Is a PhD Really Worth it?

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  • #51
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I've read this entire thread and still feel as if most that get or want to get a PhD have *no* desire to work in Industry.
It's largely because most Ph.D.'s have been brainwashed to think that if they do anything other than become a tenured professor, they are a total failure, and not fit to walk the earth. It took me a few *years* to get around the brainwashing.

Two-fish, I know you've stepped out of Academia. Was that decision made in Grad school or before hand?
It's less decision than damage control.

If I thought I realistically had any chance of becoming a professor at a big name research university, I wouldn't have left, but it was quite obvious that this wasn't going to happen. OK, now what?

Are there any PhD's (or future PhD's) that don't want to be in Academia?
What is "academia"?

I want to live the "life of the mind". Work on interesting problems, do useful things, help the world, and spend my time thinking deeply. That's what I do. It turns out that I don't work at a university. So what?

If the Harvard physics department offered me a tenured faculty position today at 50% my current salary, I'd take it in two seconds. That's not going to happen. So given what *can* happen, what can I do to get what I want?

As far as I'm concerned, I am in academia and I secretly think of myself as a "secret professor". I teach, I do research, and I do community service. I don't have a nice title, and no one other than me knows that I'm a physics professor, but I don't care.

Is this not a realistic view of why you should get a PhD?
You should get a Ph.D. because you want a Ph.D. If it turned out that the only thing that I could do with a Ph.D. was to sell shoes, then I'd still get the Ph.D.
 
  • #52
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theoretical physics - pen, paper, computer? What expensive equipment could you possibly need?
You need *LOTS* of computing power. Data centers with tens of millions of dollars of computing equipment. You also need people's time and you need administrative support staff. Having a bright, cheery assistant that knows that you need to file form TR-501 and *NOT* TR-503 to get reimbursement for travel expenses will save you hours of headache.

Office space, travel, admin staff, office computers. It all costs money. Not totally insane amounts of money, but it does cost money.

Also you need *graduate students*. When you are a professor, you are an administrator for a small research group. If you don't have bright graduate students that help you do grunt work and work with you to author papers, you aren't going to be able to get much done.

So wouldn't going with theory put you in a position where you aren't spending all your time writing papers to get money form the government?
No. Also you have to work with experimentalists. If you don't have data from telescopes and spacecraft, then you aren't going be able to do anything useful. Also, if you don't help experimentalists with their grant proposals, then they aren't going to let you look at the "not ready for publication" raw data that they have.

Or is the main push to publish the evaluations from other faculty? Who or what requires these evaluations?
There is an "up or out" system. If you don't get tenure in seven years, you are gone. There are a lot of rules (sometimes arcane rules) that are intended to maintain the academic power structure. If they don't like you, you aren't getting promoted, and you aren't going to get into the upper levels of the power structure. This is how the structure reproduces itself.

Is it just really hard to get a tenure position as a theorist? If professors are only paid 35k or something, then why is it difficult for schools to hire many of them?
Junior physics professors make about $85K. Senior ones can make $150K. Also professors are hard to hire because they are hard to fire. Once you've granted tenure, it's practically impossible to fire a professor, which means that you are making a very long run financial commitment. Also tenured faculty have *power*. They are the people that make the decisions, and you want someone that has really been brainwashed into the club.

35k is tuition for two out of state students, or a couple thousand football tickets - schools are rich.
Part of the fun of administration is getting to the money.
 
  • #53
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The other thing is that the system all makes sense if you think of academia as just another power structure that is intent on maintaining its power. The tenure system is in place to insure that the people that end up with any real power don't rock the boat in unacceptable ways.

That's fine, since academia is just another bureaucracy in which you have to sometimes shut up and climb the ladder. Society is dominated by those bureaucracies. Ultimately there is a small ruling elite that controls the social systems for their own purposes. Nothing wrong with that.

Except academia was *supposed* to be different. It's not.

This makes a difference in career choices. The mythology of academia is that it's the place where you are supposed to be free to think and to speak out, and industry is the place where people have to wear chains and submit to corporate task masters. My experience is that this isn't the case, since you have to wear chains in both places.

In big corporations, yes, you do have to take orders and do what you are told, but there is a lot of freedom in what you say and think once you've mastered the art of corporate speak, and because I have money in the bank, and I can walk out if things get bad, I feel more free than I did in the university.

Also even when there isn't freedom, at least there isn't hypocrisy. We are in charge. You are an employee. We are here to make money. We'll be nice to you as long as you are profitable, but you are gone if we think you are a liability to us. We'll listen to you ***** and moan, if you can convince us if you can help us make money, but if you can't, then shut up.

Cool. People are honest. It's quite refreshing. Also, I've found that I can ***** and moan without getting into trouble a lot if I master the art of corporate code words and smile a lot.

So if its a choice between climbing the bureaucratic ladder in an university and climbing the bureaucratic ladder in some large corporation, I'm not sure I see the difference, especially since large corporations are letting me onto their treadmill whereas universities aren't.
 
  • #54
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Wow sounds like a lose-lose situation.

I guess this is why we were making more progress when science was controlled by rich hobbyists. Seems like accountability systems basically just load you down with overhead until you're spending all you time doing things that aren't useful (and they're there because people get promoted for putting them in place).

Well at least graduate school sounds like a good gig - spend 15 hours a week doing labs and such and spend the rest of your time learning (even if most of that is fretting over memorizing techniques to solve particular problems so you can pass tests - I don't see the difference from this and memorizing names of birds or something).
 
  • #55
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I guess this is why we were making more progress when science was controlled by rich hobbyists.
When was that? At least in the 20th century, science has been a tool by the power elite to maintain global domination.

Not that I have any problem with that.

Seems like accountability systems basically just load you down with overhead until you're spending all you time doing things that aren't useful (and they're there because people get promoted for putting them in place).
It's quite useful. Take one step to the left. That's easy. Now try to arrange things so that 25,000 people takes one step to the left at the same time. That's hard. Coordinating large bureaucratic systems is quite useful work, and I'm glad someone else is doing it so I don't have to worry about it.

Much of the university or corporation exists because you have tons of people that do the necessary bureaucracy so that people that don't like the stuff don't have to do it.

Much of these systems exist because we are dealing with large amounts of money and power. If you have a $5 billion project, you have tons of people looking at each other to see whether or not the money goes missing, and another ton of people arguing whether or not we really should be spending $5 billion.

Well at least graduate school sounds like a good gig - spend 15 hours a week doing labs and such and spend the rest of your time learning (even if most of that is fretting over memorizing techniques to solve particular problems so you can pass tests - I don't see the difference from this and memorizing names of birds or something).
Ummmm..... No. That's not what graduate school is like. One thing to remember when you are a Ph.D. student, is that you are a Ph.D. student from the time you wake up until the time you fall asleep.
 
  • #56
From where I stand, current Academia seems like a scam. Many people on a conveyor belt trying to reach extremely limited spots. The majority seem to be spat out by the system and the few that do make it have to wait until the "Old Guard" dies to make any kind of meaningful progress. The many that are spat out are then "left out in the cold", with little to no debt but no enough earnings anyway.

The part I can not understand is why does it take 5+ years to obtain a Ph.D. when many in the previous generations were obtaining their Ph.D. within 3 years.
 
  • #57
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It's largely because most Ph.D.'s have been brainwashed to think that if they do anything other than become a tenured professor, they are a total failure, and not fit to walk the earth. It took me a few *years* to get around the brainwashing.
When exactly is this brainwashing done? And by whom?

We have people just starting high school, for heavens sake, who come here and want to figure out exactly how to become a university professor.

Where I think the brainwashing occurs is the idea that a degree prepares you for exactly one job, and indeed, guarantees someone will hire you to do this single job. Which is, of course, utter flapdoodle.
 
  • #58
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The majority seem to be spat out by the system and the few that do make it have to wait until the "Old Guard" dies to make any kind of meaningful progress.
Heh. Heh. Heh.

I remember back in the early 1990's, when the NSF was talking about the huge number of openings that will happen once the Sputnik generation retires. Didn't happen. The problem is that when someone retires, they don't necessarily replace them, and also the system is such that once someone retires, they aren't going to hire you if you've been out of the loop for a few years.

The many that are spat out are then "left out in the cold", with little to no debt but no enough earnings anyway.
It's not that bad. It's pretty good in some ways. Personally, the big problem that I had was to stop thinking of myself as a miserable failure, and start thinking of myself as "normal." The interesting thing is that if people had told me from freshman year college that I had zero chance of becoming faculty, it would have been more enjoyable.

The part I can not understand is why does it take 5+ years to obtain a Ph.D. when many in the previous generations were obtaining their Ph.D. within 3 years.
Looking at the AIP statistics the time for Ph.D. since 1960 has remained more or less constant. There might be some differences pre-WWII, but anything pre-WWII is different enough to be a different degree.
 
  • #59
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When exactly is this brainwashing done? And by whom?
And how?

The thing that I find weird is no one ever had a lecture in which someone explicitly said "here are the rules" So it's quite interesting how I managed to end up believe what I believe.

We have people just starting high school, for heavens sake, who come here and want to figure out exactly how to become a university professor.
A lot of people's beliefs about how the world works and their place in it come very early. When I read some old letters by my father that were written before I was born, a lot of stuff started making sense, and then there was a conversation with my uncle about things that happened to my grandfather before my father was born.

Where I think the brainwashing occurs is the idea that a degree prepares you for exactly one job, and indeed, guarantees someone will hire you to do this single job. Which is, of course, utter flapdoodle.
I wouldn't put it as "of course." Lot's of reasonably intelligent people believe it, and it's interesting to figure out why they believe it.

Which is why it is interesting that college marketing and admissions departments emphasize that sort of thing in their admissions material. Come to school X and be a success!!!!!

There is one basic economic reality that people will not pay much money in order to learn Greek literature. If you tell people, this is interesting stuff, will make you a better person. Totally useless for getting a job, you aren't going to make much money from this. If you want to convince people to fork over large sums of money, the way to do that is go convince them that they will make more money, which pulls universities into the success/academia loop.

I should point out that there is nothing wrong with having a degree that prepares you for a job and lets you earn a reasonable amount of money at it. An associate of science in plumbing is that sort of degree, and I think the demand for that sort of degree is a lot higher than that for Ph.D.'s.
 
  • #60
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There's also a huge, massive. and well-intentioned effort to get kids interested in science, and so there are lots of media messages encouraging kids to study hard and become scientists.
 
  • #61
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We have people just starting high school, for heavens sake, who come here and want to figure out exactly how to become a university professor.
Maybe this is why.....

http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/president-obama-launches-educate-innovate-campaign-excellence-science-technology-en [Broken]

So do we want more scientists or not?

What I find interesting is why there is this high level effort to have people become scientists and not Buddhist priests or experts in Peruvian literature. It's all because of this money and power thing (not that there is anything wrong with that).
 
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