I’ve been officially an independent researcher for six years, and I still don’t have any PhD thesis where my name appears as the sole advisor. This is a career choice out of a conviction that we should award those titles with much more parsimony than we are used to for three reasons:
First, to value them. A PhD title should be special. It should tell that the person holding it is the keeper of some kind of sacerdotal knowledge, raising her above the mortals. But, instead, the current spawning of PhDs renders the title vulgar. It only tells that the person holding it sat in a lab for few years, living out of pocket money, while her colleagues in the private sector had a baby and bought a house.
Second, we should cut the number of PhDs to build a fairer working environment in science. Grad students became cheap workforce to run labs. Instead of hiring technicians, scientific assistants, or even outsourcing tasks to external companies, senior researchers keep science going on at the cost of low-paid students.
Third, we should award less PhD titles to stop wasting resources educating a generation of frustrated overqualified professionals. What’s the sense of having someone being trained for three or four years on, say, computational chemistry, just to have her moving to an IT job later?
Not that I have ever had any grad students. I co-advised the PhD work of a Brazilian grad student, who earned his title last year; and now I’m co-advising another one, who will earn hers within few months. I have also helped many students, who thought they could profit of my expertise at some point of their studies. But at the end, all these people earned their titles from other labs but mine.
We should seek a balance: the number of titles we award can’t be bigger than the number of stable, qualified jobs—either in or outside the academy—that our students can eventually get. Otherwise, the offer of personnel explodes. And this is clearly happening. Just take a look at the scary figures in this article by Julie Gould.
Along my career, I’ve been trying to be coherent with these ideas. The Brazilian student I mentioned was competent enough to get a job in the German chemical industry immediately after earning his PhD. He resisted to the dangerous temptation of becoming another postdoc haunting university departments.
Having him settled, I could accept to co-advise the second grad student. If, now, anyone applies for a PhD position in my group, they will have to wait till she earns her title and gets a job. Too radical?
For years I’ve been discussing these things with many colleagues, half of them holding similar views, half holding an opposite view, and half asking me to stop annoying them. And I’m still to hear any reasoning that would shake my stand (or would shut me up, for that matter).
However, although I think I’m doing the right thing for a responsible group management, the scientific establishment doesn’t really like it so much.
From an institutional point of view, it’s great that budgets are kept as low as that required by underpaid temporary students, rather than that needed to pay unionized professional staff with real working rights. And minds are put at ease by the self-deceiving thought that our labs are full of grad students to fulfill the noble mission of educating the next generation of scientists.
From the researcher point of view, since the beginning of their career, there are big incentives for them to advise grad students. PhD grants are relatively easy to get and if you’re taking your first steps as an independent researcher, any help you can count on is welcome. Moreover, professional advancement steps, like tenure track in USA, qualification in France, or habilitation in Germany, will often require the researcher to have successfully advised few students.
I feel myself that in several applications for funding or career progression, the fact that I don’t have a long list of awarded PhDs by now counts against me. I can almost hear the reviewer mumbling while browsing my CV: “C’mon, this guy has been leading a lab for years and no one has ever defended a thesis in his group…. Something is definitely fishy there!”
No, my dear Mr. Reviewer, there’s nothing fishy here. It’s on purpose.
If you agree with me, even that slightly, the message to take home is “professional commitment”: we (and by “we” I broadly mean universities, funding agencies, companies) must guarantee that for every new PhD position open, a qualified job position is granted in the same field too.
That’s what I modestly attempt to do in the microscale of my research group.
PS. Last time I wrote about such issues, a professor anonymously called my former department head to complain that I was scaring potential grad students. Far from me being so nasty. If you are thinking of pursuing a PhD, I can tell from my experience: it’s awesome! Just bear in mind that science is a sweet bitch.
Categories: Science Policy