Friday, April 29, 2011

Does the PhD Need Fixing?

Many of you have probably seen the special edition of Nature that is devoted to "The Future of the PhD".  Much of the discussion centers on the career prospects of those with a PhD.  As most of those in graduate school know, there are far more eager 1st-year graduate students than tenure-track positions at R1 universities - and often to have a shot at the few positions available at R1 universities one has to slog through multiple low-paying post-docs after a median of 7 years in a PhD program.  Part of Nature's special feature includes an editorial entitled "Fix the PhD".  But here's my question to those of us in grad school: in your experience, does the PhD system need fixing?

Before we jump into the debate, let me share a little bit of data.  First, Nature has put together a few nice set of graphs showing three relevant tidbits on key aspects of the PhD experience - namely the number of PhDs awarded by field, the median time to completion for the hard sciences, and the employment of science and engineering PhDs 1-3 years after graduation.

Several things that stood out to me.  First, medial and life sciences saw a huge increase in PhD production and many of the anecdotal horror stories I have heard come from those fields.  Second, a median of 7 years in grad school seems high to me - using data from the past 15 years in my department I have personally computed a mean time to completion of 6 years for my program.  Finally, I was surprised not to see a growth in the number of non-tenured faculty.  Other sources have clearly indicated that the ranks of the non-tenured have been growing, but apparently not with new PhDs.

The second bit of data I would like to inject comes from my own department.  CU's Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences department is pretty good, but I would say that CU is somewhat average when it comes to the top-tier of the astrophysics world.  So in the hope that CU's PhDs are in some sense "average", I decided to track all 43 of the PhD recipients from my department between 2000 and 2005 using Google and ADS in order to see where they were now.  I sorted them into 7 categories (post-doc, tenure-track faculty at research institutions, tenure-track faculty at non-research institutions, non-tenure-track faculty, research staff, industry, or other).  The results are on your left.  Note that all of those that still post-docs graduated in 2005.  Interestingly, only 1 of the 43 PhDs is in a non-tenure track faculty position and a very large fraction (67.4%) are still publishing in peer-reviewed journals in astronomy, physics, or planetary science.  As a side-note, the "other" category has some great entries, including a fellow that works for Answers in Genesis, another that works for a foundation that advocates for manta rays in Hawaii, and another that does market research for Kaiser Permanente.

So, there's a bit of data - more is of course welcome - now what does it mean?  Is the PhD system in the US broken and if so, how does one fix it?


  1. Really great work Nick putting those statistics together. I think ~6 years to graduation is typical here as well. I don't think there is any major that's wrong. If I were to change anything I think I would work on:

    1. Helping people see that they can find good employment without a full PhD. (I think if many people knew the opportunity costs getting a full PhD and the reasonable employment you can get without a PhD the numbers of PhDs may drop and alleviate a lot of pain.)

    2. I've been told many placed in Europe accept people after a masters or equivalent and then limit them to 3-4 years before they *must* graduate. So if you include a 1 year masters this means at most you are in graduate school for 4-5 years.

    3. Going along with #2, I think if you haven't made good progress after 5 years then you probably never will and so I do not feel sorry for someone being forced to graduate after 5 years with not much to show for it.

    So if I was the PhD god I would do what Irvine does and give you 3 chances over 18 months to pass the comprehensive exam, (every 6 months), and require you graduate by the end of 5 years. If you haven't made good progress by then than I think you should be reading the writing on the wall.

    As for people who take 7 years because they signed up to build a contraption that takes 5 years minimum to build... well, without being an experimental expert, I have to believe such a complex contraption can be divided across multiple students over the 5 years. (If not, how do good experimentalists find a way to graduate in 3 years in the European schools? If it can be done there it can be done here.)

    Again, I am mostly happy with the system, but I think capping the time to graduation solves more problems than it creates, as would getting people connected with jobs they will be perfectly happy doing that don't require a PhD.

  2. I just double checked with a post-doc here from England. In England, for example, you often get awarded 3 years of funding from the government and after the 3 years are up the school has one year to get you out the door before the government penalizes the school financially for, in the pos-doc's words, "not doing their job properly".

    *That* is a great idea. Give 3 years of funding and if the student doesn't graduate within one year of that the school gets penalized! That would sure give the incentive needed to cut down on time to PhD. (And again, I don't think the British have reputations for developing bad scientists because they didn't get 7 years in a PhD program!)

  3. One other note about the European system - they're "PhD" is not the highest degree offered. Most European countries require professors to have a further degree called a "Habilitation" (D. Habil. for short), which of course doesn't exist in the US. So in some ways they don't devote the same level of reverence to the PhD that American universities do. It is difficult to compare the two systems, since they do have some important differences.

    That being said, I do think that it would be wise to transition from the current set-up where one is admitted with a Bachelor's degree into a PhD program to a system where one earns a Bachelor's., then a Master's, then a Doctorate. That would help remove the stigma against leaving grad school with a Master's that exists in many fields, because I have to wonder if those in the industry or other categories really needed the last several years of their program for their current position. Perhaps they would have been better served by taking a 2-year Master's degree and then getting out into the workforce (and tripling their salaries) much faster.

  4. However, I think that in many ways the PhD programs in astrophysics are working just fine. Sure some minority of graduates may not be using their highly specialized research training, but that is probably the case of a comparable fraction of people coming from any academic field to a workplace that demands constant adaptation.

    The bottom line is that most of the PhDs from my program end up being used by people who either become professors (anywhere from small liberal-arts college to large research universities) or researchers.

  5. A little further reading on my part shows that the UK doesn't have a habilitation degree, so the Brits make due with effectively 5 year PhD's (1-2 for the Masters, 3-4 for PhD).

  6. One problem with saying "European countries require professors to have a further degree called a "Habilitation"... which of course doesn't exist in the US" is that we require people to spend more years ourselves before they can become professors working as post-docs.

    So call it what you want, (time and effort between PhD and Professor) but my point is these people have PhDs and qualify for jobs requiring a PhD after only 3-4 years in grad school.

    *And* their entire Bachelors +master's program only takes 4 years in the UK therefore: from bachelor's to PhD takes them only 7-8 years! (We have people ingrad school alone for that long!)

    *Let me repeat that*: In the UK at least, and maybe true for more of Europe I'd have to check, it takes 7-8 years between their "high school" and being someone who has a PhD who qualifies for everything someone who has a PhD in the US qualifies for.

    And honestly, I don't think the Britts are hurting because they require there students to efficient like that. We could us that in the US I believe.

  7. By the way, I polled some more post docs, this is what they said:

    UK: 4 years Bachelors +Masters, 3-4 years PhD. Total 7-8 years from High School to Dr.

    Italy: 4-5 years Bachelors +Masters, 3 years PhD. Total 7-8 years from High School to Dr.

    China: 4 years Bachelors, 5 years PhD. Total ~9 years from High School to Dr.

    So, it appears the US takes the longest ~4+6=10. (And I'm not convinced the extra time makes us more competent when we have the PhD in our hands.) I think there is something to be said for expecting students to learn to produce good results in a reasonable amount of time or leave the field.

  8. One of the differences in the UK and many other European countries (possibly including Italy) is that they effectively have no GE requirements, so one of years Americans lose in comparison has nothing to do with their graduate study.

    However, I will say that because graduate students are not usually funded individually in the US but instead through their adviser's grants, there isn't an outside control pushing the PhD-candidate or the adviser to wrap things up and get their student out of the door in a reasonable amount of time - and if you ask me 4 to 5 years is reasonable for a Master's + PhD graduate program.

  9. One final point - I mentioned this to my adviser who got his PhD in England, has advised over 20 PhD students at CU, and has had post-docs from the US, England, France, Denmark, and India. He mentioned that in his opinion and experience, the Americans on their first post-docs tend to be more ready to do independent research than the Europeans on their first post-docs - largely because they have had more time as grad students. But then he also said that the advantage maybe lasts for 6 months, so for a couple years of extra graduate study we might get a 6 month head start on our first post-doc.

  10. That's interesting insight Nick. Have any ideas why the medical/life sciences take so long?

  11. NN & JS,

    Ten years to a PhD from high school is a long time to invest. I understand doing independent research, but industries and labs require cooperative research, meaning working in ad-hoc teams. Besides, resources needed to do research are becoming so expensive that most universities now basically run R&D labs and grad student is poorly paid employee at best, and, mentorship is becoming harder to come by. Most wind up doing work on the grants a professor has.

    Today, most spend an year extra getting a bachelor’s degree and spend about two years extra in high school. We waste most productive three years of our life on mundane.

    I feel a grad student needs to invest two years in advanced multidisciplinary studies before embarking on research. In that two years, a grad student figures out whether he/she wants to continue research in an academic environment, or move to the real world, with a master’s degree. Right now, getting a master’s degree is considered as a failure. This needs to be changed.

    Finally, a PhD is earned mostly doing independent research demonstrating ability to stick with a difficult problem bringing it to an insightful conclusion. We then stamp such brilliant mind with a PhD in some esoteric field and promptly ignore them.

  12. I agree that moving from 5-6 year PhD programs to 2 year Master's programs, followed by a 3-4 year PhD program. I will add a word of warning here. I have a friend here at CU working on a Master's in Spanish Literature. Their programs follow this idea of a Master's program, followed by a PhD program for those that do well and desire to continue. The Master's portion of their degree takes 2 year. The PhD portion then takes another 5-6 years, meaning that 8 years from Bachelor to PhD is common.

  13. Pretty good comments. I'm not a big fan of actually artificially limiting the amount of time. In engineering disciplines we sometimes get PhD students funded by the military (in my field the Air Force primarily). Those students have 3 years to get their PhD. The general feeling among students and faculty is that they don't produce the same quality PhD as other students. And I have seen that first hand as well. Having said that, I do wish it wasn't a six year affair. For me, after my MS it will likely be only 4 years. But if you include my MS it will be 6.

  14. That's an interesting example. In this discussion I don't think anyone has really proposed an explanation for how the Europeans can maintain quality but limit time. Apparently it's not an easy thing to do (as jmb275's example shows).


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