Friday, December 4, 2015

The PhD: Value and Use

Nature has a small piece on the growth of PhDs and their alleged mis-direction. My observations are based upon 50 years of doctoral/post-doctoral involvement with time spent in and out of academia.

What is a PhD good for? Perhaps a good question. It takes time, money, dedication, delayed gratification. It produces a highly trained and filtered individual. It is an individual who has intellectually achieved as well as having demonstrated an ability to dedicate great resources with limited returns for a longer term benefit. What is the benefit? The ability to see and produce what the less well trained individual does, perhaps. It should not be a training ground for Lab Tech replacements, low cost, well trained worker bees who when they are burned out are replaced by new worker bees, an endless supply.

In Germany many PhDs go into industry. There must be more Doctors of some specialty in Germany per sq km than any other species. I think I even seen some Dr so and so at the Munich ticket counter service passengers. So the education per se is not the issue. The issue is; how is it used.

The Nature article states:  

The numbers show newly minted PhD students flooding out of the academic pipeline. In 2003, 21,343 science graduate students in the United States received a doctorate. By 2013, this had increased by almost 41% — and the life sciences showed the greatest growth. That trend is mirrored elsewhere. According to a 2014 report looking at the 34 countries that make up the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the proportion of people who leave tertiary education with a doctorate has doubled from 0.8% to 1.6% over the past 17 years.

So in the US we are producing them at a great rate. But they can and should find places in industry. The Academy does not need them, cannot use them, other than as cheap labor, and their use is maximized monetizing those skills, not trying to hang on. They should be aware of that from the get go. Back in the 60sw at MIT I knew of few of my classmates finishing PhDs trying to find teaching spots. They wanted jobs, and for a while there were a few, then Nixon collapsed the country in 1971, and none were around. At least we could become electricians!

Now here Nature states the crux:

One reason is that there is little institutional incentive to turn them away. Faculty members rely on cheap PhD students and postdocs because they are trying to get the most science out of stretched grants. Universities, in turn, know that PhD students help faculty members to produce the world-class research on which their reputations rest. “The biomedical research system is structured around a large workforce of graduate students and postdocs,” says Michael Teitelbaum, a labour economist at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “Many find it awkward to talk about change.”

 Yes, cheap labor, in hope of some dream. In fact they would be better off in industry, and industry would be better for using them and the assets they bring. All too often industry, especially MBA type managers, view PhDs as "head in the cloud types" or "single focus" types. In reality the PhD can do more than any MBA, they can create value not just transfer or worse destroy value. The PhD should be viewed as a peer, one who can add as much value to an establishment as any other and at times more. The PhD should also understand that value statement as well. The PhD should not be held captive as cheap labor.

Nature concludes:

But there are signs that the issue is becoming less taboo. In September, a group of high-profile US scientists (Harold Varmus, Marc Kirschner, Shirley Tilghman and Bruce Alberts, colloquially known as 'the Quartet') launched Rescuing Biomedical Research, a website where scientists can make recommendations on how to 'fix' different aspects of the broken biomedical research system in the United States — the PhD among them. “How can we improve graduate education so as to produce a more effective scientific workforce, while also reducing the ever-expanding PhD workforce in search of biomedical research careers?” the site asks.

The change is simple. Let the PhDs know from the get go that they should, can, and must seek to "market" their talents, and not just their PhD research, and they they should seek jobs not short term low paid and low return task work. This is not just a problem in the bio area, it is quickly becoming a pandemic across many fields, engineering included. Why should any PhD in engineering do a post-doc? Get a job, use your skills, make something, and get out of the dream world of academia.