We’ve had the too-many-doctorates discussion around here a few times, from different angles. The Economist has a good overview of the problem – short on solutions, naturally, but an excellent statement of where things are:
Whining PhD students are nothing new, but there seem to be genuine problems with the system that produces research doctorates (the practical “professional doctorates” in fields such as law, business and medicine have a more obvious value). There is an oversupply of PhDs. Although a doctorate is designed as training for a job in academia, the number of PhD positions is unrelated to the number of job openings. Meanwhile, business leaders complain about shortages of high-level skills, suggesting PhDs are not teaching the right things. The fiercest critics compare research doctorates to Ponzi or pyramid schemes.
One thing for those of us in the sciences to keep in mind is that we still have it better than people studying the humanities. Industrial jobs are in short supply right now, that’s for sure – but at least the concept of “industrial job” is a valid one. What happens when you take a degree whose main use is teaching other people who are taking degrees?
roponents of the PhD argue that it is worthwhile even if it does not lead to permanent academic employment. Not every student embarks on a PhD wanting a university career and many move successfully into private-sector jobs in, for instance, industrial research. That is true; but drop-out rates suggest that many students become dispirited. In America only 57% of doctoral students will have a PhD ten years after their first date of enrolment. In the humanities, where most students pay for their own PhDs, the figure is 49%. Worse still, whereas in other subject areas students tend to jump ship in the early years, in the humanities they cling like limpets before eventually falling off.
(See this post for more on that topic. And this inevitably leads to the should-you-get-a-doctorate-at-all discussion, on which more can be found here and here). In the end, what we seem to have is a misalignment of interests and incentives:
Academics tend to regard asking whether a PhD is worthwhile as analogous to wondering whether there is too much art or culture in the world. They believe that knowledge spills from universities into society, making it more productive and healthier. That may well be true; but doing a PhD may still be a bad choice for an individual.
The interests of academics and universities on the one hand and PhD students on the other are not well aligned. The more bright students stay at universities, the better it is for academics. Postgraduate students bring in grants and beef up their supervisors’ publication records. Academics pick bright undergraduate students and groom them as potential graduate students. It isn’t in their interests to turn the smart kids away, at least at the beginning. . .
And I’m not sure how to fix that. Talk of a “higher education bubble” may not be idle chatter. . .
Update: more on the topic this week from the Chronicle of Higher Education.