A few weeks ago Nature published a piece, which asked “The world is producing more PhDs than ever before. Is it time to stop?”. A couple of weeks later the Royal Institution in London arranged a panel discussion about careers in science, a panel which included the UK science minister. Many of the problems discussed buzz around the problems junior researchers have in finding permanent jobs, and in how science is funded by providing short-term grants, which don’t give any job security.
Looking at these discussion, I’ve concluded that the root cause of the problem is the way the PhD is viewed and used by Society, and how this has changed over the decades.
The Academic’s View
Historically the PhD has been a research degree; it has been seen as a form of apprenticeship for people wanting a career a researcher in science. Someone with with a PhD is seen as qualified to carry out independent research. They could continue in a scientific career in a university, research institute or in industry. Supporting them through grants is thus a means to train the next generation of scientists.
On this view, the demand for PhDs places would be driven by the demand for trained scientists. Not every new doctor will end up a tenured professor – some will go into industry, others decide to leave science. But ideally all those who want to stay in research (and who are good enough) will be able to.
The man on the Street’s View
But I think this view ignores one big part of the tenured professor’s job: education. Universities professors are expected to teach; to profess. And this connection between education and the PhD is viewed as wider than just an apprenticeship. Society at large sees education as important (which is why we put money into schools, universities and colleges). In most countries the PhD is the highest degree, which gives it a level of importance as a status symbol, as showing that the holder is educated. The only other professions that get a title are medical doctors and people in religious posts, both also professions that are (generally) well respected. So, for the general public, the “use” of the PhD is a secondary one, to indicate status. I’m uneasy with this elitism – as someone with a PhD I’m not intrinsically more deserving of respect than anyone else who is highly trained – a nurse, an electrician or an accountant, for example.
This status is, I think, largely promulgated in universities because the teachers themselves have PhDs. This reinforces the view that the most educated people are those with PhDs, even though the degree is not strictly about learning stuff. This is a historical relic: firstly because the PhD used to be about scholarship (which is learning), and modern scientific research is very different to traditional scholarship. And secondly, because the home of a lot of scientific research is the university, where it grew out of scholarship. There is really no reason, in practice, why this should be so. There are many research institutes throughout the world (I have worked in several of them), so there is no necessity for researchers to also lecture to all levels of undergrad.
The Politician’s View
But the PhD is being undermined, not because of any deliberate act, but as a by-product of the way research is increasingly funded. Governments want to fund research, and a lot of that is done using soft money: paying for short projects that then need to be renewed with new short projects. The research is done through funding junior scientists, who are cheaper than more experienced researchers. In practice this means a lot of PhD students. A side benefit is that this can be claimed as “education” as well as research (and hence be paid for by the education department, which is a nuts way of paying for research). But the supply of scientists now becomes dependent on how much research the government wants to pay for, and that is a depends on the economy, and the political priorities of the party currently ruling. The connection to the demand for students is broken: there is over-supply for the traditional careers that hire PhDs.
When viewpoints collide
But we, as academics, are still selling the PhD under the old assumptions about what it’s for. We are telling students that they should do a PhD to become researchers, even though there may not be the jobs afterwards. And we are training them to be researchers, to carry out specialised tasks that might have nothing to do with the career they end up in (ironically, this training wasn’t been in teaching, even though universities were a major employer of PhDs). So, in order to get research done we are training up researchers, many of whom then have to leave the career they are trained for. This is just silly – these students aren’t being prepared for the workplace they’ll end up in, and become frustrated because they can’t find a job in the career they’ve pursued.
What to do?
It seems to me that there are two solutions:
- Keep the traditional meaning of the PhD, as a research apprenticeship, and limit the number of positions available. This is the solution I like, although creating a mechanism to do (i.e. to decide how many PhDs to give out) might not be easy. It also creates a second problem – how are you going to get the science done? This relates to the discussion at the RI last month, and Jenny Rohn (formally of this parish) has blogged about one solution which I like : creating a career structure for people who want to do science, but not be in charge. In essence, super-technicians. This used to exist (and may still do) in the civil service, where there were several grades of “scientific officer”. the problem is that the more senior SOs cost more, and need some long-term job security, so they are more expensive. On the other hand, they should also be more productive, as they have already gone through the process of learning how to do research (either as a more junior SO, or through getting a PhD).
- Change what the PhD is for. Rather than make it an apprenticeship for research, expand the scope. This would mean teaching more “transferable skills”, e.g. in communication. This raises a few problems. One is that the science may suffer (as the Nature article acknowledges may be happening here in Germany), as students spend their time learning other things. So, if the government wants to pay students as a way of increasing scientific productivity, this will be diminished. Another problem is deciding what the PhD should really be about. If it is not a research apprenticeship, what is it? What should we be teaching the students? I don’t know.
At some point one we, as a society (or rather as several societies), will have to chose which path to go down. My guess is that inaction from the top will mean that there will be little change in the funding of science, so that the purpose of the PhD will change, and with it the form of education: it will pick up a more general component, teaching skills that will be useful in the wider world. I actually think it’s good that there is a component of this sort of teaching, but where’s the point where we dilute the research to the level so that a PhD isn’t able to carry out independent research? How close do we want to get to that point?