Changing the Ph.D.

By Grant Jacobs 21/04/2011 15

Regular readers will know that I have previously written about that only a fraction of science Ph.D. graduates go on to work within academia long-term and related thoughts.

Nature has published an editorial and a collection of articles (all open-access) looking at possible ways governments or institutions might alter the Ph.D. to perhaps reflect this:

  • Fix the PhD (editorial) leads the way with an overview, suggesting that either Ph.D. programs need to be better tailored to demand or that the Ph.D. programs themselves should be altered, citing the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) programme run by the US National Science Foundation as a possible example.
  • Education: The PhD factory (David Cyranoski , Natasha Gilbert , Heidi Ledford , Anjali Nayar & Mohammed Yahia) look at the prospects for students in several different countries around the world
  • What is a PhD really worth? (Peter Fiske) focuses on law, but there are some general observations that can be applied elsewhere
  • Reform the PhD system or close it down (Mark Taylor) is very US-focused and to my reading a little wholly, but nevertheless is worth reading.
  • Education: Rethinking PhDs (Alison McCook) – this well-written piece offers several alternative scenarios with case examples of individuals who have pursued them

These articles focus on changing the Ph.D. itself. My earlier articles didn’t touch on this aspect, but focused on actively encouraging students to be made aware that only a fraction go on to work in academia, of a wider range of employment opportunities, among other associated issues.

So how might the Ph.D. itself be altered to better meet a market where the majority of Ph.D. graduates do not end up working in the academic arena they trained in?

(I’d be interested in reader’s thoughts.)

All these articles discuss elements of this. In particular, Alison McCook’s article offers a few possibilities.*

I haven’t time to offer all my thoughts on all of these articles unfortunately–there are too many and I’ve coding to do–but I’d like to leave you with a quote from the editorial which echoes some of the themes of my earlier thoughts on this general issue:

[…] a new kind of science PhD, in which both they [the students] and their supervisors embrace from the start the idea that graduates will go on to an array of demanding careers – government, business, non-profit and education – and work towards that goal.


* Most of her suggestions are interesting, but I have to admit I can’t see on-line Ph.D.’s taking off, except perhaps for those with limited ability to attend in person or particular studies that it might be suited to. Ph.D. studentships are supposed to be an apprenticeship of sorts, and that needs plenty of direct interaction with the person you’re learning from, at least in the sciences. Having said this some of my Ph.D. student friends in others disciplines only saw their supervisors a few times a year. An extreme example were those whose Ph.D. studentships involved extensive on-site field work overseas, such as a friend who studied anthropology and other looking a wildlife conservation efforts.

Other articles on Code for life:

Choosing an algorithm – benchmarking bioinformatics

Find a home for your research paper, authors, related papers – ask Jane

Curiouser and curiouser (history of science & research topics)

Minorities, disabilities and scientists | Code for Life

Study of where academic careers lead

15 Responses to “Changing the Ph.D.”

  • Seeing everyone is so shy, perhaps a few conversation starters might help? Let me write a few comments…

    “Only a few nations, including Germany, are successfully tackling the problem by redefining the PhD as training for high-level positions in careers outside academia.”

    (Source: The PhD factory.)

    Given Germany is generally regarded as one of the stronger nations economically (true?), what’s the beat they’ll get even stronger as a consequence of this?

    In Germany, apparently, “Just under 6% of PhD graduates in science eventually go into full-time academic positions”.

    The article writes:

    “Traditionally, supervisors recruited PhD students informally and trained them to follow in their academic footsteps, with little oversight from the university or research institution.”


    “Universities now play a more formal role in student recruitment and development, and many students follow structured courses outside the lab, including classes in presenting, report writing and other transferable skills.”

  • When she [Anne Carpenter, a cell biologist at the MIT’s Broad Institute] set up her lab four years ago, Carpenter hired experienced staff scientists on permanent contracts instead of the usual mix of temporary postdocs and graduate students. “The whole pyramid scheme of science made little sense to me,” says Carpenter. “I couldn’t in good conscience churn out a hundred graduate students and postdocs in my career.”

    I’ve seen small nods to this in other labs at various locations. Thoughts?

  • A PhD is a Doctor of Philosophy, whether in microbiology or in marketing. It is a research degree primarily that indicates (or should do) that the recipient is capable of independent thinking and research. I’d say don’t touch it!

  • I’m with Jean Fleming’s comment above, don’t alter or touch it.

    Grant said…
    So how might the Ph.D. itself be altered to better meet a market where the majority of Ph.D. graduates do not end up working in the academic arena they trained in?

    Wall St firms are full of physicists (including trained engineers) working in the financial markets industry there and the recent financial crisis over the last few years have been blamed on Wall St physicists & Engineers, since they have been instrumental in inventing various derivative securities that some have blamed for the crisis.

    This trend of hiring people who weren’t trained formally in economics/finance (especially physicists, engineers & mathematicians/statisticians) by Wall St firms, started in late 1980s to early 1990s and it is still continuing today. In fact one of Wall St darling & top performance Hedge Fund Management company, Renaissance Technologies (they regularly beat the market than making a loss) have always hired outside economics/finance. Renaissance is expected to be the biggest managed fund company in the world over the next few years (projected to be 100 billions total funds). They have an army of more than 70 R&D PhDs all coming from mathematics/statistics, engineering, physics and no PhD economists (or finance) there according to its founder (who himself a academic mathematical scientist).

    Another physicist has jumped into the debate to defend physicists who are working in the financial markets industry and not to solely blame them for the recent crisis.

  • I agree with previous posters – don’t touch the PhD.
    It is worth remembering the NZ PhD’s differ from those overseas – they are shorter than those in the USA and also than some of those carried out overseas. About 15 years ago when I worked in Finland the average time taken to complete a PhD was I think 7 years.
    This is not to say that I think the NZ PhD is perfect – rather I think it can be made better by tweaking it instead of a complete rethink. For example, I think there needs to be a concerted, ongoing effort to show PhD students ALL possible career opportunities. Also I think cross disciplinary projects are a good idea, and if done properly, so are those that involve industry.

  • Hmm, the conversationist in me detects a little more ‘me-too-ism’ than I’d wish for… (says the author with a mischievous twinkle in his eye)

    I’ll likely put up a few follow-on thoughts later this weekend. After all, it’s not as if I put forward what I think in the article (nor was it the main point; I had hope readers might just it as a platform for their own thoughts).

    Without getting into it here, perhaps this needs to be widened to look outside just that final Ph.D. degree. Meantime it’s too nice an autumn day to stay stuck inside…

  • Perhaps some of those that attended the recent Science and Innovation in Education Forum help in Wellington might tell us what was concluded or discussed regards Ph.D. studentships there?

  • It’s not so much that I would suggest changes to the PhD in NZ. What does worry me is what happens out the other end. I’m in the process of tying to organize starting a PhD. With the obvious proviso that I want to do something I’m interested in, I want it because it appears to be the minimum requirement for a job as a scientist. I’m pretty sure I don’t want to end up permanently in academia though, having the potential for working with industry would be a worthy thing.

    I can’t see them now, but a few years ago TecNZ ran Enterprise scholarships, which were funded and run jointly by a company and a university. I thought them a brilliant idea, that seems to have been discontinued.

  • Grant,

    Reading Mike’s comments and those of some his sources, a prominent suggestion is to reduce the number of PhD’s available so there isn’t a glut of PhD’s applying for academic/industrial positions. There are several problems to this
    1) Having a PhD/research experience is useful in areas other than academia and industry.
    2) As one commenter points out – aiming to provide only enough PhD’s to replace academics/industry would probablyonly provide academics with 3 or 4 PhD students in their whole career (or more likely some academics would have no PhD students at all).

    While I recognise that some PhD graduates become disillusioned when they find out how tight the job market is, I’m not convinced that restricting the number of PhD positions is the right way to go.
    Instead I think a bit more honestyand frankness from PhD supervisors about job prospects would be better, and dare I say it, a bit more funding into science in NZ

  • Here’s a few more related articles.There’s a lot of gnashing of teeth over this and closely-related topics; don’t get the idea that these posts reflect my views. When I somehow find time I hope to return to this. These articles have links to earlier articles I’m not linking to here.

    If Permanent PhDs in the Lab Were Unicorns… (from On Becoming a Domestic and Laboratory Goddess; many comments – worth reading)

    Academia: a colossal waste of human capital? (from bioEmphemera)

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