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Margin Notes

Is the PhD broken?

The disillusionment of grad students suggests that it might very well be.


One of our recent opinion articles elicited a comment from someone with the moniker “Disenchanted social scientist.” Here is part of what he (or she) had to say:

The fact of the matter is that, within academia, the pursuit of prestige and the advancement of political agendas trump everything else. Disinterested scholarship is very difficult to find. The sheen of respectability contained in the widely-touted fiction of “the academy” as a fellowship of seekers in pursuit of “truth” is but a thin veneer masking a cutthroat reality that a Blackwater or Syncrude executive would instantly recognize.

My own experience in the last several years since completing my doctorate has shown that university departments are environments of distrust where motives are seldom transparent, where the personality cult reigns supreme, and where success in a fictional job market depends on your ability to leverage the latest academic trend.

My first thought upon reading the comment was: Wow, this is what pursuing a PhD does to people nowadays? Turns them cynical and disillusioned?

Signs of this disillusionment can be found everywhere, from the scathingly cynical “So you want to get a PhD in the humanities” video (created by a doctoral student) to the more gentle cynicism of the very popular “Piled Higher and Deeper” (P.H.D., get it?) comic strip.

Clearly these are symptoms of a greater problem, and that problem may very well be the PhD system itself, a topic addressed in depth in the current edition of Nature magazine (vol. 472, issue 7343, published online Apr. 20). The magazine’s editorial states simply: “No longer a guaranteed ticket to an academic career, the PhD system needs a serious rethink.”

The problem, states the editorial, is that government policy has driven the expansion of doctoral programs “without giving enough thought to how the labour market will accommodate those who emerge.” The result is a “gloomy picture” where “exceptionally bright science PhD holders from elite academic institutions are slogging though five or 10 years of poorly paid postdoctoral studies, slowly becoming disillusioned by the ruthless and often fruitless fight for a permanent academic position.”

The editorial does not address the prospects for PhD holders in the social sciences and humanities, but I would suggest that their plight is, if anything, even gloomier.

The solution? Produce fewer PhDs, or reform the PhD itself – or both. On the second option, the editorial offers that universities should “reset the expectations of those in the system.” It continues:

Imagine bright young things entering a new kind of science PhD, in which both they and their supervisors embrace from the start the idea that graduates will go on to an array of demanding careers – government, business, non-profit and education – and work towards that goal. The students meet supervisors from a range of disciplines; they acquire management, communication, leadership and other transferable skills alongside traditional academic development of critical thinking and analysis.

A companion piece by columnist Mark Taylor is even more categorical. He writes that the system of PhD education is “broken and unsustainable, and needs to be reconceived. In many fields, it creates only a cruel fantasy of future employment that promotes the self-interest of faculty members at the expense of students. The reality is that there are very few jobs for people who might have spent up to 12 years on their degrees.”

The necessary changes, he says, are both curricular and institutional. On the institutional side, “the solution is to eliminate programs that are inadequate or redundant.” These decisions “should be made by administrators, in consultation with faculty members at their own and other universities, as well as interested, informed and responsible representatives beyond the academic community who have a vested interest in effective doctoral education.”

On the curricular side, one reason that many doctoral programs do not adequately serve students, he says, is that they are overly specialized, with “curricula fragmented and increasingly irrelevant to the world beyond academia.” If doctoral education is to remain viable in the 21st century, “universities must tear down the walls that separate fields, and establish programs that nourish cross-disciplinary investigation and communication.”

He adds: “Unfortunately, significant change is unlikely to come from faculty members, who all too often remain committed to traditional approaches.”

Is anybody listening?

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Luke / April 28, 2011 at 12:04

    Amusingly, I find your article to be more cynical than the comment which served as its impetus. Sure, the comment was bitter — and, like many that share its sympathies, possibly came from a graduate who is unwilling to radically relocate for their academic career — but the pragmatism expressed in your piece masks a defeated acceptance of the current academic status quo.

    I agree that we should produce less PhDs, but we should also work to ensure more academic positions are created and maintained. Enrollment is up in most schools, yet hiring is down. The neoliberalization of the academy — a phenomenon that goes unreported in your piece — is partly to blame for the lack of job opportunities for PhDs.

    As well, and this is a rhetoric that invades my department too, the notion that we should reconceive of the PhD as a step towards a non-academic career is noble, but also slightly misplaced. Many students are drawn to doctoral study because they desire space and time for genuine critical thinking and intellectual exploration. This is the real value of a doctorate — at least in the social sciences and humanities — and the expanded capacity for independent thought is the reason why many in the private sector consider PhDs to be “over-qualified.”

    Unfortunately, the academy remains one of, if not the ONLY place where thinking for oneself is a viable career, and thus the link between doctoral study and a career in academia should not be so easily renounced.

    So, rather than acquiesce to the budget and staffing reductions that are becoming increasingly pervasive in academia, or reduce the critical component of doctoral work so as to render graduates more compatible with non-academic careers, graduate students should reclaim the activist mantle they once held and agitate — in an ironically entrepreneurial way — in order to create the jobs that we will one day hold.

  2. dr.doinglittle / April 28, 2011 at 12:20

    These comments by graduate students say it all. And they should know – they are the ones paying tuition and jumping through the hoops to get the degrees, only to discover that their efforts and expenses have been a waste. They are the ones scouring websites for jobs that don’t exist, scrambling to earn income above the poverty line, and experiencing the sting of being rejected even for low-level jobs that they they are well overqualified for. They are the ones who are lucky to land sessional work at a university and, in doing so, fulfil their dream of teaching, only to have tenure track professors exclude and belittle them, and make them feel like second class citizens.

    The PhD is broken because the education that one receives for the degree is not valued anymore in our society or economy. Academics nowadays is a largely irrelevant, insular, tail-chasing exercise designed to satisfy other academics in position of power. It wouldn’t be so bad if it was only part of a rite of passage one had to endure in order to earn a degree, but it’s not. After graduation, there are no options for graduates, no academic job market to turn to, now or in the future, nor any non-academic jobs they can use their degrees for. Overproduction of grads only makes it all of this worse. All of this is a dirty secret that faculty do a masterful job of hiding from students.

    I’m not holding out much hope for change to come from within higher ed. The graduate student really has become fodder for a system which is fundamentally broken. Others have described it as a ponzi scheme and I tend to agree. Faculty, depts, admin all rely too much on graduate student tuition, grant money, and cheap sessional labour for reform to ever occur from within.

    The future? I expect to see Canadian universities start to go the direction as those in the US – politicians and policy-makers will increasingly assume more control of higher education and show some tough love by slashing budget, laying off faculty, and realigning priorities in higher ed. I welcome the change.

  3. Doktor Clarke / April 28, 2011 at 23:07

    I’m a young professor of engineering and one of the problems that I see at my institution is that there is no forced retirement. Having a mandatory retirement age and not giving lab space to emeritus professors would be a good step to opening more positions for the young and energetic.

  4. Rianne Mahon / November 30, 2011 at 21:38

    It is depressing when one’s former students can’t get jobs in universities. Part of the answer is indeed that we need to hire more although I would hate to see that happen in a post-secondary world divided between big (or small) undergrad teaching institutions and research-intensive institutions.
    At the same time a university post is by no means the only one (at least for social scientists and probably humanists) that can offer stimulating employment. There are interesting possiblities working for critical public policy institutes, IGOs, NGOs and INGOs among others where the critical intellectual challenges are there too.

  5. Lorin Card / December 14, 2011 at 16:25

    “i AGREE THAT WE SHOULD PRODUCE less PhDs”? wow. Fewer, yes. Less (and in comparison to what do think our PhDs should be lessER?), no. I am currently co-supervising an Interdisciplinary Graduate Studies PhD student who landed a half-time position at the local college at the same time as she was completing her IGS MA. SInce e-publication, her MA thesis has been consulted over 6,250 times worldwide. And that bodes very well for her and for me. And that bodes very well for UBC Okanagan where I am stationed and for Okanagan College where she is working. Are you kidding that we should be producing fewer PhDs? I would say better quality PhDs. Also, an applicant from the Ukraine is applying to work on her IGS PhD under my supervision beginning next fall. Are you kidding when you try to say our PhDs are not high quality, top shelf material? But it is true that the person makes the PhD and not the other way around. And it is true that we have high quality PhDs (mine is from Queen’s at Kingston 1997), AND it is also VERY TRUE that we need to set out a plan to create and not just react to the immanent Knowledge economy, if we wish to help our freshly minted PhDs become leaders of tomorrow in that economy. 20 habits of mind by TC2, Balcaen et al, come to mind as a starting point for not guessing what kinds of jobs will exist 10 years from now, but for preparing our PhD students and indeed all our students for the wave of the future. Catching that wave is up to us as their supervisors and up to them as students of a lifelong learning and teaching path. In or out of academe, which is currently bursting at the seams but soon will be depleted as demographics in Canada and everywhere in the world does the old Marxian upside down pear tree flip, and we have 5 or 6 profs for every 2 or 1.4 students. Even we profs of the new X generation had better find new and better ways to work and help create the knowledge economy. It is coming and coming fast, whether we want it to or not.

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