Friday, July 15, 2016

The Value of a PhD

The NY Times has a piece on the apparent oversupply of PhDs. They note:

The United States is producing more research scientists than academia can handle. We have been told time and again that the United States needs more scientists, but when it comes to some of the most desirable science jobs — tenure-track professorships at universities, where much of the exciting work is done — there is such a surplus of Ph.D.s that in the most popular fields, like biomedicine, fewer than one in six has a chance of joining the club in the foreseeable future. While they try to get a foot in the door, many spend years after getting their Ph.D. as poorly paid foot soldiers in a system that can afford to exploit them. 

Now this article does a disservice. A PhD is not necessarily a path to some academic position. It is a tool, like that of its lowly cousin, the MD, to pursue a career. How one uses that tool is up to the individual. Pharmaceutical companies, bio tech entities and the like seek these capabilities all the time. In fact one would be hard pressed to accept an academic career given the oppressive environments in the Academy where political correctness overshadows everything.

The article continues:

The engineering school at M.I.T., for example, often gets 400 applicants for every open assistant professor job, says Richard Larson, an operations research professor there. Many, he adds, are “superstellar.” One way to see what is happening is to look at a measure, called R0, used in demography to show how a population is growing. If every baby girl in a population grows up to have one baby girl on average, R0 is one, and the population size will remain constant. If R0 is significantly greater than one, the population can explode. Dr. Larson and his colleagues calculated R0s for various science fields in academia. There, R0 is the average number of Ph.D.s that a tenure-track professor will graduate over the course of his or her career, with an R0 of one meaning each professor is replaced by one new Ph.D. The highest R0 is in environmental engineering, at 19.0. It is lower — 6.3 — in biological and medical sciences combined, but that still means that for every new Ph.D. who gets a tenure-track academic job, 5.3 will be shut out. In other words, Dr. Larson said, 84 percent of new Ph.D.s in biomedicine “should be pursuing other opportunities” — jobs in industry or elsewhere, for example, that are not meant to lead to a professorship.

Back in my day, yes it was fifty years or more ago,  one sought a job after the PhD. Except when I got out in 71' and Nixon had managed to totally collapse the economy and there were no jobs, really, no jobs. Then one settled for a teaching job eventually looking for a real job. What came of that process, however, was that if you want a real job, go create your own. The PhD develops skills. The Post Doc is really nearly free labor for some faculty person. It is not necessarily a path to academia.

Thus the PhD is only a waste if you do not know how to monetize it. One should pursue the goal but avoid the path of indentured servitude, the Post Doc.