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Education United States Science

Reform the PhD System or Close It Down 487

Posted by Soulskill
from the trickle-down-edunomics dept.
jamie points out an opinion piece by Columbia professor Mark C. Taylor in Nature News decrying the state of PhD education in the US, calling it "broken and unsustainable." Quoting: "The necessary changes are both curricular and institutional. One reason that many doctoral programmes do not adequately serve students is that they are overly specialized, with curricula fragmented and increasingly irrelevant to the world beyond academia. Expertise, of course, is essential to the advancement of knowledge and to society. But in far too many cases, specialization has led to areas of research so narrow that they are of interest only to other people working in the same fields, subfields or sub-subfields. Many researchers struggle to talk to colleagues in the same department, and communication across departments and disciplines can be impossible. If doctoral education is to remain viable in the twenty-first century, universities must tear down the walls that separate fields, and establish programmes that nourish cross-disciplinary investigation and communication. They must design curricula that focus on solving practical problems, such as providing clean water to a growing population. Unfortunately, significant change is unlikely to come from faculty members, who all too often remain committed to traditional approaches."
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Reform the PhD System or Close It Down

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday April 26, 2011 @05:17AM (#35939604)

    Uhh... isn't the whole point of studying for a PhD because you want to remain in academia?

  • Oh Come on (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday April 26, 2011 @05:22AM (#35939624)

    "Increasingly irrelevant to the world beyond academia"

    The language of number theory seemed to be an exercise in the technical until hundreds of years later we end up with encryption systems based on their very principles. How you can claim prior knowledge of what will be useful in future, I do not know.

  • by pnotequalsnp (1077279) on Tuesday April 26, 2011 @05:31AM (#35939650)
    The competition for tenure track positions is currently insane, since the professors from previous generations have trained too many PhDs. The funding agencies reward large labs under a single PI with large grants, with the labs mostly running on graduate students and post-docs who themselves see no way out. Now we are seeing career post-doctoral positions, especially in the biomedical sciences; see the recent suggestions about making a post-doctoral position more permanent. Not everyone can be a manager (PI), so we are stuck being graduate students or post-docs. I know industry is also a home for PhDs as I am one of those happy campers, but the fact is there are too many PhDs being trained relative to the number of positions available.

    Lets have a system where the professor is rewarded for doing their own research, rather than their ability to write grants and farm out the work to their subjugated minions.
  • He gerneralizes (Score:5, Insightful)

    by drolli (522659) on Tuesday April 26, 2011 @05:39AM (#35939682) Journal

    He generalizes the situation in some subjects (e.g. philosophical sciences). The situation in natural sciences is different. Having a PhD in physics (and not being an idiot who does not look left or right) enables you to talk to a lot of people and understand a lot of people. And you usually get you degree in 3-5 years (after the master) and not 12. And yes, i agree with him, weed out the subjects in the PhD courses where people waste, badly supervised, their valuable lifetime and replace the PhD courses by more appropriate new topics and fields. My feeling however is that this is more a problem for the philosophical faculties than for the science faculties.

  • Furthermore, the thing you do the PhD in doesn't have to really matter that much for your career. My boss for example studied his MSci and PhD in Oxford - did some organic chemistry in his masters thesis, then fluorinated triphenyl boron research on his PhD, then he worked on two post-docs in two different areas (some transition metals chemistry was one of them) and now (after 15 years experience in the industry) does catalyst support for industrial processes, supervises me doing polymer additives research and does engineering PIDs for pilot plants.

    I would say he's not an expert in any given area, but he has bloody good idea about what's going on in anything he touches. I'm pretty sure that's as well due to the hands-on mentality of (partially unsupervised) research he had to do in his PhD - I doubt he's ever gonna touch those boron compounds again (subfield of a subfield of chemistry), but the transferrable skills he learned are invaluable.

    (I'm just about to go to my final year of my undergrad course in sept.)

  • by AchilleTalon (540925) on Tuesday April 26, 2011 @05:46AM (#35939704) Homepage
    Hum, I can accept the idea there is too many lawyers, too many financial counsellors and many other too many. But, too many Ph.D.? Provided the challenges humanity is facing, I don't think so. However, I can accept the idea we have not yet found a way to take advantage of all of them.
  • Mark Taylor (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday April 26, 2011 @05:48AM (#35939712)

    Mark C. Taylor's PhD is in religion [columbia.edu]. What was that about providing clean water to a growing population?

  • by iliketrash (624051) on Tuesday April 26, 2011 @05:50AM (#35939718)

    One thing that might be helpful (at least from the point of view of Prof. Taylor) would be to eliminate the bullshit Ph.D.s in fields such as political science, poetry, philosophy, English literature, and so on. Seriously. I talk to these types several times a week a bar near the Arizona State University campus and it is amazing how obscure their research topics are. Indeed, I get the feeling that there are extra points awarded (in some sense) for the more bizarre and irrelevant your topic is. And you can just feel the inner sneer as they watch you try to process the title of their dissertation.

    Some of these people understand that they are shouting in an echo chamber of one, and in their circle of nominal peers, that's freaking cool.

  • by DingerX (847589) on Tuesday April 26, 2011 @06:13AM (#35939824) Journal
    The current focus on "relevant research" and turning university labs into money-making operations is part of the problem. While it's couched in terms of universities "Making Money" and "Doing something useful" (as the TFA appears to want), in practice, it means that university researchers pair up with private industry, doing only the things that private industry deems important (=incremental and rarely disruptive). Grant programs amplify this trend ("What are the industry applications of this research?", "Was your last research project a financial success?"). So, if the universities are paying researchers to do private-industry research, private industry has less incentive to fund its own research. As a result, we're moving from a system where we had academics engaged in fundamental research, with often disruptive results, and a thriving private industry research community, to one where a smaller pool of public-private academics do the bidding of private industry.

    Too many Ph.D.s? You bet. In the name of "solving practical problems", we've moved industry research into the universities, and killed off fundamental research.
  • by gtall (79522) on Tuesday April 26, 2011 @06:14AM (#35939826)

    "The 'great minds' earning PhDs in life sciences, probably would never be useful in the world of 'real' science anyway,"

    Yes, that is snobbish, and certainly blinkered much like what the article was complaining about. Next time you come down with a life threatening disease, I want you to refuse any treatment that was not done using 'real' science.

  • by dcollins (135727) on Tuesday April 26, 2011 @06:15AM (#35939830) Homepage

    Note that "Columbia professor Mark C. Taylor", pontificating on how research has become too specialized and non-understandable to the public at large, and "must design curricula that focus on solving practical problems, such as providing clean water to a growing population" is himself a Professor of Religion. FTA:

    "Mark C. Taylor is chair of the department of religion at Columbia University in New York and the author of Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities (Knopf, 2010). e-mail:mct22@columbia.edu"

    Sort of easy to predict that, in fact. Because you know what? A person doing real, cutting-edge research, developing insights that no one else ever has before in history, is almost by definition going to be non-understandable by other people -- at least until such time as their research becomes diffused and more accepted by the mainstream. The call to "nourish cross-disciplinary investigation... focus on solving practical problems" is a thinly-disguised attack on basic scientific research. It's classic short-term thinking; if you demand profit/practical solutions right now, then the basic research that develops heretofore unimaginable solutions tomorrow will not be done.

    Now, there's a lot of problems with PHD employment prospects, etc. But this is pretty damned skewed by how exceptionally non-useful this guys' graduates in philosophy and religious studies are. (I say this as someone with degrees in both philosophy and STEM.) I might suggest actual solutions would include: (a) Mandatory clear information provided to prospects about career and employment prospects, so they can make their own decisions on priorities. (b) Rollback the corporate-minded administrative takeover of higher education from faculty. (c) Return most teaching positions to being full-time tenured, instead of part-time contingent faculty as we have today, etc. The "make education practical/profitable" effort has been going on for 30 years, what we have now is the result of it, and it's time to stop digging the damn hole any deeper.

  • by gtall (79522) on Tuesday April 26, 2011 @06:31AM (#35939910)

    It would be hard to argue that group theory was relevant when it was developed. Or early number theory. Maybe you'd have liked Einstein to have given several applications for his theory of relativity (hint: it was before space flight and GPS). Or how about quantum mechanics. How about modal logic, that was merely an academic curiosity before Tony Hoare and a host of others came along and made it relevant, relevant enough for Intel to care about mathematically proving facts about their chips.

    Science is a web of ideas, start pruning before you even know whether something is useful is stupid and short-sighted. Here's a thought, science can chew gum and walk at the same time. It produces relevant stuff and stuff that you will not think will ever become relevant...until it does.

  • Not US-specific (Score:5, Insightful)

    by loufoque (1400831) on Tuesday April 26, 2011 @06:32AM (#35939912)

    This is not US-specific, it's like that in all western countries.

    And it's actually meant to be that way. The academic world is the only place where fundamental research can be done, since the private sector has no interest in research that do not have direct applications.

    If you want to do practical research, work as a R&D engineer in the private sector.

  • Re:short-sighted (Score:5, Insightful)

    by maxwell demon (590494) on Tuesday April 26, 2011 @06:34AM (#35939920) Journal

    Also, when Einstein published his theory of general relativity, nobody expected this to ever become relevant for anything beyond pure curiosity. Well, that's because nobody thought of GPS back than.

    And when he was arguing against completeness of quantum mechanics, there's no way he could have imagined that his thoughts would one day lead to quantum cryptography.

    When Kepler thought about the movement of celestial bodies, he would never have guessed that his insights would one day help with weather forecast.

    When Heisenberg and Schrödinger formulated the equations of quantum mechanics, they didn't think of TV sets, computers, or the internet.

    The inventors of the particle accelerator thought about studying particles, not about cancer therapy.

  • by maxwell demon (590494) on Tuesday April 26, 2011 @06:36AM (#35939930) Journal

    but the fact is there are too many PhDs being trained relative to the number of positions available.

    That may just mean that there are too few positions available.

  • by paiute (550198) on Tuesday April 26, 2011 @07:46AM (#35940292)

    No, it is similar in the US for many Chemistry majors. They often end up running a QC bench without a PhD.

    A PhD these days is more often a certification, can you work on a large nebulous problem? Can you work continuously for four or five years on a problem? Can you work with limited direct supervision?

    Students do work in their sub-field or sub-subfield. Sometimes they get a truly relevant job, sometimes they get a job in that general area, sometimes they go completely afield. It just depends.

    from the link in my sig:

    "The undergraduate sits back waiting to be filled with learning. The Professor speaks, the undergraduate absorbs. Regurgitate the data on a few tests correctly enough and you are home. The Ph.D., on the other hand, means that you have done some original research. Sounds simple, but what it really means is that you have to be constantly defending yourself, explaining what you did and why. It leads to questioning all of the work of everyone else. Why did they do it this way? Were their conclusions correct, their evidence airtight, their reasoning sound? You need to be a skeptic. A doubter, a demander of proof. A B.S. given an SOP might think it comes down from on high, cast in stone. He or she will handle it with care. A Ph.D. will immediately get out a hammer and beat on it to see if any rotten pieces fly off."

  • by guruevi (827432) <<evi> <at> <smokingcube.be>> on Tuesday April 26, 2011 @09:03AM (#35940848) Homepage

    There are not too many PhD's, there are too few grants (money) that are provided by our tax moneys. There's more job openings and research funded in the industrial military complex than in all the scientific research areas combined.

  • by Joe The Dragon (967727) on Tuesday April 26, 2011 @09:12AM (#35940942)

    most universities need reform at the lower levels as well.

    The costs are to high.

    Some of the lower level classes are too much theory based.

    There are to many filler classes.

    There is a big lack of real work place based class work.

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