; they’re cheap and motivated labour that many universities rely on to bring in papers and grant money as well as helping with teaching. The article touches on all of these issues…but then fails to offer any suggestions as to how we could improve the situation.

For me, there is one thing I think the article perhaps did not stress enough. The love for their subject that many PhD students have. They may not admit it, or feel it mid way through thesis-writing. It may even be diluted by ‘drifters’ – especially in the sciences where stipends mean a PhD is a viable means of supporting yourself if you don’t have an expensive mortgage or children. But it’s there; I see it in people every day.

Disposable, perhaps. Dissatisfied, sometimes. Devoted, definitely.

And that is what makes the dropout statistics in the article so worrying (only 57% or American doctoral students have a PhD 10 years after they begin). For whatever reasons, institutions feel postgraduates are worth while, and so they should be taking more care of them. Somewhere, amidst full time staff and fee-paying undergraduates postgraduates can get sidelined. An injustice if we consider the wealth of benefits postgrads can offer.

*OECD: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development

All quoted numerical figures and many of the points discussed are taken from Economist Article (16th Dec 2010) as linked to above.

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