Women in Academia: What’s going on with the Ph.D.?

Getting a Ph.D. used to be synonymous with getting a tenure-track position in academia. Now, while the world is changing to accommodate fewer and fewer professorships, the number of Ph.D. students continues to grow. Is the system broken? If so, how can we fix it?

There’s nothing unique in me asking these questions. Countless of blogs have tackled the issue of over-production of Ph.D.s (generally in Negative Nancy terms intending to scare away prospective students), and recently, the peer-reviewed, super-legit, great-on-your-CV journal Nature dedicated some page space to a series on these very issues. Obviously I read the articles with a hunger, and towards the middle of the second one, I was starting to feel a very uncomfortable feeling of jitters pass through my system.

It’s easy to delineate the problems with the current structure of academia. All the articles I read were very clear in describing how academia was pumping out a lot of unnecessarily educated people who will be lucky to ever use the skills they learned over the course of years and years of graduate school. It’s significantly harder to develop and implement solutions, though there are people trying.

The comments on these posts have always been incredibly insightful and thought-provoking. I would love to see some discussion of what you see the future of academia and the Ph.D. to be. In the mean time, let me share a couple of the solutions I’ve been thinking about.

First, one note: I am not touching on master’s work at all. The reason for this is because the expectations of people who finish a master’s degree is different from that of people who finish a Ph.D. Master’s students are expected to go on either to a Ph.D. or into the workforce; there isn’t as much expectation that the person stay in academia. I would love to hear from master’s students and their experience, though. And as always, I am 100% open to being told that I am wrong/inaccurate.

To start, one of the biggest differences between my thoughts and the suggestions I’ve read before is that my views are more focused on university and community level change. Other suggestions, like the ones in the article linked above, focus on using merits/funding to encourage broad change across the entire face of academia. Those suggestions are interesting, but I am ultimately uncertain about how they would work.

The biggest thing that I can think of is to reframe how the Ph.D. is viewed by people within academia and outside of it. Seeing the Ph.D. as creating experts instead of seeing the Ph.D. program as an apprenticeship for academia could go a long way. Getting a Ph.D. isn’t just about creating new information; it’s about learning a new, skilled way to analyze problems and ask efficient, effective questions. Some programs are already engaging in framing the Ph.D. as a new way of thinking about the world and about questions, which I find very exciting. Greater communication between academia and the outside world could lead to a similar reframing of the Ph.D. in those sectors as well. Academia can, at times, be very isolated from basically the whole rest of the world. Breaking down this barrier could be an important step in revitalizing the Ph.D.

Last week I touched on how leaving academia can be a difficult choice due to a variety of pressures. Creating an environment where all career options are seen as equally valid and worthwhile would be an important step in shifting how the Ph.D. and its purpose is viewed. This change must come from within academia, and I expect it will change over time.

Lastly, incoming students should be given accurate information not just about the Ph.D. program but about job prospects and various campus resources that can help train individuals for jobs outside of academia. There are many options out there for people who want to embrace the holistic view of university employees, one that emphasizes community involvement, teaching, and research, but there are fewer options for students looking to leave the system altogether. In many places, the basic structure for creating this support system is already there, it’s just a matter of making that information available to students. Career centers, work groups, and symposia all provide opportunities to students looking to find work outside of academia.

12 replies on “Women in Academia: What’s going on with the Ph.D.?”

It is true that PhDs in natural science, social science and engineering can boost salary and job prospects outside of universities. (Humanities I have no idea and won’t comment). Engineers and bench science fields are more connected to these non-academic outfits. Unfortunately, liberal arts (social science and humanities) faculty are notoriously unable to help with any job other than “professor”. Very few faculty at R1s ever worked outside of academia in any capacity, thus their networks lack breadth. The gloom and doom job market narrative is amplified by well-established faculty members because they have a limited ability to assist students with a broader set of job choices. If they could advise students on private sector, government, non-profit and other options I think PhD students would feel less stress (even panic).

This is an interesting question.

Part of me thinks that the PhD system in the US should be more like the system here in the UK, where PhDs are pure research (no classes) and last for only 3-4 years. The idea is to demonstrate the ability to conduct a large-scale project and to gain expertise, rather than to become a future academic (hence there’s usually very little teaching, and fewer publications). The benefit of such a system is that it doesn’t lock PhD graduates into academia, which provides an outlet for those with PhDs who simply can’t get academic jobs because there aren’t enough. Having said that, I don’t think there’s any question that the US system produces better academics, with far more teaching and publication experience.

I guess, then, there are two options, given that the current system is largely considered unsustainable. The first is to shorten the PhD so that it becomes a way to gain expertise rather than training for a future academic career. That approach would accept that there are many more people getting PhDs than there are academic jobs, and would provide a way for those people to use their PhDs for purposes other than becoming academics. On the upside, such a system would probably encourage more crossover between the academy and the ‘real world’. However, it would require a more intensive post-doc process for those who do want to stay in academia, since they’d need quite a bit of further training.

The second option is to maintain the American-style PhD system but to reduce drastically the number of students admitted, and to consider the PhD purely as an entry requirement for academia rather than as a way to gain expertise for use outside the academy. This would certainly produce top-standard academics, but it would exclude others. No one who wants to work in a think tank should spend years as a TA; it doesn’t make sense. A PhD of this kind certainly shouldn’t be seen as something to do purely because one hasn’t figured out a job yet.

What do you guys think? Do those two options make sense?

Aw, thank you! I love reading more about the process in the US as well. I feel very distanced from it, not least because there’s a huge transatlantic divide in political science (to the extent that I was told not even to bother applying to jobs in the States). I don’t know what the right answer is, though I can say one of the reasons I decided to do my PhD in the UK was that I didn’t want to be forced into academia afterwards. Having said that, I know I’m WAY less qualified to be an academic than someone holding an American PhD, so it’s all swings and roundabouts really.

I believe both you and bluegrayviolet are right, depending on the area and the goal. In my field, getting a PhD can open you up for higher pay grades and special opportunities/fast tracks in various jobs, but those jobs are also accessible for people with a Masters. The added twist is that in my field, Masters students must pay for their tuition, but PhD students generally get that taken care of + a stipend or TAship or something. So while a PhD takes more time, it is also much less expensive than a Masters – it’d be interesting how taking into account lost opportunity costs could change this dynamic.

Thank you both for your input!

I think that can be true in some fields as well, but not necessarily in others. I’m in EU politics and I recently spent some time at a think tank in which the majority of researchers did have PhDs. However, that wasn’t always a good thing imo, as it led some of them to blur the lines between work aimed at the public and work aimed at academic audiences. As it happens, the best researcher there was one of the few who only had a Master’s, but I wouldn’t generalise from that sample of one!

I suppose this, too, raises the question of how much distinction there ought to be between academic expertise and public expertise. It’s quite a live issue in my field; I often feel that the academic discourse has a tendency to abstract itself into irrelevance, but conversely I can also see the value of all the theory. Any discussion of how to structure the PhD needs to engage with the question of whether PhDs are meant to prepare students for academia, or to generate expertise for use both inside and outside the academy. I’ve not made my mind up on that yet!

My adviser keeps remarking on getting me published will land me in a really good PhD program (he has two, so I don’t want to say I’m not sure of one myself), but a lot of these points are what keeps me on the fence on pursuing one (very much in the future). I don’t want to go into academia, but having a Ph.D. makes it easier to publish.

The last paragraph is the kicker, though, and if the additional 4-6 years will really improve job prospects or promotions into positions I would not have been admitted to otherwise. My field is still developing a standard for a minimum of a masters degree, much less a Ph.D. (except of course for high-level research, which is usually also purely academia), so I honestly don’t know what to do.

I sympathize with not knowing what to do because your field is still developing. I finished my undergrad in December and just recently decided to pursue an MSc. My field is still very much a boys club, run in large part by men with experience but without letters. It’s hard to say which direction the field will go once they retire: hire more police/fire early retirees, or hire people with theory and research backgrounds in emergency management?

I know where the feds are going, at least on the entry level jobs, but I look at the policy-level decision makers and its still a boys club, focused on practical experience instead of degrees.

Its tough. I know for a fact that a PhD in my field would be completely useless for the track I want to pursue, so I’m a step behind this article, but facing a similar dilemma.

In short: blah.

Oh my god, nom-, you and me both. I’m on a tangentially related track (area studies but with a focus on EM systems in the developing world). *I* see (my) theoretical expertise as a terrific boon to programs and schemes that frankly keep effing things up on the ground because of entrenched notions of economic and policy-based imperialism, or what Sheldon Pollock once encapsulated as (western) development vs. deficiency. Long history of this that we, as academically trained experts, know to be true. But it doesn’t stop well intentioned interventionists as WB, IDA and UNDP from perpetuating idiotic/unthinking policies at the ground level.

It’s almost ironic that this should show up in the same fortnight as the DSK shitstorm and Miz Jenkins article here on the fetishization of Asian women. It’s ALL tied together, but the utilitarians in the field never see it.

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