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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

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

    • Not necessarily. In my field (chemistry), having a PhD is really quite required to get any decent (see: intelectually satisfying) job right after uni. Otherwise you're just the lab monkey.

      But then again, I'm in the UK so it might be different.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by gatzke (2977)

        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.

        • 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 gatzke (2977)

            Right. My wife is a PhD chemist, and she has worked in multiple non-related industries, all totally non-related to her fairly obscure PhD thesis topic.

            They expect her to figure stuff out on her own and find a solution. A PhD does not guarantee that you have those skills, but it is an indicator that you may have acquired them at some point.

            • I agree with all of this. I bitched and moaned in the other thread last night that complained about worthless PhDs and a foreign takeover of the scientific community, or some such conspiracy.

              Unrated to this reply, but back OT, while I love The Journal Nature, I really do not think the chair of the religion department at Columbia is exactly qualified to tell a fresh post-doc that their degree is worthless because their thesis was on the mitosis of toilet bacteria and their first job is investigating HIV in

        • 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 iinlane (948356)

      Not necessarily - I'm doing a PhD and have no plans to stay in academia. I do not expect to receive any direct benefits from the degree after I graduate, it's just something I like to do. The PhD studies are free in my country so why not take the opportunity.

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

      Even in that case, the PhD system has a serious problem: 1 professor can, and is usually expected to, shepherd more than one student through the PhD process(plus, many research labs would basically fold without the available supply of cheap but highly skilled grunt labor). Thus, the supply of PhDed candidates who want academic jobs increases substantially faster than established professors can die or new professorships can be created.

      It is certainly true that, for many PhD students, an academic job is th

    • by Gilmoure (18428)

      They must design curricula that focus on solving practical problems.

      So... what are engineers?

    • There continues to be confusion between PhD meaning "crazy high level of applicable education", and PhD meaning "specialization and expertise in a narrow field". Commercial and social interests want the first definition of PhD, some certification that means "this person is a top tier and well rounded member of his field who knows everything we want him to know", and the academic need of someone who is an expert in a narrow field of sufficiently believable level that he can advance the art.

      These are two real

  • 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 nashv (1479253)

      Yes yes, but this about context. What is meant is , there is some research that is increasingly irrelevant to the world beyond academia , and likely to remain so for a duration of time in which a graduate student's career choices will be made.

      • Which ...

        Electricity was considered a novelty at best, until practical uses were found for it ...

        Group theory was considered esoteric and purely academic since it was invented in 1832 by Évariste Galois, until it was used in the Standard model of Particle physics ...

        Most of current Mathematics is like this, and large swathes of of other science cannot get funding because no-one can see the current relevancy of it ...

        • by nashv (1479253)

          You missed it again *sigh* - in the duration where a graduate student as to make career choices. A hundred years, the time taken research you mention to be put to practical use, is actually slightly more than the average lifetime of a grad-student, no?

          Research like "The migratory route of the Norther Wheateater" is unlikely to get you a job anywhere else apart from an ornithology department, and only those specializing in bird migration.

          No one said it isn't useful to society. It doesn't help graduate stude

          • It depends what you think a PhD is for ...

            PhD's need to do proper research, but do not yet have a job and so either they do something in order to get a job, or they do something purely academic

            If you reject a PhD because the subject of their PhD thesis is not relevant then you have missed the point, you do not employ a PhD because their thesis is useful to you, but because *they* are useful to you, they have shown themselves capable of doing the research and wo

    • "Increasingly irrelevant to the world beyond academia"

      A PhD is very often only relevant for academia. It might help also a carreer outside of academia, but in essence the work of a PhD should advance the research in the field of study - therefore advancing "academia".

    • Re:Oh Come on (Score:5, Interesting)

      by mochan_s (536939) on Tuesday April 26, 2011 @09:29AM (#35941132)

      Increasingly irrelevant to the world beyond academia

      I think the opposite might be true in fields like computer science.

      The PhD program is too focused on solving problems that Google or Microsoft kinds might also be tackling; like text data mining, network protocols characteristics, software engineering. Mostly conferences are heavily sponsored by industry and results that are of immediate use to the industry are present and the quality of a PhD is determined by the number of publications in such industry sponsored conferences.

  • 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.
    • 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.
      • by vlm (69642)

        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.

        If by "take advantage of all of them" you mean something like "pay them a living wage" then you are correct, we can not do that. There are simply too many.

        • by guruevi (827432) <evi@NOSpam.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 gstoddart (321705)

          If by "take advantage of all of them" you mean something like "pay them a living wage" then you are correct, we can not do that. There are simply too many.

          No, take advantage of them as in have them working on things which can be of use. From the article:

          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 knowl

          • I don't know where this strange idea comes from that the choice of Ph.D topic is somehow what defines a person's career. It's just a degree requirement, it's not the degree. It provides, as my old friend Bob Woodham used to explain to his grad students, an exercise in depth, not breadth. A Ph.D graduate has demonstrated that he or she knows how to conduct original research, in depth, under formal supervision. In other words, it's a stepping stone. In very rare cases, the research may reveal material of
    • 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.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by maxwell demon (590494)

      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 loufoque (1400831)

      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.

      Did you mean to say, "let's have a system where no research is actually done"?
      Important research cannot be done alone. And doing research with several people working on your projects requires receiving grants to be able to pay them. Doing all the paperwork to get those grants (which is not something we can get rid of) means that's the re

    • As a Post Doc for 5 years now. I can say that perhaps it should have been this way sooner. Tenure would be great personally, but i think its stupid as a general rule, I mean where else do you get such a thing? I would quite like to take a permanent PostDoc job. The money is good enough (you are never here for the money) and currently i get stuck with department rules of the max time you are allowed to be a post doc.
      • by MickLinux (579158) on Tuesday April 26, 2011 @08:42AM (#35940676) Journal

        Tenure, like "academic freedom", was instituted for the protection of university management. More specifically, the university management would get various donations-on-a-string from various political, business, or civic leaders, which would be deadly to accept, and impossible to turn down.

        "Here's ten million dollars for research for the university; I've already notified the press. Its only condition is that you must teach Lefthanded String Theory."

        Too many of those, and a dean's going to be fired no matter what. If nothing else, the conflict between the Lefthanded String theory which is demanded by the last donation, and Righthanded String theory which is demanded by the next donation... would cause conflicts.

        By giving the teachers academic freedom, the school can say "I'm sorry, the contracts with the teachers prohibit me from telling them what they should teach." In the end, they're likely to get the donations anyhow, but without the hook, line, and sinker. Tenure does the same thing, but acts against politically charged rival assassination.

  • 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.

    • These 12 years are really exaggerated. I got mine in less than 4 years as most people I know in the life sciences and physics. A friend got his PhD in economy in the same number of years. The only notable exception I know is a friend of mine who got his PhD as a geologist in about 6 years but that was mostly his choice not to finish it earlier. All these people studied in Europe though and it is possible that American PhDs take longer.
      • by MickLinux (579158)

        This is why it is incredibly important to look at the various PhD programs in your field, and consider the average rate of PhDs earned vs attempted, as well as the average number of years before completion.

        At least in American universities in Physics, there have been some PhD programs where a person might get a PhD in only 4-5 years. Seven is typical. But there are other programs where the average PhD takes 15-20 years.

        That sounds seriously broken. In some cases, it is seriously broken. I think my fathe

  • Mark Taylor (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

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

    • LOL. Great point. The dude has two choices: (1) Get his guy to perform a miracle so that there is more clean water, or (2) Get his _other_ guy to stop banning birth control.

  • 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.

    • Eliminate the bullshit Ph.D's in... philosophy.

      Thank you for that. I haven't done a coffee spit-take on slashdot in a long time...

    • by rmstar (114746)

      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.

      Two things.

      1. People need a specific subject for their PhD thesis. Normally, they are supposed to have a wide grasp of the field well beyond th

    • by dcollins (135727)

      "... 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..."

      You sure about that? Because Prof. Taylor himself has a doctorate in Philosophy (Copenhagen 1981), and he now heads Columbia's Department of Religion.

      I read this more as a thinly-veiled attack on basic scientific research, actually.

    • by gtall (79522)

      "political science, poetry, philosophy, English literature, and so on."

      That shows how much you understand about research being a web of ideas. Maybe you think those ideas in the sciences grow on trees? Read Descartes sometime, he only invented algebra.

      And it is clear you have never done science. Great ideas come from great analogies, those are frequently not from science.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        While Descartes can be fairly accused of inventing many mathematical concepts, he did not invent algebra; either Diophantus (a Greek) or Al-Khwarizmi (a Persian) did, centuries earlier.
    • While there will always be a need for professors in the Liberal Arts, this does not imply that University doctoral degrees are Vocational schools preparing their students for jobs.

      Hey, without the lit and philosophy majors, who are you going to talk to in the bars? Who's going to correct your grammar or point out the pun in the title "Eliminate the BS"?

      The difficulty in a PhD in these fields is the requirement to do unique work. This is hard to do in the context of an artist like Shakespeare or Milton
      • by rubycodez (864176)
        hard to do in the context of an artist like Shakespeare or Milton
        You might be surprised to know that works and suspected works by those authors are still being discovered, as well as writings of contemporaries. To say PhD's in anything but science, engineering and mathematics are worthwhile is indicative of an incredibly ignorant and narrow-minded world view. Just as one example, to understand relationships of people and groups of people is becoming ever more important as we invent new communication
    • by rolfwind (528248)

      One of my old history professors did his thesis on how African American Teenagers Danced to Jazz (?) in the 1930s in Philadelphia.

      • by bledri (1283728)

        One of my old history professors did his thesis on how African American Teenagers Danced to Jazz (?) in the 1930s in Philadelphia.

        And there are people that are glad that research was done. Seriously. And how teenage African americans danced to music in the 20s and 30s is what led to how a generation danced to music. I love science, engineering and technology but there is a lot more to life. I think people (not saying you) that look at higher education's goal as essentially a trade school are, well, narrow minded.

  • by Jack Malmostoso (899729) on Tuesday April 26, 2011 @05:53AM (#35939730)

    I believe that the current inflation of PhD degrees is a direct consequence of the "everyone in university" attitude. I think that there is absolutely no point in giving a BA degree to pretty much anyone who enters university, because this produces an enormous mass of mediocre MS students, which then turn into way too many PhD candidates of dubious value. I include myself in this group, as I know full well that 20 years ago I would have not been admitted in a PhD program, let alone receive a degree. A PhD nowadays is an award to persistence, not excellence.
    The inflation in titles is then carried on to the job market: more and more jobs are offered to candidates who hold a PhD, where a good MS would be more than enough. However, as a poster above noted, a PhD is basically taken as a certificate of being able to work independently (which, in may cases, is hardly true).
    Treating PhD students as cheap labor is not doing a favor to anyone. I would find it much more honest intellectually to offer long-term internships for BA and MS students, instead of enrolling them to receive a higher degree which on the long run is devoided of all meaning.

    • Not to drag this too far outside the topic, but the "everyone in university" attitude is simply a reaction to today's hiring practices. What I continue to tell my friends is it doesn't matter what type of degree you have or what that degree is in. Simply having that degree is what gets your resumé in the game. Its simply the easiest way to thin the herd of applicants out without resorting to any sort of illegal discrimination.

      This attitude is most blatant for jobs requiring any sort of asso
    • A PhD nowadays is an award to persistence, not excellence.

      To strengthen your point, I don't know of anyone who failed his or her PhD. Some people abandon but if you stay there and get some results, you will get your PhD. In most labs I know, when a PhD student doesn't get anything because the project is badly designed (happen often) or because he or she is not up to the task, he or she gets shifted to someone else's subproject and gets a quick low impact first author paper. A PhD student failing is bad PR for the lab since it suggests to the university authorities

    • I have a PhD in CS and in one the courses I had to take they actually said exactly this. That a PhD is maybe 5% about good ideas, passion, insights, etc. and rest is about persistence. Just hang in there and keep pushing and you will get it. I have also seen a plenty of PhD's in CS that I have no idea what is the real science or contribution in there, besides having implemented something that the industry was asking for. Mine is not necessarily much different. When you count the number of PhD's, publication
  • by martin-boundary (547041) on Tuesday April 26, 2011 @05:55AM (#35939738)
    This is the Age of the Internet. Overspecialization isn't the problem it used to be. With instant communication and email, a PhD student can be in regular contact with all the 10 people around the world who work in his particular sub-specialty if he wants to. So it doesn't matter very much if the local faculty don't know his specialty, although in practice at least the advisor ought to be qualified enough to supervise the work. Arguably, it's superior because it may lead to more inter-university collaborations.
  • The goal should be to research something relevant, not to publish as many papers in as short a time as possible.

    That's the core of the problem.

    Very often, a reseach is actually broad enough to have some relevance... but in the race to maximize the publications, the research is cut up into tiny fragments which are then published.

    Darwin wrote a single book that was relevant. Nowadays, that research would be distributed over at least 500 papers... making it nearly impossible to read. And you have to wait for s

    • Bullseye! Gosh, I loathe epsilon-papers.
    • 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.

  • That would just mean stopping science. Performing actual research is the best way to learn a scientific subject. It's the only way, in a sense.

  • 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.

  • Professor of Woo? (Score:2, Informative)

    by ferd_farkle (208662)

    Before going to the article, I quick checked Wikipedia for "Mark C. Taylor".
    First sentence:

    Mark C. Taylor (born 13 December 1945) is a philosopher of religion and cultural critic who has published more than twenty books on theology, philosophy, art and architecture, media, technology, economics, and the natural sciences.

    I didn't read the article.

  • Not sure if many people here know, but one day I was searching for Martin Luther King's history and found a lot more than I wanted to know. Among these were that his name wasn't officially changed to Martin Luther and neither was his father's. Next I found that many people in the PhD programs discovered that King's PhD paper was largely plagiarized and would likely have been revoked if he weren't already dead. (Some still think it should be... I'm on the fence about it... what good would it do? None for

  • Actually, a lot of what he wrote also applies to other academic programs such as bachelor's programs. The thing is, getting a degree used to be pretty rare, so it definitely made anyone who got one (no matter what field it was in) stand out from the rest of the pack. Now there are loads of programs that don't lend themselves to trades, lots of folks with degrees and not enough graduates with what matters - work experience.

    Only a small percentage of students want careers in academia, but that is the field
  • 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.

  • I'd like to speak on this matter as a graduating Psychology undergraduate struggling to get into a PhD program. Professor (Doctor?) Taylor raises an excellent general point. I'm not sure I agree with his entire view, as I am admittedly too short on time at the moment to read his entire article. That aside, I just wrapped up my Honors Thesis. It was an in-depth look at the state of youth suicide treatments, preventions, and interventions. My research conclusively led to one point: academia knows insane (pard
    • by vsage3 (718267)
      There's certainly a declining signal-to-noise ratio, but I constantly am looking up obscure papers 20-30 years old. My entire field (perhaps hundreds of researchers now) arose in no small part because of a few obscure papers from the 1970s that gained relevance only recently. We (as in my lab alone) now have millions of dollars in industry funding and the PIs are currently hiring for a start-up based on the research.
  • by turkeyfish (950384) on Tuesday April 26, 2011 @07:10AM (#35940066)

    Taylor is really just advocating a return to the Dark Ages, where monks could sit around at ponder philosophies at little expense to their feudal masters. While that might be OK if one's major concerns are debating just how many ferries dance on the head of a pin, this is not true for science. In science, mathematics, engineering and medicine, such specialized technical training is absolutely essential to even begin to understand the issues at the frontiers of science and knowledge. There is simply no way anyone can predetermine what odd fact or phenomenon will be at the heart of the next breakthrough nor learn enough fast enough not to specialize. Who would have thought that the properties of dielectric materials would spawn entire industries and revolutionize the way people communicate when they were first discovered in the 1840's? If you read the comment section of the article, Igor Litvinyuk's response was right on target.

    What Taylor calls for is really a dismantling of funding for science under the ruse that it is hurtful to students. It is not at all surprising that Taylor points to the collapse of the research economy in the 1970's. Since this was precisely when the philosophy of Ronald Regan came into being, where "government is viewed as the problem" and the solution is for all power and wealth to be ever more concentrated into the hands of a few ultra-wealthy so that it can "trickle down" to the more deserving. Taylor's piece is little more than a call to return to the Dark Ages, where more and more money that otherwise might be spent on education and expanding the frontiers of knowledge that can be used to solve humanity's many pressing problems go instead toward yet another tax break for the wealth and an other special handout to the already well to do. They want to "reform" the PhD system because there are not enough jobs, by dismantling it. Same old sham, just repeated once again. One would think eventually people would be smart enough to recognize the consequences of such a disastrous philosophy being applied once again to yet another segment of our society.

    They want reform because they fear the consequences of a lot of smart people sitting around thinking there has to be a better way. It is a threat that focuses attention on the real cause of the failure in the lack of jobs. Namely, that the ultra-wealthy, in whom we after nearly 40 years of the philosophy of Reaganism have consolidated virtually all the wealth and power, don't want to spend their money on advancing the frontiers of knowledge that might contribute to the solution of the myriad of problems plaguing society, they would rather spend it on themselves and upon maintaining their special, most fortunate status. Unfortunately, it is this system that is truly unsustainable, since the planet groans at the weight of billions all trying to achieve the same status. On such a planet, humanity will only survive if every job soon requires the skills inherent in a PhD. We need more PhD's not less. We need more education not less. To accomplish this we need less concentration of wealth to make it happen. We need more PhD's and fewer crusading monks who only seek a return to feudalism and a return to the Dark Ages. If you really want to solve the PhD job problem, not to mention most other societal, political and environmental problems work to end the consolidation of wealth in hands of a few not educated enough to recognize or just too comfortable not to want to recognize the danger inherent to humanity in the philosophy of Reaganism.

  • Checking Columbia's website the first Mark C Taylor I find is chair of the Dept of Religion [columbia.edu]. It also says his PhD is in religion. I suspect he might not have much first-hand experience with scientific graduate programs, to know how cross-disciplinary they are. For that matter, the general push for NIH and NSF research funding has been for cross-disciplinary collaborative research.

    Not to say that our system is perfect - it most certainly is not - I'm just not sure he's the right guy to evaluate it.
  • I haven't read the article. (After all, I'm on /..) I do have one question, though?

    What drivel is this? The enhancement of knowledge is what doctorate level education is all about. If you don't want to pursue knowledge, jump out after your BS/BA or masters.

  • I will get flamed, but how many folks get a PhD because academia is the only real employment path for the specialized field they've chosen?
  • But I miss Lingua Franca magazine. It served the purpose of cross-discipline communication informally.

  • Precisely why should we emphasize cross-disciplinary research? What is the evidence that this approach is better than more narrowly focussed research? I would agree that we have too many PhDs, too few jobs for them, and or too little incentive for real innovation. I would also agree that the system needs reform. I don't agree that we should all be doing cross-disciplinary research.

    Are you a virtual scientist if you work on a computer?
    • Many specializations are cross-disciplinary in nature. I'm in a cross-disciplinary PhD program in Modeling and Simulation, I'm required to take courses across four departments. In a traditional departmental PhD program I would be required to take courses in perhaps two departments at most and I'd need to fight the dean of my department to get something else (because his department gets a cut of my tuition for courses in his department.)
  • Until I actually worked side-by-side with a few. Never in my life have I worked with anyone that (at least on paper) was a world authority in a very minuscule field of study, while at the same time showing close to no knowledge in pretty much everything else around them. It was depressing because I always assumed a PhD would be a really smart person that was an expert in that one particular thing, when in reality it felt like dealing with an idiot savant. Worse, all of this additional education resulted in

  • Many researchers struggle to talk to colleagues in the same department, and communication across departments and disciplines can be impossible.

    I understand this, and I've seen it myself. My fiance's cousin has a PhD in biochem. She had trouble explaining her thesis to just about everyone except her adviser. She couldnt explain her work as a lab assistant to anyone who didnt already know what she was doing. This seems like a problem that no amount of higher ed. learning can fix. Of course, i might be over generalizing. However, it's a problem that doesnt just plague the PhD educated under a broken system. Millions of people cannot communicate with

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