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.
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.