PhD education is in crisis, creating distress and misery in the lives of many who embark on this problematic educational offering coming from Universities around the world.
Let me share a bit of background on the PhD, before elaborating how I think it is has run into the crisis. PhD stands for Doctor of Philosophy, and is a higher degree by research (unlike undergraduate study which mainly involves coursework). It started in Germany about 200 years ago (as some have claimed), and has since spread around the world. Today, there is no country which doesn’t have a PhD program or which does not want to have one.
There is a crisis in the PhD program everywhere. The crisis happens not just after the PhD – when people do not get the right jobs after becoming Doctors. It happens right before starting the PhD, and remains throughout the four to five years that a PhD usually takes.
An increasing number of people have recognised this problem and avoid going for this problematic academic program. A Sydney based Dave Smith (name disguised) explains why: “I have a Master’s already which is more than enough for my work. So why should I spend another four years for a degree that is not at all necessary”. Dave is not alone; many graduates in the Western society (and to some extent in others) have followed this path.
However, there are many who still want to take on this degree as a source of prestige, learning, and exposure. As a matter of fact, there is still a lot of prestige attached to the PhD degree in Asian countries, with many graduates and early to mid-career people still willing to invest all the efforts and resources needed to earn this degree. And there are sensible reasons too. In many cases, doing a PhD has been a means for getting an exposure to a different country, particularly when people move to a Western country, whose higher degree is valued more than the home country one. Sometimes, a PhD stipend in a Western University (Australia included) can be higher than the full-time salary in a developing country – so there is a financial incentive for embarking on the PhD work. Some people see so many benefits in doing a PhD that they even self-finance the whole cost of this degree in a foreign country (which goes sometimes up to hundred thousand US dollar when you combine tuition and living costs).
So despite the ensuing crisis, there is still a huge demand for the PhD degree. An estimate shows, for example, that Nepal alone has over 50,000 people who are looking for this degree of prestige. India is seeking to multiply the number of PhD graduates as they are seen as key drivers of economic growth. China is also stepping up its investment in education, science and technology, of which the PhD program is likely to be a key component. And don’t forget the supply side – thousands of universities across the world have developed academic and institutional infrastructure to provide the PhD education service, which they want to sell through active advertisement.
Thus, stakes on the PhD degree are high, and a crisis on such a significant human activity involving millions of individuals cannot be overlooked. This should be a concern not only to the PhD candidates but to governments and the wider society.
Nature, a highly respected policy oriented science journal, recently published a series of articles on why PhD needs a serious rethinking. One of these papers argues (as quoted below) that PhD graduates are faced with less and less opportunities, despite huge efforts they invest in getting their degree. There are both institutional reasons and personal factors behind this crisis.
The Nature editorial reads:
“The problem is widely discussed, yet many PhD programmes remain firmly in the traditional mould — offering an apprenticeship for academic research, even as numbers of academic positions stagnate or decline. Yes, there are many worthwhile careers outside academia for science PhD holders (Nature would be down to a skeleton staff without them). And most people with science PhDs eventually find satisfying jobs. But they probably feel that spending years performing minipreps was not the most appropriate way to become a banker or a teacher. Widening concerns about dismal job prospects are dissuading some of the brightest candidates from taking the PhD route.”
Setting aside the bleak post-PhD job prospect, life during the PhD program itself is critically important. Nearly 50% of 30 PhD students I interacted in the past 6 years said they felt depressed doing a PhD. Worse still, some PhD students got struck with bad luck (for various reasons, from financial hardships to having a bad supervisor). Add the individually focused model of PhD work to this list – which is common everywhere, more particularly in the British system. Within the magnificent and vibrant campuses, you will find PhD students struggling alone with these challenges most of the time – at both personal and academic life. The thin layer of supervisory interface offered by universities is inadequate social companion, if not even a contributing factor of depression when they get into difficult academic relationships.
On the usual research side of the challenge, PhD students often find it difficult to pin down research questions and methodology, understanding complex theory and developing strategies for analysing data, and writing up the thesis in the end. Too often the university support system is not responsive and adequate to meet the requirements of the individual PhD students coming from diverse educational and cultural backgrounds. The quality of supervision depends entirely on the commitment and competency of the individual faculty assigned by the university. And too often there is a structural power imbalance between the supervisor and the student, which prevent PhD students from openly airing their views and grievances. The university community is usually a large one, yet PhD students tend to interact only with their supervisors – mainly because this is the structure, at least in the British and Australian system. At a personal level, I have seen some PhD students abroad who have been unable to manage time to spend with family and friends. They are always under pressure to complete the work (by the way, the New York Times has interesting cartoons on the life of PhD students).
At the beginning of the program, even the genuine PhD supervisors also struggle to understand the goal and get a sense of what their PhD students are trying to do in terms of research or learning. Under limited support system, there are students who cannot manage to narrow down the thesis to a reasonable scope – they get overwhelmed by the interconnected topic and literature, and too often I have seen the quality of supervision in Australia and the UK is not enough to support the student’s needs. In some cases, I have seen supervisors provide really good help in framing and narrowing down the topic and developing a manageable PhD research idea, yet students find it difficult to make their PhD a specific and a doable project within the usual timeframe. As PhD students jumble between their interests, supervisor instructions (yes, most of the time, it is not advice, but instructions), and the institutional requirement of the university, the PhD work becomes disjointed and boring, creating frustrations and mental distress among those doing the PhD work.
As a result of all these, the value of PhD work has remained limited. I have seen quite a few colleagues who have spent years doing PhD in a foreign country (often Western) and then coming back home (mostly in developing countries) for a job that is advertised for a BA level qualification. This is mainly because many of the specialized areas in which PhDs are awarded in the Western Universities are not among the highly sought after skills areas in the developing world. What’s worse, the sanitized intellectual environment and teaching in the West often does not provide practical and helpful guidance to people wishing to work in the developing world. Even if the West centric knowledge is relevant in the Global South – such as in the case of medical science – there is often a lack of employability in developing countries for the kind of PhD graduates being produced.
Even in the Western world, post-PhD job market is dwindling. The Economist has published a report which highlights:
“…the production of PhDs has far outstripped demand for university lecturers. In a recent book, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, an academic and a journalist, report that America produced more than 100,000 doctoral degrees between 2005 and 2009. In the same period there were just 16,000 new professorships. Using PhD students to do much of the undergraduate teaching cuts the number of full-time jobs. Even in Canada, where the output of PhD graduates has grown relatively modestly, universities conferred 4,800 doctorate degrees in 2007 but hired just 2,616 new full-time professors. Only a few fast-developing countries, such as Brazil and China, now seem short of PhDs.”
I have also come across PhD candidates who say “I really enjoyed PhD work and community life in this or that University town”. It all depends on your supervisor, scholarships, student community, university environment, city context, and so forth. But the depth and dimension of the PhD crisis are beyond the immediate experiential limit of the PhD candidates – they are rooted in the entire history, institutional structure of the Univeristy, economic factors and the culture of learning (both of the students and the society in which the university in question is located).
Should you do a PhD then?
Many recent graduates have asked me: “how can I get an opportunity to do PhD in Western University”?. Not surprisingly, they have never asked if they really needed a PhD for the kind of career goals they want to pursue. Getting clear on why you need a PhD, if at all, is crucial before moving forward. This is why I started this blog with this question, and have presented some ideas above.
You are spending precious 4-5 years of your life into a PhD just for this little word that does carry some prestige, but not necessarily the expected career benefits. While you are still at the planning stage, you should either become a little more ambitious to justify your own PhD investment, or drop the idea of doing a PhD altogether and to use your time in something more productive. Just look at the whole bunch of University dropouts leading the world’s biggest and influential firms, including Apple’s late Steve Jobs. Again, leaving University does not guarantee you a better future.
Remember – the PhD degree could also be counterproductive to your career. You may be seen as overqualified for jobs that you find interesting. Also, PhD training is not meant for making you an entrepreneur. This is why some professors retain fresh PhD graduates as a ‘postdoctoral researcher’, often paying wages only a little higher than the PhD stipend. Some even call such researchers as “academic labours”. But not in all cases does this kind of labor relations occur – I have found cases of people deciding to undertake PhD, and then continuing the path to the Post-Docctoral research, eventually establishing themselves as leading researchers in their fields of knowledge.
Sometimes asking what kind of PhD is a good idea when you are stuck on the question of whether you want or don’t want to do it. A model of PhD program that help you grow in your own context through the development and application of research, policy analysis and innovation skills could be better than many conventional PhD models (if you can find this type of PhD opportunity at all). Good news is that – increasingly, many University departments and research centres around the World have valued such context based and practice relevant approach to PhD education (for an example, you can find PhD with Innovation stream at University of New England, and PhD by Publication at Charles Sturt University in Australia). But my sense is that universities have to go a long way to make a program that can help you grow more organically and holistically in the personal and professional life.
So in summary, a PhD is a great degree for some, but not for others. For a few, it could still be a disaster in life. So a careful analysis of whether you really need it is needed before you make a decision. You do not want to waste your precious 4-5 years without knowing what you will want out of it in your life and career
Whether you should go for a PhD depends on a number of factors – such as what you want to achieve in your career, where you want to work in terms of geographic locations, what kinds of skill and academic knowledge areas you are interested in, your financial situation, your English and other language competencies, your existing research profile, and your academic networks. People have very diverse answers depending on these factors.
Wake up call for Universities
It is now time to fundamentally review and reflect on this activity – the PhD Program – that started 200 years ago. We are in a world where college dropouts are shaking the world. What is the take of Universities from Steve Job’s speech to Stanford graduates when he said he never graduated from a University? If universities need a non-graduate to offer inspiring speech to its graduates, why is such a graduate degree needed when it creates so much distress and fails its students? I am not against a degree that engages intellectually, but the way most of the PhD programs operate are defeating the very intentions – to help graduates in their life and career. The reform is not about adding fun to learning – it is about offering something that is fundamentally useful to people in their life and offering a value for the investment made.