Are we thinking about PhDs the wrong way?


There isn’t a problem with the number of science PhDs, but with the overwhelming expectation that the sole purpose of a PhD is to lead to professional, long-term academic research.

A chorus of bloggers and journalists have come to the conclusion that science produces far too many PhDs. One even claims that the high number of these scientifically literate, skilled individuals could threaten science itself. While that might be a somewhat bold assertion, it is true that this year the Careers in Research Online Survey (a survey of 9000 PhD candidates) found that 77% of respondents wanted an academic position, while a 2010 Royal Society report found that “only about 3.5% of science PhDs achieve a long-term career in academia.” Does this disparity suggest an excess of PhD graduates?


What comes after a PhD? From The Scientific Century by The Royal Society.

Despite the figures, I would argue that it doesn’t. Since so few of those who want academic positions actually secure them, it is evident that academia is a fiercely competitive arena – prospective PhDs should understand that when they apply. However, they should also be encouraged to consider the many other paths available to someone with such a high level of education: if these were made clearer, society could expect to benefit from a greater number of analytically minded people driving forward technology and business alike. If, however, we continue to view PhDs solely as preparation for the next generation of professors, only 0.45% of doctoral students will fully benefit, and there will continue to be a huge number of disappointed graduates unsure of where to go next.

PhDs who graduate and don’t get into university research are an incredibly highly trained and intelligent demographic: one far too valuable to lose from the workforce just because they are unprepared for life outside of academia. Imperial College London places some emphasis on teaching its PhD students “real-world” skills to remedy this. Other institutions would be wise to follow suit.

Gregory Petsko, professor of neurology and neuroscience at Weill Cornell Medical College says, “I don’t believe you can train too many PhDs in science. We live in a complicated, technologically sophisticated, rapidly changing world, and I can’t think of better preparation for that world than the kind of discipline in analysis, planning, and decision-making that you get from a good PhD program… It’s great preparation for just about any field — politics, policy — you name it.”

Daniel Munro, who earned a PhD in political science from MIT, summarises: “if the purpose of a PhD is to train people for academia, then we produce way too many… By contrast, if you think the purpose of a PhD is to produce advanced researchers [with skills that are relevant outside of research], then, well, maybe we don’t produce too many. Maybe we produce just the right amount.”


Are we thinking about PhDs the wrong way?

One thought on “Are we thinking about PhDs the wrong way?

  1. telescoper says:

    It is true that PhD students to acquire skills that are useful outside of academia, but I would contend that these transferable skills constitute a small part of doctoral training. The suggestion that I have posed several times – and never got an answer to – is whether it might be better for all concerned if we switched to a Bologna-style system, i.e. 3 years UG + 2 years Masters + 3 Year PhD, increasing the number of Masters students but decreasing the number of PhDs. The PhD is then for those who want an academic career, but most the transferable skills are learnt during the Masters.

    But you’re right. The most important thing is that prospective PhD students know the odds. My worry is that we’re not sufficiently honest about the reality and instead just treat PhD students as cheap labour, to be discarded after 3-4 years and left to find alternative employment.


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