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.