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There’s No Comeback for the PhD

You have to be crazy to get a PhD these days. So argues Dan Drezner at Foreign Policy. We’ve tangled amicably with Drezner in the past over the higher ed bubble, but in his latest piece he says something we wholeheartedly agree with. After pointing out the many disadvantages of getting a doctorate—the poor job market, the high attrition rate—he says:

Long-term trends do not bode well for the modern university. You might think that the hiring drought in the academy is just a temporary lull. And that might be true. But go read Nathan Harden’s essay on the future of the university in The American Interest. It’s likely an exaggeration, but there is certainly some truth in his Schumpeterian assertion that “the Internet is a great destroyer of any traditional business that relies on the sale of information.” The great hope for universities to bolster sagging graduate programs is to encourage more foreign students—but now even the Chinese influx of cash cows full-tuition-paying students has slowed down. So academia, that bastion of stability, might suddenly find itself on shakier ground at exactly the moment you [a prospective PhD] arrive on the scene…. And to paraphrase The Princess Bride, anyone who tells you that it will get easier for Ph.D.s in the future is selling you something.

Drezner says that there are really only two reasons why you might get a PhD. One, you’re crazy; or two, you’re crazy about the subject you will be studying. But even the latter is becoming a kind of luxury for those lucky few who can afford to spend several years on a degree without any guarantee of future employment. All others should heed Drezner’s advice before surrendering the money, years, blood, and tears it takes to earn the right to be called “Doctor.”

Read the whole thing.

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  • JT

    This happened a decade ago, but at that time a recently made PhD would visit our small family business, along with the professor he studied under in hopes of landing a job. We didn’t have a need for his services but was glad when he stopped in. He had based his studies on understanding lipids, a limited field or at least limited for what we needed. Well, the professor he studied under died from cancer, and I guess with that the influence this younger man had in landing a plumb University job. To my surprise one day reading in the paper, the PhD fellow had opened his own VooDoo health shop on campus. He had run into trouble with the law for one reason or another with what the doctor was “prescribing”, and from what I could tell was likely needing to close that start up down and move onto something else.

  • Anthony

    Is the Ph.D any longer indicative of true scholarly interest or has it become (without intending to perhaps) a prospective for jobseekers – academic administrators, tenured academic employment, etc. The right to be called “Doctor” ought to still correlate with committed research scholarship – despite the money, blood, and tears.

  • Luke Lea

    Do you know how physics Ph.D’s make their cars go faster? They take the pizza-delivery sign off the roof.

    [my physics-majoring nephew told me that one]

    • Jim Luebke

      Though physics seems to promise you a Richard Feynman-like career, the wikipage for physics major redirects to “Engineer”…

  • Merina Smith

    I have mixed feelings about this. As a Mom of 5, I started grad school when my youngest was in school, then took the slow road so that my work didn’t interfere with my family obligations. My degree was financed by grants and occasional TA work. As one of the lucky ones who could pursue a PhD without needing to find a job at the end, I’m tremendously grateful that I could study and write about what I love. The nation will lose something if no one does this any more, though I have to admit that political correctness has diminished the value of a lot of “scholarly” work. Still, there’s a lot of research out there that needs to be done and will enrich our lives. I hope such work does not fall entirely by the wayside.

  • close_reader

    Luckily, I figured this out decades ago. I’ll pass the news on to my kids’ friends …

  • molss.jpn

    In the best case, Ph.D programs can nurture and enable ‘new ideas’. Whether any of these ideas are of any use often relies on the process of evangelizing the ‘idea’ wherein sufficient interest and backing is gained enabling development. If both can be met, the value of the Ph.D is assured but feel that this may be changing.

    Given my background in the semiconductor industry, continued innovation requires dedicated advanced study to extend and or uncover new technologies. As important as these ‘materials’ technologies have been to the emergence of new markets, the growth and maturity of ‘data-handling’ technologies has been more profound significantly increasing volume requirements of semiconductor products while shifting focus from innovative new designs to higher yield ‘ease of manufacturability’ in designs.

    There is a lot more room for growth in ‘data-handling’ technologies which, I believe, will continue to lessen the need for material innovation as determined by the degree of value-add. As an example, consider the value add of improving power efficiency of circuits within a device vs. ‘smarter’ operation of the device. The latter is what is required eventually to realize Prof. Mead’s coveted ‘autonomous vehicle’ (a worthy goal for me as well). Given the extreme complexity of vast arrays of interconnected sensing and automation technologies, ‘manufacturability’ will take precedence as a necessary competitive means of managing costs.

    In such a world of increased engineering expertise (applied technology) over innovation, I feel you may be right that the Ph.D will have less value and hence a less valuable pursuit.

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