Waste not, want not

Discussion of ‘waste’ in both higher education and scientific research seems to keep popping up in my life. Both in Science Question Time (from August 24th) and in some comments here on Occam’s Typewriter posts by both Jenny Rohn and Athene Donald (make sure to read the comments !) I also keep hearing people say things about ‘waste’ it seems in context of paying for higher education such as in the statements:

Is a university degree I have to pay for a waste if I can’t get a job in that field ?

Is going through lots of science training (PhD; 3 post-doc positions) when I don’t get an academic job in the end a ‘waste’ of time?

From a personal point of view, on balance, I don’t think higher education is ever a waste. The more educated the work force, no matter where that work force works is a good thing. University (and I would like to stress here I didn’t go to a particularly fantastic University) changed the way that I thought and exposed me to people/ideas/things I would have never heard of or thought about otherwise. Even if that was through disagreement or boredom.

Moreover, a University education is not something that you can really easily put a price-tag on so directly. Just like life, doing a full cost analysis of the choices you make and where you go in your life is really hard to do. I am not even sure how to begin to do this.

I spent some time working before I ever even went to University. With no contacts, the only place I could get a job was Wendy’s – the fast-food restaurant. Which was a fine education in itself, but the pay was crap and to try to move out of that was damn nigh impossible. I didn’t walk, I ran back to University – but then I could do that. Many of the people I worked with there at the naive age of 19 didn’t have much of any opportunity to ever leave that life, the poverty trap and poor education didn’t help much. I at least had the advantage that I attend a high school that provided me enough education I was able to get into a University. But this is a whole other issue (which is equally important !)

I don’t want to slide down that ‘people have it worse’ slippery slope too far; some people always have it worse or better and in some senses that is meaningless, its like when my mother wanted me to finish my dinner because other people in the world were starving; it was meaningless in the context of my 8-year-old life.

But this is all about personal waste, how someone feels about their time. People will often say ‘I’ve wasted my life’ when they decide to leave a career, get divorced, maybe at the end of our lives. But hind-sight is 20/20. I am not saying this feeling isn’t real or valid, I have wasted more time that I care to think about, but its all very hard to assess before your life is complete; before all of the data is in as it were.

Maybe the question is ‘are we training too many PhD’s’ and giving them ‘false hope’?

I think no. Perhaps, the people that are frustrated now are the ones that will REALLY help change the system for the better, reinvent the system, shake things up. I think that, perhaps you are in a better position to do this if you are educated and have been a part of the system you are trying to change.

This is also a changing world – its just recently the austerity budget in Britain (and in the US) started limiting circumstances for many people. There has never been a guarantee that if you get a PhD you get an academic job and you never know how the world will change in the future. But with a better education, you are (usually) in a better place to change things.

I do realize this is all a bit wide-eyed, and I don’t intend to undermine anyone’s personal feelings about all of this (I have some similar ones myself) but what else are we to do?

About Sylvia McLain

Girl, Interrupting aka Dr. Sylvia McLain used to be an academic, but now is trying to figure out what's next. She is also a proto-science writer, armchair philosopher, amateur plumber and wanna-be film-critic. You can follow her on Twitter @DrSylviaMcLain and Instagram @sylviaellenmclain
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10 Responses to Waste not, want not

  1. Steve Caplan says:

    Well said! I think the more people are educated, generally speaking, the better for society. I agree very much with your point about the difficulties in measuring the “benefits” of education, and that the overall impact on one’s life might not be understood until one reaches the end of life–or at least a ripe old age.

    I also heartily agree with your point that too many Ph.D. being churned out is not the problem–but rather that (in some cases) those aspiring students may not be sufficiently made aware of their prospects for (academic) jobs in the sciences. As long as people go into this path without allusions of grandeur, and know what difficulties lie in store, it’s a great path to take.

    Now if you really want to just waste a few good years of your life, the military can be a good way to go. Of course it did benefit me by providing ‘life experiences’ for my fiction-writing sideline career…

    • I think one of the other problems is people are really frustrated with the lack of job opportunities but I am not sure that is down to the education system as much as it is to the financial environment we seem to be living in at the moment.

      I also am not sure I would characterize academia as the life of grandeur, which I don’t think you are doing here, but I do think sometimes people are led to believe it is. There are better jobs or jobs more suited to a person’s personality or skills. Thinking that ‘academic job in major research institution’ is the only suitable end to a PhD is a bit myopic (for lack of a better word) collectively and as Athene says below, maybe academics should be more conscious of NOT perpetuating this myth.

  2. I’ve been thinking over this, and it seems to me the ‘waste’ argument is based on something close to our present Government’s heart about undergraduate education. Or rather, they don’t see degrees as education so much as training, so that you should be gaining skills for something specific: hence KPMG funding courses in accountancy. A degree is about much more than training, and I think is the same at later stages. So, a PhD student gains all kinds of skills beyond how to use sophisticated equipment or analytical software etc. But if they see the skills they learn as purely instrumental in getting them to the next stage in an inevitable academic career, it will feel like waste if that isn’t the outcome. So, I suppose all of us PI’s in academia have to do a better job of inculcating this wider sense of what ‘education’ is in the PhD students and postdocs so they begin that path knowing the breadth of what may become available to them, and the uncertainties of any of them actually transpiring. If we do a better job of this, possibly fewer students and postdocs will feel their time in ‘education’ in the broadest sense has been wasted and recognize, as you stress, indeed embrace, all the opportunities that are actually open to them beyond the academic ladder.

    • This idea ( undergraduate education = job skills ) is I think in some ways unsuited for academic institutions. And it also brings up a couple of points.

      The first of which is if you want to train people to do a technical job is a University the best place for this? I don’t know enough about the old polytechnic system in the UK, but from what I have heard it actually did train people for technical jobs. There is a similar system in the US (such as community colleges) which is almost entirely absent from the UK – it seems to me. I think the government needs to seriously think about this – going to a system that gives some people the opportunity to train to do something more specific. This does however bring up the side point of what do you train for? you have to think of a system that trains people say in computer programming skills or something that is marketable (for the student) and is flexible enough to adapt as the outside ‘market’ changes.

      The second thing to think about is that this argument, that education =job, from the opposite point of view is ‘you should do what you are trained to do.’

      Would it be a ‘waste’ to the government if you read physics at University and then went and worked in a hedge fund in the city? Would the Universities consider this a waste? Would you want to ‘force’ a student to stay in physics research if they hated it and it left them bored (and unproductive)? This is sort of nudging up against socialism and some of the communist systems – but that is an aside.

      What education does give you is opportunity, and maybe Athene is correct we should emphasize this more – but you will have more opportunity from an education than you otherwise would have had with none (often this is not always universally true). At the very least, hopefully, it will help you think around any problem

  3. Steven Hill says:

    Nice post.

    It always annoys me when people talk about PhD graduates who don’t end up in full time academic posts as a ‘waste’. PhD-trained people make an enormous contribution in their careers outside of research and academia, even if they end up in roles that don’t specifically require a PhD. It is inevitable that only a small proportion of PhD student will end up in academic posts, so part of this is about managing expectations as well as being (rightly) positive about the alternatives.

    On a personal level, I can also recall being told I was ‘wasting’ my career by leaving an academic post to work in policy. I think there is a tendency among some in academia to view their career choice as especially valuable and superior to other options.

    • It may sound a bit naive but an education is something no one can ever take away from you; not sure why there is an academic snobbery like this, though I know it exists – justification for a low-paying job with long hours? I am being facetious, I think this is something that harkens back to the time when very few folks had the opportunity to get a PhD and it was usually reserved for those more privileged of the population, in that so few people went to Universities. The world has changed, hopefully these attitudes will follow along shortly…

  4. Tim Jones says:

    Fascinating topic that branches into all sorts of related issues – so, trying to focus on waste.

    I should say my own education was relatively uncontroversial – so it’s easy for me to talk. I did nice targetable engineering degrees – all paid for by the Govt.; including a PhD (Chem.Eng) that let me walk into a subject-related industrial R&D job, where I quickly set off paying back in taxes what I’d cost. I suspect something along those lines – apart from the fees bit – is still possible today in certain engineering subjects, but in your post I know you’re talking more broadly and perhaps with a science focus.

    So on the principle of ‘waste’. I guess your perception depends on whether you’re the recipient or sponsor of the education. Consider three types of degree/PhD: those that directly equip one for a focused job (like an engineer or applied scientist), those that develop generic capabilities that apply to many job areas or have a less focused pay-back (blue-sky science or a physicist applying analytical and math skills in finance), and those that might round off an individual but the job link is harder to see or invisible. When resources are constrained, it’s the last category that gets it in the neck, and they work up from there. And that’s where we seem to be with this government.

    I think there’s value in keeping all three of these types of activity/subject type in the one university, and wouldn’t like to see the academy become more academised (?). It’s balance we need, and having more applied, academic, and philosophical types in the same physical community is a good thing that I for one feel I benefited from. I blew gas out of nozzles for most of my PhD, but my snooker buddies did unnatural things to flys and wrote essays on Victorian prostitution; mixing with those people clearly made me a better person. To sort the major challenges facing humanity this century we’ll need closer integration of abilities and cultures – not less.

    Interesting example you raise, the physicist who runs to the city. He/she will for sure pay back the fees, but it’s a problem if all physicists go that route- especially the good ones – if the strategic need for the country is more physicists doing physics. Then, waste is as good a word as any for it. But if there’s a glut of physicists for the available physics-focused jobs – academic or industrial – then why not? (It’s an important, related, but different question as to whether we have a sound science strategy in the first place.)

    I also wonder if the door is forever closed to those people who leave academia should they wish to return to their first love – perhaps having got themselves a bit of financial security. With folk gearing up to live to 100, are we a bit too stuck in our linear ways when it comes to careers.

    In general, I don’t see PhDs not staying in academia as a waste. Industrial research needs PhD skills – directly, but also indirectly. For example, I’ve worked in commercial business development roles where I’ve needed to interface with university researchers, and where my R&D background was invaluable. As industry cuts back on pure research it’s a growing requirement.

    So on that front, maybe academic supervisors can not only make students aware that an academic career is not inevitable, but educate themselves and be positively enthusiastic about the non-academic alternatives? I’m fully behind Steve Job’s sentiment that we should do what we love and not compromise. Yet it’s possible to love many things and take your choice – but the choices have to be visible.

  5. Laurence Cox says:

    When I was a PhD student, nearly 40 years ago, I was on a Science Research Council CAPS (Co-operative Awards in Pure Science) studentship, where I had to work in the co-operating company for three months during my three-year term. My research was measuring the polarization of astonomical objects in the near and mid-infrared and the co-operating company made infrared polarizers as well as carrying out contract research for other companies.

    Later on, I remember the scheme being expanded to include government research establishements and renamed CASE.

    I thought at the time that I particularly benefitted from exposure to an commercial research environment during my PhD. Are any programmes like this still funded by the research councils?

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