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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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  • 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.

  • Driving license (Score:5, Interesting)

    by AliasMarlowe ( 1042386 ) on Tuesday April 26, 2011 @07:21AM (#35940132) Journal

    In Physics at least, specialisation can lead to some very useful and broadly applicable findings. Granted, sometimes completely unexpectedly.

    Indeed. In the Sciences and in Engineering, a PhD is the equivalent of a "driving license" for doing research. It does not guarantee you'll be good at it, but the odds are much better than for someone lacking the qualification. It signifies that you can plan and execute long and intellectually difficult tasks in a particular field, which may include discovery of new knowledge (experiments) as well as detailed physical and mathematical analysis. It shows that you're qualified for certain types of demanding job, which are not in particularly short supply. A PhD in physics or engineering was a prerequisite for my job and for several of my colleagues, and we're in industry, not in academia.

    TFA failed to delineate the subject matter, lumping all PhDs together as if physical sciences, bioscience, and engineering suffered from the same lack of utility as the humanities or social sciences. It appears that TFA really just dealt with the humanities which tend to have limited economic applicability (PhD in Religion, or in History of art, or in Etruscan statuary). In some cases they amount to little more than an expensive hobby.

  • Re:He gerneralizes (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Obfiscator ( 150451 ) on Tuesday April 26, 2011 @07:41AM (#35940260)

    I think it's generally true that US Ph.D.s take longer because of extra coursework required. Since studying chemistry in undergraduate in many European countries (and Australia as well, from my experiences there) means you actually study chemistry (and not all the electives and general education requirements we have in the US), European students are considered more knowledgable in their field after getting their Bachelor's. After the Ph.D., though, it seems comparable.

    For physical sciences in the US, four years (including the coursework) is considered good, but five years is more the norm, and in some areas (synthetic organic chemistry) 7 is not uncommon. 12 seems like a lot, though.

  • by jellomizer ( 103300 ) on Tuesday April 26, 2011 @07:44AM (#35940282)

    Well if you are avocation changing the system you need to lump them together. If the PhD are more often then not are becoming too specialized to be useful then the PhD system needs to change. Sure they are exceptions where some PhD offer enough generalization to show people to know that in order to meet any particular goal that you will need help in different areas. But those are the exception.

    I would actually go further stating there is a larger problem with the education system in the whole.

    At child at the age of 4 enters school and remains there until they graduate from high school at 17 year. (That is 13 years) Then they will directly go to college for 4 more years at 21 years old (17 years) Now in that process they weill decide what they want to do for a living. Well during that period education is the only system they know, so They choose to stay in education, So they will get 2/4 years of masters (If they want to stay as a k-12 teacher) and 8 years if they want to be a professor. So now we have Teachers and Professors who's life has been centered around education. Then they teach the next generation that repeats the process. What happens is there is a schism between skills and knowledge that people need professionally and what they need to advance in Education, and it will keep on getting worse if you leave the system unchanged.
    Many Teachers and Professors (you can tell if you talk to them personally) despise commercial industry, but yet really know what is going on in it. They will focus on the areas where it has gone wrong but not where it has gone well. So they think we spend all our days in a real Dilbertesk like life. Education needs a infusion (A large one enough to change the schools culture) of professionals who are good at what they do to teach information that will be more practical for real life situation and really open up a dialog on how things really work.

  • 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.

  • 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 tburkhol ( 121842 ) on Tuesday April 26, 2011 @10:03AM (#35941548)

    I never figured out why things went wrong

    NIH started as a means to support fundamental biomedical research. It expanded from $4M in 1947 to 100M in 1957 and $1B in 1974 and $30B today. It became the way that biomedical research is funded, and dwarfs the NSF budget of $7B. Everybody wanted a piece of that pie, but it turns out to be tied up with political strings. Universities came to depend on research money that often exceed student tuition and state grants. But it's hard to justify basic science to congress - that's the whole reason NSF's budget is so much smaller than NIH - so NIH has been progressively steered towards clinical, applied, "translational" research. Other branches of science have been pushed in that direction, too, as they struggle to justify their existence next to curing heart disease and making the lame walk.

    The argument for Government funded basic science used to be that we couldn't know what would come out of it, but that the simple process of discovery would result in unforeseen benefits. Society couldn't trust commercial enterprises to take such altruistic risks (although some of them did consider support of long-term, fundamental research part of good corporate citizenship or part of their own 20 year success program). Government now, at least in the US, has little foresight or capacity for long term planning. If the corporate attention span is one fiscal quarter, then the government attention span is one election cycle. So, we've sacrificed our long-term prospects for short term reward.

    Don't eat the marshmallow yet.

  • by NatasRevol ( 731260 ) on Tuesday April 26, 2011 @10:21AM (#35941764) Journal

    But it's ok if we spend a trillion dollars a year on the military?

    I believe the GP's point is, if we're going to spend that kind of money, how about spending it on better ways of living that blowing shit up?

This process can check if this value is zero, and if it is, it does something child-like. -- Forbes Burkowski, CS 454, University of Washington