Should universities cut back on funding of PhD positions?

Benedict Poole

Over the last thirty years more and more PhD positions have been awarded to graduates. However the number of jobs in academia has not risen to account for these extra positions. So are these PhDs that are being made available helping the scientific community or are they just a waste of people’s time? And possibly a waste of the limited funding that is available to institutions?

As shown in the figure below (taken from a recent Nature article), over the last few decades far more PhD positions have been made available. With limited academic careers available for these students ,PhDs now need to be viewed differently. They are not just to train the next generation of academics as was the case in the past. It has been shown in a recent survey that only a quarter of PhD graduates take up jobs in science. Then surely there is no problem with the extra positions. It’s just the same as with an undergraduate degree where most people take jobs in a different field to the one studied. People don’t talk about cutting the amount of undergraduate degree positions just because they don’t all get jobs in the field they were trained in. If this is the case then a PhD position is now just the same as a graduate scheme in a company. The only problem with this analogy is that the majority of the people that get onto a graduate scheme with a company get offered a job at the end, provided they perform adequately. The institutions offering the PhDs just don’t have this capability. The graduates that enter onto these schemes need to be made aware of the fact that it is not a long-term job. It is a three or four year placement, and at the end of it, you’ll, almost definitely,  have to find a job elsewhere.

New faculty positions versus new PhDs.

This, as it turns out, is not hard to do. The employment rate for recent PhD graduates is about 90%. You are not putting yourself in a worse position than if you had just done an undergraduate degree with the added bonus that you have the higher level of qualification. You can now start a job at a firm in a higher level position than if you had stopped studying as an undergraduate. That all being said, you don’t actually make yourself any more employable. The employment percentage is exactly the same as for graduates with a bachelor’s degree. The only benefit that you’ve acquired is that you can enter a company in a higher position.

The other main problem with these extra PhD positions is whether the money could be better spent. The average PhD salary in the UK and the USA is around 13-15 thousand pounds. With just over 35000 positions being offered in the US it’s fair to say that a colossal amount of money is being spent on PhDs. If this was spent on the funding of research projects for the academics to upgrade equipment or purchase new equipment, who knows how many more breakthroughs would be made. It seems to make more sense that this is where the money should be spent as it is the academics that are the experts in their respective fields, not the PhD students. On the other hand the students are constantly being directed by their supervisors, the academics, who come up with the project in the first place. This would imply that the money is being used in the best way possible. The academics have so many other responsibilities, lecturing, tutoring etc. Then it is more effective for them to have a PhD student doing areas of research that they just don’t have the time to do. Moreover, the students are so specific to the field that their dissertation is based in; it is not hard for them to also obtain enough expertise to succeed in that field. Interestingly with this being the case it can’t really be argued that a PhD is equivalent to a graduate scheme. Graduate schemes give the graduate a very rounded learning experience. Yes they have quite niche knowledge of the particular area they are in but they get used to working in a professional environment and undertake tasks that will be useful in lots of other areas. PhDs, however, give the graduate a very specific experience of being an academic, something that isn’t particularly useful when the academic jobs aren’t available to said person.

The next question then is how useful are PhD students to the scientific community, do they help produce research that advances the field they are researching? The most famous case in history of PhD students being successful are the PhD students that worked under Rutherford. They carried out his research on the atom which led to the model we know now. Obviously this is a very rare event but most PhD students publish at least one paper during the course of their degree. In fact for some programs they are requirements. These papers probably aren’t going to advance science as much as papers that could be produced by a team of senior academics. But the academics definitely do see it as a useful expenditure as they need PhD students researching topics they can’t afford to spend their whole time on. In addition they never have too many positions for projects; they always want more PhD students available for use.

PhD positions are certainly on the rise. Academics are given the funding for these positions and so use it, and use it fairly successfully with most PhD students publishing papers and therefore advancing the scientific community. The fact that there are no extra academic positions being made available for these students is not a problem, provided we change our opinion on what a PhD is. It is no longer just a building block to an academic career but instead has to be viewed as another version of a graduation scheme that gives you a chance at an academic career. With this knowledge people may not been as keen to apply for these positions but that is not for us to decide. If it affects an applicant’s decision to take up a PhD then that is up to them. The PhD positions will always be filled and are always required by the academics so why cut the funding.

Should universities cut back on funding of PhD positions?

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