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Interesting articles online on academia and the PhD problem

  1. Oct 10, 2013 #1


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    Interesting articles online on academia and the "PhD problem"

    Hi everyone,

    I've linked here two articles I've found online that specifically address the issue of whether a PhD really prepares its students to careers outside of academia.

    One is an article from an environmental researcher where she outlines that the broader academic culture has an attitude problem with respect to PhD students who may be considering pursuing careers outside academia.


    The second article from Science concerns the job market for science PhDs and suggests that math PhDs have an easier time than most in getting a tenure-track academic career, among other things.


    I'm wondering what the rest of you think about what is discussed in these 2 articles.
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  3. Oct 10, 2013 #2
    I hate this genre of "phd problem" article. They tend to be filled with cognitive dissonance and self-justification rather then an actual argument. They SAY "oh its just an attitude problem" but THEN THEY ARGUE THAT ITS A TRAINING PROBLEM (and so really they agree with everyone else). These articles tend to have a few major elements- (I'm not going to quote directly, anything in quotes is a paraphrase)

    First- the reframe. i.e. assert that there is no problem because no one wants to be a tenured professor anyway. In this case- she shows a plot that shows how many fewer phds are going into tenure track positions and basically says "look at all these people DECIDING not to go for academic careers. Many of them will be jaded, leave science and feel like failures or that their phd was waste of time and energy. We just need to convince them there is nothing wrong with CHOOSING to leave academia." Yes, I agree, if people were choosing to leave that would be fine. However, no one really believes people are moving away from tenure track positions to take postdocs, adjuncts and non-scientific work by choice.

    Next- the giveaway. Here the writer will implicitly ignore their reframe (because no one believes it,including themselves) and suggest solutions to what we all know is a problem. These usually require altering the idea of the phd.
    "We aren't training too many phds, we just need to change how we train phds so they can start outside careers..." If we aren't training too many phds, why do we need to change the nature of the phd?

    Finally, self-absolution. Here the writer will assert they aren't part of the problem (but really, they probably are). In this case, She says "I tell my grad students to acquire a complementary skill." But literally has no suggestion of what that skill is. She also says in the discussion thread, she has no professional development material on alternative careers to give her students, because she has never sought it out. She has collected no data on alternative careers. I'm sure the advice (here I will directly quote) "Pick up skills" is revolutionary. If only all those phds who were having trouble finding work had thought to PICK UP SKILLS.

    My adviser was a well meaning person. He genuinely thought someone with any physics phd background would have no problem moving into engineering type research at a large company, but he was absolutely wrong. Most such companies wouldn't even give me the time of day. If he had bothered to do as little as keep in touch with his former students who left academia, he would have done a much better of preparing his students. This professor seems to be in the same boat- she thinks its ok that students end up outside of academia but isn't willing to learn enough to effectively guide her students into those paths.
    Last edited: Oct 10, 2013
  4. Oct 10, 2013 #3


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    In the article itself, the professor is responding to articles (some of which she linked to) which directly suggests that students in various NOT pursue a PhD i.e. a PhD has NO value outside academia and that students are being misled and ultimately harmed by pursuing a PhD in a field or fields which do not immediately tie in to work in academia.

    The takeaway message I get is that part of the problem lies in the attitudes within the broader academic community -- professors, university administrators, funding agences, who do not understand that many of the PhD students that they mentor will have no chance of or choose not to work in academia.

    As far as complementary skills, it seems a little unfair to blame her for not suggesting what those skills are because those will depend crucially on what particular jobs the PhD student will ultimately chooses to go into. To me, it seems disingenuous for her to suggest acquire a specific skill if the student she's supervising will in no way use that said skill. This is one case where I would argue PhD supervisors simply do not have the expertise to provide useful guidance.
  5. Oct 10, 2013 #4


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    I'm also curious about the claim made in the second article, which claims that math PhDs have an easier time with finding tenure-track positions subsequent to earning a PhD? I'm curious if that article distinguishes between say, pure math vs applied math. I'm also wondering if for the purposes of this article whether statistics PhDs are considered part of math.
  6. Oct 10, 2013 #5
    Of course a PhD has value. Any time you learn something new, be it research skills, in depth knowledge of a topic, or some life changing epiphany. The real question is whether it has any value to an employer. I'm willing to bet that many PhD graduates fail to land a tenure-track position and end up in an industry position where a PhD has little to no value to the employer because the job does not require in depth knowledge of that topic, nor does it require PhD level research skills. Those that didn't want tenure-track positions more than likely end up at the same place as well. Now, the question is: Why did this person spend all of this extra time developing unnecessary skills? The skills certainly don't hurt, but for their current job it would have been more efficient to pursue a terminal masters or even a bachelors.

    There are also people out there that have great intuition for future demands, strong networking skills, or are extremely lucky (or all of the above) and land great jobs in academia or in industry doing what they love in a research environment. These are usually the people you meet the most throughout your undergraduate years, and often times they are the ones giving advice.

    The conclusion: There just isn't a big demand for someone with a PhD. Academia has plenty- they don't need you... Industry can hire experienced people with a masters or bachelors because their job just simply doesn't require that sort of an education... they don't need you. And those moments when there is a need for someone with a PhD, there is a flood of applicants that have been building their resume for quite a while.

    Would the world be a better place if there was a greater demand for people with research skills? I personally think so. Do people dishing out money have that demand? The statistics say no. A majority of the developed civilian population couldn't care less about the advancement of science and technology. All they want is for someone to pick their trash up and keep their money safe.

    Just my opinion. I don't have much insight into the "PhD problem". I only know a handful of people with a PhD and none of them are tenure track. A large majority of them in the science/engineering field ended up as programmers or adjuncts and their advice to me was to stop at a bachelors, or a masters if the job preferred it.

    It reminds me of the musicians that I use to perform with in the classical/jazz world. Some of them are traveling the continents having a great time, but most of them are struggling to find a source of income that makes use of their performance talent.
  7. Oct 11, 2013 #6
    I agree with what ParticleGirl says for the most part.

    I'm not sure most of the problem lies in academia's attitude. Sure, they contribute. Sure, they could study up some on what their ex-students are doing, etc. Despite that, I think a huge portion of the problem is industry's attitude towards the Ph.D. It's not so much that they don't need my specific research specialty, whatever that may be. It's that they actively discount much of your experience acquired as a Ph.D./postdoc as useless, even though there are all kinds of transferable and directly applicable skills. Couple their attitude of Ph.D. holders with the broader problem of HR and hiring processes nowadays, plus a less than stellar economy, and it's a disaster.

    I can't tell you the number of people I've talked to in 'industry' while networking who can only come up with 'Have you thought about teaching?' Most of these people don't seem to have a clue of what you might be capable of, how you might help their business, etc. And it's not just a matter of pitching yourself to them correctly. They don't really seem to care - you are in your 30's and they only hire fresh out of college types. The only people they hire older than that HAVE to have the right amount of experience in some very specific spots, which a scientist from academia isn't going to have. Their doors are shut before you even get a chance to open your mouth.

    Yes, I am aware that small portions of industry look kindly upon small groups of Ph.D.s but that doesn't really help the rest of us.
  8. Oct 11, 2013 #7


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    Like many I went to grad school because I wanted to be a prof. Then I spoke with my advisors two former students that are now tenured profs who told me: expect 5-6 years of 70 hour weeks as a post doc, then hope to get a tenure track position, then spend another 7 or so years of 70 hour weeks and hope you get tenure. Those conversations, coupled with the fact that when our department had a faculty opening we had 1000 applicants (yes, one thousand), made me chose to get a job after finishing. If it had been more likely to find a position I would have stuck it out, I think. But my job is good so I don't really have regrets.

  9. Oct 11, 2013 #8


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    To kinkmode and ParticleGrl,

    I've followed your previous posts about this topic (and have PM'd both of you). It's primarily based on your experiences that one can make the following conclusions:

    (1) A physics PhD is a waste of time, and is not worth pursuing, since the only thing a physics PhD prepares you for is a career in academia that is largely non-existent, with only a few exceptions.

    (2) A physics BS is a waste of time (since a physics BS doesn't prepare you for anything), and all current students of physics should study another subject instead (e.g. engineering, computer science, medicine, nursing, finance, accounting).

    The two articles I posted in the beginning of this thread is meant to highlight and either complement or challenge the conclusions I summarized above.

    So I'm asking both of you (and others), am I wrong?
  10. Oct 12, 2013 #9

    Physics isnt a preprofessional degree and in bad job markets employers have enough candidates to fill their need with tailored degrees.

    The way its sold is as if it is a professional degree+. Where you can transition to industry easily as a backup plan which is clearly untrue. The APS stats also have the caveats described by particlegrl as well as the caveat that the unemployed have a higher probability of not responding then the grad employed as an assistant professor at Harvard.
    Last edited: Oct 12, 2013
  11. Oct 12, 2013 #10
    It's a tough question to answer in a succinct fashion. Imagine this: I spent four years doing my BA in physics at one of the top liberal arts schools in the country, 6.5 years doing my Ph.D. at one the top universities in the world, and another 4.5 years doing a postdoc. That's 15 total years working really hard, not just learning esoteric crap, but learning all kinds of useful workplace and life skills (and some esoteric crap). It's also literally almost half my life. It's part of who I am.

    I can't say it wasn't worth it, because I literally do not know what I'd be like if I rewound half my life. I also don't know where I'd be right now. I will say that it hasn't made my current situation particularly easy, but that may not be true for everyone. I can also say that trying to break into a career in the time from of 2008-now is probably a bad thing to do, but we don't get that choice. And who knows, I might have a big break through next week and find an incredibly great job that fits my background.

    From the outside, it looks like ParticleGirl has had similar struggles. From my view point though, it seems to be working out and paying off her. It is true she's not in physics anymore, but she was able to get a good paying job with a tiny bit of self retraining, and it sounds like she's moving up in pay and the ranks quickly. It also sounds like cool work to me. Maybe she'd have been further along in that same career path had she never gotten a Ph.D. But, you don't get a Ph.D. only for what it gets you when you finish.

    I think there are things that the academy could do to make it easier for people like me, and almost more importantly, educate them about what their future might hold. I also think there are things that our society could do, excluding academia, to better utilize our talents. I don't think our current political and social climate of anti-science thinking and corporatization of everything, including education, helps very much. One only needs to look at how the government shutdown is affecting all kinds of research and to see the (lack of) public outcry over these matters to realize that the general population (of which industry is often a part) doesn't really care about this stuff.

    There are approximately 35k Ph.Ds awarded each year right now in the sciences and engineering. That's a tiny fraction of a percent of the population in the US. Heck, it's a small fraction of the yearly population growth in the US (about 2 million people a year). When you step back and realize that the 35k is in ALL sciences, and that physics Ph.Ds are an even smaller number (somewhere around 1500-2000 if I recall), we are such a statistically insignificant portion of the population to most people and employers that it's not worth their time thinking about us, even when we pop up in a stack of resumes. Only the few that KNOW they could use someone like us are we really interesting.

    On a side note, here's an eye opening chart about finding employment as a professor. As I read it, Ph.D. production has increased faster than population growth, but not necessarily at a disastrous rate if you account for more avenues into industry opening up as time passes.

  12. Oct 12, 2013 #11
  13. Oct 12, 2013 #12

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  14. Oct 13, 2013 #13
    Yes absolutely I was forced. Especially by my mother, who behaved as a tyrant, under the influence of some authoritative voices around (teachers, etc).

    I'm very tired of all those people who can't believe that this could happen.
    As I wrote here :
  15. Oct 13, 2013 #14

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    While it may be that "academic degrees are nonsense" to those who let their mother's make their major life decisions for them, this is not the case that the OP is talking about. So let's get back on topic.
  16. Oct 13, 2013 #15
    Sorry but I see no legitimate right to pretend that I should shut up and let you conclude by such an awful and completely mad personal attack that you are making against me.
    I think I was clear about the problem.
    Not only my intelligence, my shyness, my natural temptation to respect and trust the authority of others, and my desperate try to make life meaningful made me victim of the most awful torture and injustice in this crual world, but also it just gives me the right to be continuously insulted and mistaken as the worst moron by everybody, as a reward for how I sacrificed my life in a desperate attempt to earn people's respect for who I am.
    But I see you participate in this madness and persecution. I cannot find any name to qualify this, sorry.
  17. Oct 13, 2013 #16
    Moreover, my contribution was NOT off-topic. There are many ideas in my speech that are on-topic. But you need to actually take the time to read or hear it to notice this.
  18. Oct 13, 2013 #17


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    Seriously people, take some responsibility for your own life. It is your life, not your parent's and not your advisor's. The joys and the heartaches of your life are yours and yours alone, so own them.

    If you chose a field of study and went through all of the effort of obtaining a PhD with no thought on the marketability of your skill set then don't blame others when you came out with an unmarketable set of skills. If you are in a PhD program then you are reasonably smart and inquisitive and can certainly do the research and rudimentary analysis required to assess the economic value of your education. If you neglected to do that, then consider the resulting difficulties simply a learning experience that you shouldn't neglect economic considerations.

    The fact is that a PhD is valuable in industry. As a hiring manager in industry I have exclusively hired PhD's. It is not just about the education, but a PhD is an indication that a person is able to set long range challenging goals and accomplish them (e.g. I would reject someone who did all of the coursework but didn't complete their dissertation because it would indicate to me a strong likelyhood that they would fail to complete projects that I assigned to them even though the skill set may be identical).

    However, the PhD is not the only thing I look at. I want employees with self-motivation, good communication skills, confident demeanor, and a high level of independence. It may be that you have been rejected in your job searches because of those kinds of deficiencies rather than because of some supposed undervaluing of your PhD education. Luckily, those are also skills which can be learned, so start learning them.
  19. Oct 13, 2013 #18
    Have you ever hired (or at least interviewed) a high energy physics phd? If so, into what job? I've been collecting information for awhile now about the sort of jobs people with my skillset can get hired to do.
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