The value of a PhD

As I mentioned in my first post, I am an academic at a British university.   As many people are probably aware, the number of students going to University in the UK has increased dramatically in the last decade or so. Although this a subject that could be debated at length, this is not the subject of this post.  What concerns me is the apparent desire to increase the number of students doing PhDs.  My impression of why this is happening is that some – politicians for example – believe that industry likes people with PhDs and therefore we should generate more of them. Although I can quite easily believe that people who have done PhDs and then gone into in industry have generally done well, it’s not obvious that this implies that we should generate more people with PhDs.

One of the reasons I feel that simply generating more PhDs is not the right approach is that – in my view – there are primarily two reasons why people with PhDs do well in industry. One is that a PhD teaches skills that will be useful in whatever career a PhD graduate ends up choosing.  The other is that these people are in general highly creative, motivated, and academically gifted. What, I presume, industry really likes is creative, motivated people and if they have the skills that a PhD teaches them, even better. If there are plenty of people with these basic skills who wanted to do PhDs I would have no real problem with increasing the number of PhDs. It is my view, however, that although in some academic fields there may be plenty of potentially talented PhD students, it is generally not the case (or at least if there are plenty of potentially talented PhD students, they are not clamouring to do PhDs in these fields).

The concern I have, therefore, is that universities will feel pressured to increase the number of students graduating with PhDs and to do so will select students who are not particularly suited to the degree.  Currently, at least in my field, a PhD student is expected – with some help from their supervisor – to work independently and ideally to take control of their project and make it their own. A PhD student is therefore, to a certain extent, someone who could later have an academic career. It doesn’t matter if they don’t actually go on to have an academic career, their abilities and skills will be valuable assets in whatever career they choose to follow. 

There are some,  however, who feel that  a PhD should simply teach students certain useful research skills because this is what UK industry wants.  It may well be true that UK industry would benefit from an increase in the number of people with research skills, but it is not completely clear that the best way to do this is to increase the number of PhD graduates. It is my opinion that it would be better to introduce degrees (such as research Masters) that are shorter than PhDs and focus on teaching research skills, and leave the PhD as a degree for those particularly interested in independent research and potentially interested in a career in academia.  This would protect the value of a PhD degree and still increase the number of graduates with valuable research skills.

A concern I have had in writing this post is that – if anyone actually reads it – it will be interpreted as an argument for keeping PhDs selective and exclusive, and that is certainly not the case.  I have no particular issue with there being more PhD students as long as they have the necessary skills and abilities to carry out a PhD.   My basic argument is that if UK industry would benefit from an increase in the number of people with basic research skills (as I suspect it would) we should have degrees specifically designed to teach these skills rather than potentially damaging a degree that has already proven its value and that does more than simply teach research skills.

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4 thoughts on “The value of a PhD

  1. All of this assumes there is an actual, viable job market ready for (and encouraging) an influx of PhD recipients. In my researches people seem to be quite ambivalent about this.

    Thoughts?

  2. I don’t quite follow what you mean, but I assume that you’re suggesting that the assumption that industry (for example) wants more PhD graduates might be wrong. If this is what you mean, I may actually agree in principle (in fact this is what I was essentially arguing above). What I was trying to suggest in the above post is that industry probably wants people with some research skills (or at least the problem solving, computing, mathematical, etc. skills that a research degree will teach). It’s not clear – to me at least – that a PhD degree is necessarily the optimal way to teach these skills and that shorter more focused degrees may be a better way of doing this.

  3. I feel the viable job market comment is a blind stab, because with a PhD one can do whatever they want, they choose. They create and invent and tug at the edges of what is known by all of humankind. I have been getting job offers simply because of my record and accomplishments, but I choose to finish my PhD for the knowledge, the experience, the ease of living, the control I have over my own work, the credit i receive for my own work, the doors it will open in the future, the respect, and the buttloads of money I will get even if I take the same job a recent undergrad could get. But the reason one does their PhD has to be more than just for money. Someone who gets a PhD wants to work at the top, is exhaustively curious about the subject, wants to have control, and make decisions. People who get their masters just want a step up into industry and make a little more cash more quickly. I’ve seen people without masters do just as well getting jobs at large companies, making similar income.
    PhD is no joke, and I have seen people with the ability to get in but not the ability to survive. I am in grad school because it was my dream, because I LOVE research and what grad life entails. I can see myself working towards professoriate, but at this time I still have no idea what I want to do. To be completely honest, my ability to start a company or partner in a team will be greatly enhanced by what I can accomplish during this essentially free period as a grad student.
    Like you assume though, PhD is NOT for everyone, and it certainly isn’t the only way, or the “optimal” way. Education is greatly flawed in many respects, but grad school is real training and real experience towards leadership in your field, much more so than getting a job and doing what they tell you to do. PhD is the extension of undergraduate education, it gets into the stuff you don’t need to know, but into all the details, so that you have a batter chance to reach new frontiers.
    Trust me, there are many many many positions available which prefer/require PhDs and no PhDs to fill them.

    • I agree that good PhD graduates can do almost anything they like. I think I agree with most of what you say in the rest of your comment. A PhD is for people who have a particular set of skills and abilities and love the idea of solving interesting and complex problems. My point, in the post, was that this suggests that the PhD – in itself – cannot create such a person. It can hone and enhance someone’s skills, but cannot take someone who does not have these skills and abilities and turn them into someone who does (this is a bit of a generalisation as there will clearly be cases where someone who appears not to be suitable for a PhD ends up being excellent and someone who looks ideal turns out to be useless). Simply increasing the number of PhD places doesn’t guarantee that you will increase the number of talented and creative PhD graduates who can then go off and do almost anything they like. I should add that there is a fundamental difference between the US and the UK system. In the US there is a formal graduate school and student have to write a comprehensive exam (typically after two years). If they don’t pass 4 core modules (I think they normally get two attempts) they are out of the programme and typically get a Masters. In the UK, this doesn’t exist and so someone who starts a PhD will typically be allowed to finish and submit a thesis. Whereever I’ve been, the students have all been good and there have never been any problems. Increasing the numbers could, however, lead to situations where someone – who isn’t really suitable – is admitted to a PhD programme and it then becomes difficult to deal with this if it is later found that they aren’t suitable.

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