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.