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?