One thing many PhD students have in common is dissatisfaction. Some describe their work as “slave labour”. Seven-day weeks, ten-hour days, low pay and uncertain prospects are widespread. You know you are a graduate student, goes one quip, when your office is better decorated than your home and you have a favourite flavour of instant noodle. “It isn’t graduate school itself that is discouraging,” says one student, who confesses to rather enjoying the hunt for free pizza. “What’s discouraging is realising the end point has been yanked out of reach.”
Whining PhD students are nothing new, but there seem to be genuine problems with the system that produces research doctorates (the practical “professional doctorates” in fields such as law, business and medicine have a more obvious value). There is an oversupply of PhDs. Although a doctorate is designed as training for a job in academia, the number of PhD positions is unrelated to the number of job openings. Meanwhile, business leaders complain about shortages of high-level skills, suggesting PhDs are not teaching the right things. The fiercest critics compare research doctorates to Ponzi or pyramid schemes.As a result, the traditional bargain (crummy pay now for an academic career later) no longer holds, and postdocs are starting to see themselves not as apprentices on the first step to something better but as disposable cheap labour. (In Canada, apparently 80% of postdocs earn no more than the salary of a construction worker.) This has led to a new development: the rise of trade unions of PhD-accredited teaching staff.
As far as non-academic careers go, the picture isn't much brighter. Having a PhD no longer gets one a salary premium over having a mere Master's. (In some areas, such as engineering and technology, a PhD actually gets you less than a Master's. Meanwhile, the functions of having a PhD (i.e., advanced knowledge potentially applicable to a field) have been taken over by more specialised, market-oriented courses:
Dr Schwartz, the New York physicist, says the skills learned in the course of a PhD can be readily acquired through much shorter courses. Thirty years ago, he says, Wall Street firms realised that some physicists could work out differential equations and recruited them to become “quants”, analysts and traders. Today several short courses offer the advanced maths useful for finance. “A PhD physicist with one course on differential equations is not competitive,” says Dr Schwartz.I imagine this is part of the ongoing theme of the entire education infrastructure of the current world, having developed largely from the Middle Ages onward, not keeping pace well with technologically-driven social and economic change. Chances are that, over the next few decades, the assumptions of how education works and what functions it fulfils will have to be looked at anew on all levels.
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