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Education United States Science

Reform the PhD System or Close It Down 487

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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  • 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.

  • by gatzke ( 2977 ) on Tuesday April 26, 2011 @05:34AM (#35939658) Homepage Journal

    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.

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

    by ferd_farkle ( 208662 ) on Tuesday April 26, 2011 @06:17AM (#35939840)

    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.

  • by SunTzuWarmaster ( 930093 ) on Tuesday April 26, 2011 @07:46AM (#35940298) Homepage

    No one's delaying their release into the workplace to get a PhD so that they can make a better contribution to "the world," period. People pursue a PhD so that they can stay in academia, where they are comfortable and proficient, and make as much money in academia as an academic can.

    I am working full time while obtaining my PhD. I am getting the PhD because it is teaching me to do the things that are required, and that I cannot learn elsewhere. While I have not delayed my entry into the workforce (I like money), one of the reasons that I am getting it is because I want to make a contribution to the world. Everyone has goals in life, and while some people have goals like "own box seats to the Packers", "pay for my grandchildren's college", and "backpack through Europe" others have goals like "make a difference in the world". These are what you want out of life, and I find your derision of "help the world" to be insulting.

    Since academic institutions profit directly from the milling of PhD degrees

    The idea that academic institutions make any money on PhD students is downright false. The fact of the matter (and I've spoken with numerous professors/advisors about this) is that "suckers pay for their PhD". This is a direct quote from Dr. Kapoor (, who has had 40+ MS/PhD students. Nearly everyone obtains funding from a number of sources (I've only met one person who didn't, and they just didn't try), including:
    1 - work on a grant project (if you do your dissertation on an aspect of the project)
    2 - RA work (live in the dorms for free, get tuition comp'ed, and get little-$ for it)
    3 - TA work
    4 - the school itself
    5 - their work (full time work/part time school)
    6 - Work program (work pays you go go an get skills they are interested in, owe time afterwards)
    7 - governmental aid program (non-loan)
    8 - grant program/award (NSF or the like)
    9 - outside agency help (NAACP or whatever)
    10 - outside governmental involvement (foreign government sends people to America to be educated, brings them back afterwards)
    Keep in mind that many of these program stack. You can sign up for RA work (free place to live and money) to have your tuition paid for (easy), get a NSF grant (not easy), work on funded projects for your major advisor (very easy), and get a bit of outside agency help (moderate). Of course you have to produce through this time.

    Also, getting someone through their PhD is incredibly time-consuming on behalf of the professor and organization. Although the school is compensated for the classes, they have to compensate the student for project work. Then, they get to foot the uncountable-but-still-very-real cost of advising PhD students (~2 hours/week at ~$100/hour = ~$10K/year for 4-5 years) with professor time.

  • by zoroaster37 ( 1950444 ) on Tuesday April 26, 2011 @09:17AM (#35940982)
    He has a Ph.D. in religion. The headline should read "Person with worthless Ph.D. argues that all Ph.Ds are worthless." There is plenty of room for folks with Ph.Ds that actually train them to do something.
  • by Truth is life ( 1184975 ) on Tuesday April 26, 2011 @09:25AM (#35941076)
    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.
  • by Life2Short ( 593815 ) on Tuesday April 26, 2011 @11:40AM (#35942818)
    "The idea that academic institutions make any money on PhD students is downright false." They're not training you out of the goodness of their heart. If Universities were not producing a glut of PhD candidates and graduates, how much would it cost them to hire labor to run the labs / discussion sections / classes, etc.? I didn't pay for my PhD, but I worked in my advisor's lab as an RA. I was making about $500 a month via stipend (this was years ago) and we used to figure that conservatively we were being paid about $3-5 an hour for our lab work. After getting my Master's I was teaching classes. I would teach anywhere from 40 to 325 students in one of my classes. The most I was ever paid for this was $2500 / class. Compared to the compensation package of a tenure track professor, I was a bargain! Thanks to the glut of PhD students you could get the teaching of a tenure track professor done for $15,000 / year. Face it, PhD minions are a cheap, exploitable (you don't like it, we've got 5 other applicants who would gladly take your place) labor force.

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