PhD: Less Is Better

phds_uniteTo value the title and build a fairer working system, we must award less PhDs.

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

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12 replies

  1. Thank you for posting this. I am a graduation PhD biochemist, and am one of those 41% who will be leaving my degree without a firm job offer, as quoted in your linked nature article. When I read your post I saw the very words, even phrases, I have been using for years as I have passed through the PhD system at a Teir 1 research university in NYC. Whenever I spoke to professors, administrators, or students about my observations, I was made to feel like everything I said was a lie, that things were not as bad as I said they were. Now that I see that I am not the only person to have observed these systemic problems, and that this has been a known issue since 1977 according to your Nature article, I feel releaved. Thank you for your courage to speak out, as I have, I know it hasn’t been easy.

  2. This is an interesting way to think about it and I agree with what you are saying. But I am wondering what the implications are. Maybe we also need stricter college admissions? I do not think there are any good job options for people with a Bachelors or Masters in chemistry. Once you start in the natural sciences, you kind of have to go on until your PhD.

    • Hi Felix. It’s just a gut feeling, I’d need much more research to properly answer; but I think the bachelor adds relatively much more value to the CV than the PhD. While the bachelor degree opens the door for a lot of qualified jobs, the PhD title, depending on the field, may render an overqualified professional with little appeal to the market..

  3. Each one of your posts is too depressing and pessimistic. I agree real-world-picture about science should be well known, and anyone pursuing science should know what is he/she getting in to, but your posts have a tone of depressed teen rambling about life being unfair and it just bothers me. Brighten up just a bit and stop discouraging young scinetists.

    • Yes, what is being discussed IS very depressing. But it is a bad strategy to pretend like everything is just fine in the high tower of science. In my experience I have seen sexual abuse by primary investigators of their graduate students, I have seen sexual harrasment of both men and women, and I have also seen that when the administrations find out nothing is done about these issues. Instead they get buried! Academia is the ONLY industry in which, when brought to trial, the jury MUST be made of only scientists, due to the esoteric nature of the institution. Imagine if Wall Street brokers had that same luck when they commit fraud…thankfully they don’t.

      Since the law cannout be counted on to reign in science and it’s institutions, the only thing left is to scream from the roof tops about WHAT IS HAPPENING, how the system has been set up to keep PhDs in postdoc positions for 7-20 years (I got this offer too!) and all as a means of keeping the wages of highly educated workers AS LOW AS POSSIBLE in order to enable the careers of PIs, who for the lost part (with exceptions), are not doing ground breaking science at all. It’s just seems that way to the uninitiated on the outside.

      If you are the sort of person who thinks it’s OK to brush ALL of the issues discussed on this forum under the rug, then YOU are part of the problem.

  4. Hi Mario,

    I would really like to think that your line of thought would lead to a better world. But the solution is only partially in the line of education or academia, but as well in a regulation of the free market. More precisely, in the ability of companies and industry to save risks and thus money by hiring PhDs.

    I agree that people do their PhD because of “habit” or because “that’s just what you have to do”, but it is important not to confuse the motivation of an individual with the encouragement arising from the circumstances. What you propose is to protect the individuals from their self-chosen demise. That is the easy way, and akin to a good man warning people that a cliff is ahead. A wise man however would build a fence, even if this would mean that some would fall in the meantime…

    Without explaining in too much detail, I think we can agree that the demand for PhDs in industry will always in some way lead to a surplus of PhDs (people want that money, after all, regardless of their actual qualification – and I am not talking about titles!). People will voluntarily jump off the cliff for the small chance of getting a good job! If you won’t let them pass, some other guy next door will do so, as he gets a better career review for letting more people jump!

    As such, two aspects need to be taken care of: First, number of PhD students should never enter a career evaluation. That number is too easy to tweak and results into people, who are currently “winning” into “winning” even more. It is thus not a fair evaluation standard in any way. Instead, one could for example have a set amount of students that he/she has to produce in a given time. Any more students will not add to benefits. Second, and this is much more important, PhDs going into industry need to be financed by the industry – and if a university financed PhD enters industry, they have to pay back any public funds received during their PhD. Unless the public body benefits from the PhD, there must be strict regulations, as otherwise the universitiy PhD education costs were basically unjustified subsidies.

    The latter might sound a bit “commie”, but it is not. On the contrary, the current course of action will lead to basically all industry position to be filled with PhDs (after all, free pre-educated workers, with a minimum quality check, university approved). As long as PhD education is free for industry, the pressure to produce more will rise, and there is nothing universities can do to stand against this.

    • Thanks for the feedback, Jan.

      There are several points I agree with you. I especially don’t see with good eyes the number of PhD students being used for career evaluation.

      Concerning this industry payback, I confess I don’t have a formed opinion.

      Fact is that a PhD title is becoming a minimum requirement to get a job in the industry. I have close friends in the private sector who confirmed this.

      I also agree there is no free academic lunch, and the public may be just subsiding highly-educated people. And the funds’ transfer isn’t only from the state to the industry, but also from the state to the individual owing the title.

      On the other hand, the public also benefits from having highly-educated people working in the industry.

      Therefore, if public, individuals, and private sector are profiting from the PhD system, the three should pay for it. How to share the costs? I don’t have the slightest a clue!

      • I am confident that legislative could come up with something. Probably a fixed percentage of jobs in the whole company for which PhDs are free of charge? I’d just say that any solution is better than the current one. I have a friend who requires a PhD for her upcoming career stages, though I do not see why it is technically required except for “anyone here has one, so do you”. Another friend of mine has got her PhD, with honors, but did not find an adequate job. Now she basically works in a pharma call center (not exactly, but the comparison fits quite well).

        Both “careers” are results of the problem you stated in the article. As a scientist, I personally require the education the my PhD program provided – they do not. Their PhD only serves as a quality check which is in both cases not required, or at least should be financed by the industry.

        Maybe it would be already enough to enforce companies to put down the reasons for the PhD requirement in writing for each job, as they basically request public funding with every PhD job they put out. Maybe the bureaucratic effort already would push companies “from that would be nice to have” to “nah, that’s not worth it”.

  5. If all PIs were so conscientious as you are, science won’t be a miserable career as it is now. It is just human nature to be selfish and to act in one’s own interest.

  6. Don’t chase passion. Read “So Good They Can’t Ignore You”, by Cal Newport before making the college commitment.


  1. Is there a fair future for computational theoretical chemistry? – Much Bigger Outside

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