Nature News made a survey and asked scientists about the perspectives of PhD. The tag line goes:

“There are too many PhD students for too few academic jobs — but with imagination, the problem could be solved”.

One of the suggestions, by Anthony Hyman, cell biologist and director of the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, Germany, is to “split” the PhD. Nature News reports:

“Students in the academic-track PhD would focus on blue-skies research and discovery, he says. A vocational PhD would be more structured and directed towards specific careers in areas such as radiography, machine learning or mouse-model development”.

To me, this idea, unless Hyman has not thought it properly through, can be only described as wicked, exactly because it is perfectly applicable. All one needs, is the will to actually do something so unscrupulous and nefarious.

The article opens with Paula Stephan, full professor of economics and associate dean at Georgia State University, USA,  demanding “that graduate departments partake in birth control”. I am not sure whether depriving a large number of hopeful, ambitious and intelligent young people from access to PhD education is comparable to the wriggling sperm inside a discharged condom. It seems, the tenured faculty cynicism towards those who wish to make same careers as they did, has reached new, unsavoury levels. It is also a pity that Nature News chose to retain Stephan’s wording about “birth control” unchallenged.

Nevertheless, the problem is there and it needs to be somehow solved.

One idea, advocated by Stephan and other labour economists is to cut off the access to PhD programmes, “a reduction in the number of graduate students who enter biomedical sciences”. Now, how would one put this in practice and pick “good” students from the mass of applicants, or to stay with Stephan’s metaphor, to separate pedigree quality semen from the useless spunk?

Graduating from elite universities and doing unpaid internships in elite labs all over the world are likely to be such prime selective criteria. One catch here is that such achievements are mostly reserved to those whose parents can afford to pay for them.  Poorer students have to be excessively smart to get a chance to graduate with a fellowship where rich kids graduate by simply being rich. And how exactly are these poor students supposed to travel overseas to sustain themselves while working, say, in an elite research lab in London? By waiting tables at night, after a 10-12 hours unpaid shift in the lab?

I am rather sure that this is exactly what the economist Stephan had in mind. In fact she even suggests, in all earnest, PhD students should not only receive no salary or fellowships, they should pay for their privilege: “When we have to pay something out of pocket, we think a little more clearly about whether that is a good fit for us”. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan would surely pat Stephan on the head for this.

My reply to Stephan: why stop there? Worker kids used to be briefly taught to read and write, to count and to pray, and then thrown out of the school to work in factories and mines. Their rising unemployment could always be elegantly solved with a major war, where many of them died as cannon fodder.

Seriously though, it is an arrogant and elitist approach to propose to solve the PhD employment problem by barring masses of people from obtaining doctorates and thus from high education. It is a major achievement of our modern society that even children of poorer families can obtain university degrees. To advocate a reversal back to dreadful old times when only those from well-off and well-connected families could study, is dangerous social Darwinism.

Luckily, as the Nature News article reports, this concept is being met by scientists with “enormous resistance”. Not because of any ethical or socialist qualms, apparently not at all. The real reason is: “faculty members and research institutions may be especially reluctant to give up the cheap workers who power their research”. Indeed, without the excessive competition and the uncertain career outlook after graduation, how else would the principal investigators (PIs) procure such willing and obedient workforce, as biomedical PhD students currently are? They agree to be paid a fraction of what similarly qualified academics are supposed to earn, in fact in Germany their engineering peers are paid twice as much during their doctorates, officially and with full approval of the universities. Whatever the work contract says, biomedical PhD students are often expected to work 60 or even 80 hours a week, including weekends. And, this will warm Stephan’s Thatcherite heart, they obsessively exercise the literal birth control, because often the safest way to get sacked from a PhD programme is to get pregnant.

Old Postdocs

This is exactly why Hyman’s idea about a “split PhD” is so insidious: it allows barring masses of biomedicine students from obtaining a PhD, without ever in the slightest reducing the cheap laboratory workforce.  His idea is tremendously cost-effective, and tremendously cruel, by giving the PIs new tools of workforce subjugation.

So how would it work? Let’s assume the Max Planck Society introduces such separation into elite “academic PhD” and a second-class “vocational PhD”. Max Planck institute directors will be free to cherry-pick students to enter the former based on their elite university degrees and internships, thus favouring the wealthy or well-connected kids as discussed above. The losers would not go empty: they could enter the vocation PhD programme, because even a second-class PhD is still better than no PhD. Especially one made in a Max Planck Institute, in the lab of the world-renowned professor Hyman. Therefore, the number of doctorate hopefuls, toiling away in the Hyman lab in Dresden, will surely not reduce.  In fact, it may even rise. How so? It is perfectly reasonable that a second-class PhD does not have to be salaried equally to the proper, academic one. Thus, the money saved on channelling the majority of PhD students into the low-paid “vocational” track would allow a thrifty PI to actually employ more of them, while keeping personnel costs level.

Of course, permeability between the two PhD tracks should be possible for the sake of fairness. Good vocational students should be able to rise into the academic track. On the other hand, instead of dropping out without graduating, challenged academic PhDs could switch to a less demanding vocational track any time. This sounds fair, except that being a direct invitation to abuse the system. Most successful PIs, surely also Hyman, expect their PhD students to work long hours and weekends, while churning out top-notch data fit for high-impact journals. What to do with those lazier ones, who sneak out of the lab at 6 PM and are hardly ever seen on the weekend? Or with those junior scientists, whose experimental data is not exciting or straightforward enough to be published in a top journal? Are they the right ones for academic PhD after all? Maybe a good talking-to by their advisor would motivate them to work more and better, and a hint of being otherwise unfortunately left with no other choice but to shift them into the vocational PhD track? On the other hand, the vocational PhD students would surely be motivated by a possibility of an upgrade. They would have to prove themselves, best by living and sleeping in the lab, or delivering steaming hot publishable data with every experiment they are instructed to perform. With a two-track PhD installed, the current PhD student misery of long lab hours, low income and dictatorial advisors would seem like a picnic.

In fact, the first idea presented in the Nature News article is the one which seems most fair, decent and practical: “Revamp the PhD”. Graduates should be taught other skills beyond research to help them obtain appropriate jobs outside academia. Management, cooperative and communication skills are something which PhD students traditionally do not learn, quite the opposite actually. They are supposed to focus on their research only, since this is what they were recruited for in the first place. However, given the low chances for an academic career, preparing PhD graduates for the outside world is the best help the faculty can give them. At the same time, the lies and false promises about postdoctoral perspectives must stop. The PIs’ greed for the ridiculously cheap, but highly qualified postdoctoral work force is actually much bigger than for that of cheap, but inexperienced PhDs.

The current problem in the academic job market is not created by too many young people obtaining a doctorate degree. Education never was a career hindrance, quite the opposite. The problem develops when young PhD graduates are lured into a dangerous postdoctoral spiral of false hopes of an academic future, until they are too old and too overqualified to apply for any reasonable jobs outside academia.

16 thoughts on “Future of PhD: rabid social Darwinism and wicked concepts for more power abuse

  1. Vocational PhD tack is actually a good idea, as long as it is not inferior to academic PhD track. The PhD program qualifies to scientific research, but does not provide other necessary skills: scientific communication, management and basic economics, all of which are key for many other PhD jobs out there. It is not a problem that one continues to perform supervised academic research after obtaining a PhD as long as he/she wants, the problem relies in the definition of “””temporary position””” of a postdoc – if it is not absolutely required for career advance. For example, where I obtained my PhD, in Weizmann Institute in Israel, there was a rule – a graduate student who obtained his/her PhD there could continue as a postdoc for only one more year in the same lab or two more years in another lab. Of course it is not sufficient for a full term postdoctoral training, the underlying motivation is to drive these students/postdocs towards a research staff track or to leave the institute! This rule did not apply for foreign postdocs who graduated overseas and wish to obtain a full term postdoctoral training. On the contrary, in Germany, one cannot pursue such a research staff tenure track, unless they are funded by external grants. The “postdoc” period is limited to 10 years? Correct me if I’m wrong. This regulation, so I heard, was put into action in the 70’s when there were insufficient principal investigators, expecting it would motivate scientists to promote themselves. Moreover, as you claim, students and postdocs are cheap labor. And if you want to motivate them to be underpaid, you lure them into a very obscure bright future. Age discrimination is another big issue, and I find it more prominent in Europe than in Israel or the US. Staying in a “temporary” position forever cannot benefit you, only sabotages your career! Thus, vocational/academic track PhD is a good idea. One should proceed into a long-term postdoc only if it is essential (e.g. academic tenure track, specific technical proficiency required to move on, etc…). For those who seek other types of jobs within or outside academia, only a short-term postdoc experience is sufficient or none at all. Those who wish to stay in academia as staff scientists will obtain only a short-term postdoctoral experience, as applied in Weizmann Institute.

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    1. Hi Kfir, thanks for commenting. I disagree about the practicality of a vocational PhD, see main text. Also, the academia-minded PhD students should also be prepared to take the right exit when things don’t work out. Thus, all PhD students should be taught more than to pipette all day and read papers in between.
      This is why I think the graduate school model is the better option: there, courses on communication, teamwork, management etc can be made mandatory part of the programme, as well as personal career tutoring.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Those courses should be given to everyone! These skills are helpful for academic jobs too. However, vocational phds will be more oriented to non academic science. What do you think about this staff scientist track and what do you know about this situation in germany?

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    1. I would say the whole purpose of a PhD is to learn scientific method, critical thinking and the correct way to perform research (i.e., the importance of controls, statistics, reproducibility etc). This research experience and understanding is important to everyone who deals in or with research, also to non-scientists: journal editors, research managers, industrial researchers, application/product specialists, and last but not least, science journalists.
      About staff scientist track: personally, I am not sure this is a good or productive approach, because it implies highly qualified experienced postdoctoral scientists working under orders and supervision of their tenured employer until their retirement.

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      1. Staff scientists at the Weizmann have tenure, that they earn after five years if they get a positive evaluation which is recently getting harder and harder to get because the Institute is trying to phase them out. They also have another promotion after that (sort of like associate to full prof). It means that even if their boss retires, the Institute is forced to employ them and they just move onto another lab. If there is a deadwood staff scientist… well, they shouldn’t have given them tenure I guess. However, rarely is that a problem with a person who had to fight for their tenure, and often for the next promotion as well (which brings a nice salary raise with it).

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      2. About the purpose of a PhD: without any doubt the whole purpose of a PhD is to learn scientific method, critical thinking and the correct way to perform research (i.e., the importance of controls, statistics, reproducibility etc)…..

        But do PhD students nowadays really learn the above mentioned?

        As an example 2 papers being commented in PubPeer:

        https://pubpeer.com/publications/8F2A681C84FB1D9FC6A9D0B46F5E0A

        https://pubpeer.com/publications/25985394

        Isn’t this surprising?

        Like

      3. In universities in USA the tendency is to hire personnel as staff scientists (instructors, etc.) and not as assistant professors. Eventually, this instructors (non-tenure track) may move to the tenure-track (assistant professor). The truth is that most instructors will never be promoted to assistant professors and most of the assistant professors will never get the tenure. Also, in at least Portuguese and Spanish universities is extremely difficult to get a professor position and this implies publishing in high impact journals in order to have any possibility of finding a PI position. Therefore, many PhD students or postdocs will do everything their tenured employer tells them to do in order to have the minimum possibility of getting a PI position and this will lead to abuse of power from their bosses.
        Solutions for this?
        1. The PhD should be just a certification that can be obtained by anyone working as a journal editor, research manager, industrial researcher, application/product specialists, science journalists, health system employees (nurses, doctors, pharmacists, etc.), university professor, high school teacher, lab technicians, etc.?
        2. In the case of academic employment there should exist only the tenure track? Getting tenured should be dependent of a group of conditions including publications, but not only publications?
        3. Any person holding a PhD can perform/apply to research funding whether working in academia or not in the academic world?

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  3. As one of those who got fooled I have one comment: however you change the failing system of PhD training (and usage of the product that comes out of it) you need to be honest when recruiting students to the PhD programs. Currently, most are simply being lied to by the departments trying to meet the “quota”. To get students to enroll in the PhD programs mass emails are being send with promises of better paid and secure jobs for the graduates. What is going on right now (especially in health research) is not training future bright scientists. It is manufacturing of cheap labor (and not being honest about it). Believe me, the numbers of PhDs will drop if departments are honest about the post-graduate reality. Since this will never happen, the governments should be controlling the numbers of “allowed” PhDs to meet the demand (by simply reducing funding for training….and maybe relocating it for creation of scientist positions?). I just don’t get why there are still people arguing that they need more PhD students if they can not provide jobs to the ones that are already there. In what universe does this make sense?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Leonid,
    Here is a link to my blog post on the topic, and the full text of that post below:
    http://hymanlab.mpi-cbg.de/hyman_lab/ideas-on-how-to-build-a-better-phd/

    A recent article from Nature News by Julie Gould tackles the topic of “How to build a better PhD.” In the article, I discuss the idea of having multiple PhD tracks, one bound for academia, and another so-called “vocational” track which would provide intensive science training for use in non-academic careers. As discussed in the article, a similar two-track system already exists in engineering:

    “Students in the United Kingdom, the United States, France and Germany can choose to study for either an academic-style PhD in engineering or a doctorate in engineering (EngD), which is designed with industrial careers in mind and often involves a supervisor in industry alongside one in academia. David Stanley, who manages an EngD programme that focuses on nuclear engineering at the University of Manchester, UK, says that … ‘Graduates with an EngD are highly valued in industry, more than those with PhDs, because of their extended training.’”

    As noted by Melanie Sinche from the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine, there is high demand among employers for a expert computational biologists, and a vocational PhD could be a great way to train people for non-academic careers in computational biology.

    In Singapore, for example, the SkillsFuture initiative includes new efforts to provide more industry-relevant and vocational training. Importantly, a key goal of SkillsFuture is to ensure that credentials earned on one track can be appropriately recognized by other tracks.

    There is no reason to assert, as science blogger Leonid Schneider has, that a vocational PhD track would be second-class, less demanding, or lower paid than an academic track PhD. It would simply be a means to provide better training for different career paths, which the majority of PhD students ultimately follow. Indeed, as highlighted by Jessica Polka in her ASCB infographic, “Where Will a Biology PhD Take You?” a faculty position is the true “alternative” career, with <8% of entering PhD students ultimately becoming tenure-track faculty. Any inherent assumption that non-academic careers (and by association a PhD track which better trains for those careers) are somehow inferior to a career in academia seems to ignore the success of vocational training. As we have already seen in the engineering field, graduates of their vocational track are highly valued and better prepared for careers in industry. It is therefore essential that the modern PhD is tailored to the needs of the workforce.

    -Tony Hyman

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  5. Tony Hyman has now blogged with a reply to my criticism of his idea to split PhD into an academic and a vocational track: http://hymanlab.mpi-cbg.de/hyman_lab/ideas-on-how-to-build-a-better-phd/
    He did not address the option or non-option of changing tracks mid-study.
    I also wonder though how prospective PhD students see it. Would they be inclined to forfeit the academic track for a vocational PhD? What about employers, both academic and non-academic, how would they evaluate job applications from such two types of PhD degree holders?

    Like

  6. About the purpose of a PhD: without any doubt the whole purpose of a PhD is to learn scientific method, critical thinking and the correct way to perform research (i.e., the importance of controls, statistics, reproducibility etc)…..

    But do PhD students nowadays really learnt the above mentioned?

    As an example 2 papers being commented in PubPeer:

    https://pubpeer.com/publications/8F2A681C84FB1D9FC6A9D0B46F5E0A

    https://pubpeer.com/publications/25985394

    Isn’t this surprising?

    Like

  7. Leonid:
    “The article open with Paula Stephan, full professor of economics and associate dean at Georgia State University, USA, demanding “that graduate departments partake in birth control”. [. . .]

    [. . .]

    Graduating from elite universities and doing unpaid internships in elite labs all over the world are likely to be such prime selective criteria. One catch here is that such achievements are mostly reserved to those whose parents can afford to pay for them. Poorer students have to be excessively smart to get a chance to graduate with a fellowship where rich kids graduate by simply being rich. And how exactly are these poor students supposed to travel overseas to sustain themselves while working, say, in an elite research lab in London? By waiting tables at night, after a 10-12 hours unpaid shift in the lab?

    I am rather sure that this is exactly what the economist Stephan had in mind. In fact she even suggests, in all earnest, PhD students should not only receive no salary or fellowships, they should pay for their privilege: [. . .]”

    My nationality is not of a communist country. My nationality is of a capitalist country: namely the putative “Republic” of Ireland. (Parents refused to pay for the primary degree which I wanted to enrol for therefore I instead enrolled for an impost-funded primary degree.) Therefore a rich parent refused to pay for a postgraduate degree and a poor parent was unable to pay for a postgraduate degree, therefore I paid for a master’s degree (in Sweden) and I therefore became very VERY poor. Then the European Space Agency; Philippe Willekens; Paolo Donzelli; Delta-Utec Space Research & Consultancy; and Michiel Kruijff exploited me by misleading me about payment. They made me travel de Sweden to the Netherlands to work for gratis (while dishonestly claiming that I would be paid). The PhD supervisor Rui Miguel Curado da Silva (who is a member of the Portuguese political party the Left Bloc (Bloco de Esquerda) which is a member of the Party of the European Left) had laughed at this misfortune. However Rui Miguel Curado da Silva has not laughed about this abusive maltreatment to a student when he found out that I sent a registered letter to the European Space Agency during 2010 and an email to the European Space Agency during 2012 complaining about Philippe Willekens because we hoped that the European Space Agency would contribute €230 million to our astronomical PhD project. Therefore during 2013 he fabricated false facts to make it seem that I could be mentally ill to supposedly justify suspending a PhD scholarship to get me put into the putatively psychiatric section of the putative “Hospital” of the putative “University” of Coimbra where I was subjected to aggravated assaults by the staff. (Perverse Portuguese law permits aggravated assaults against mentally ill persons.) He knew that the European Space Agency had financially victimised me. He has also financially victimised me: he misled me about a PhD scholarship therefore I was paying extortionate PhD fees to the “University” of Coimbra (bait and switch) (before a lawyer got PhD-scholarship payments commenced). Therefore the “Hospital” of the “University” of Coimbra disingenuously used the fact that I did not beg a parent to financially aid me against financial hardship (caused by the very same “University”!) to dishonestly claim mental illness. Apparently the Nobel laureate Gary Taubes stated in “Nobel Dreams: Power, Deceit, and the Ultimate Experiment”:
    “Physicists are like lemons, you squeeze them for all they are worth and then throw them away.”

    Jeff Schmidt documented abuse of physicist postgraduate students by physicists (of higher ranks and fellow other postgraduate students) in “Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-battering System That Shapes Their Lives”, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc.

    Not every professrix of economics is completely evil. A professrix of econimics of Coimbra University is helping me after water was cut off because I lacked money.

    Leonid:
    “[. . .]

    [. . .] It is a major achievement of our modern society that even children of poorer families can obtain university degrees. [. . .]

    [. . .]”

    I would had been spared a lot of unnecessary misery if I would never had attended a university. Ex-persons committed suicides because of universities that they went to.

    Leonid:
    “[. . .] PhD students are often expected to work [. . .] 80 hours a week, including weekends.”

    Of course. Why not?

    “And, this will warm Stephan’s Thatcherite heart, they obsessively exercise the literal birth control, because often the safest way to get sacked from a PhD programme is to get pregnant.”

    The Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology is very perverse but I concede that it does allow for maternity leave. It professes to also not let maternity leave before applying for a postdoctoral fellowship (e.g. while a PhD student) to interfere with getting a postdoctoral fellowship.

    Leonid:
    “[. . .] a direct invitation to abuse the system. Most successful PIs, surely also Hyman, expect their PhD students to work long hours and weekends, while churning out top-notch data [. . .]”

    I was artificially kept down at PhD-student status for years despite outperforming how the PhD supervisrix Professrix Maria Filomena de Osório Pinto dos Santos Figueiredo and the PhD supervisor performed as PhD students (and sometimes outperforming how the PhD supervisor was performing as a scientist when a PhD supervisor). By claiming before I was hired that I would not need to pay PhD fees to be a PhD student; demanding PhD fees after I moved to Portugal; stating that an error was made and that therefore I would be reimbursed for paid PhD fees (which were not reimbursed); and making it impossible for me to afford to pay later PhD fees, I was and am an affordable slave instead of an expensive postdoctoral employee.

    Leonid:
    “[. . .] They would have to prove themselves, best by living and sleeping in the lab,”

    Actually the lab was impossible to sleep in therefore I slept in a lecture theatre at night.

    Leonid:
    “[. . .] With a two-track PhD installed, the current PhD student misery of long lab hours, low income and dictatorial advisors would seem like a picnic.

    [. . .]”

    This portrayal by Leonid of a proposal of Anthony Hyman does seem as if it would be like a picnic in relation to my PhD experiences of being subjected to aggravated assaults, which in turn seem to be like a picnic in relation to murders perpetrated by police officers against then students in Mexico (
    http://WWW.BBC.com/news/world-latin-america-29406630
    and
    http://WWW.TheGuardian.com/world/2014/oct/23/mexican-mayor-disappearance-students-iguala
    and
    http://WWW.Telegraph.co.UK/news/worldnews/centralamericaandthecaribbean/mexico/11171233/Mexico-catches-chief-of-gang-in-missing-students-case.html
    ) and in relation to suicides by then academics.

    Tony Hyman:
    “[. . .]

    [. . .] nuclear [. . .]

    [. . .]”

    I am a nuclear physicist. Professor Joaquim Marques Ferreira dos Santos; Professrix Maria Filomena de Osório Pinto dos Santos Figueiredo and “Dr.” Rui Miguel Curado da Silva are putative nuclear physicists. Each of Joaquim Marques Ferreira dos Santos; Maria Filomena de Osório Pinto dos Santos Figueiredo and Rui Miguel Curado da Silva lied during a criminal process. Maria Filomena de Osório Pinto dos Santos Figueiredo and I were hospitalised because Joaquim Marques Ferreira dos Santos gave false testimony during 2012 and Rui Miguel Curado da Silva lied during 2013 to manipulate a process. Nuclear technology is dangerous. Nuclear technology with scientific cheaters is dangerous. The most used nuclear software codes are buggy. Nuclear technology designed via buggy software with scientific cheaters is dangerous.

    Like

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