Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Oversold Ph.D.

The article (The Disposable Academic) in the current issue of The Economist (Dec. 18, p. 156) was blunt and to the point: the Ph.D. degree is now all but useless. People essentially are investing a sizeable amount of money on a faint future chance of betterment - that never materializes. How or why has this come to be?

The reasons are complex and not always well understood. In the U.S. at least, the reasons are twofold: a) a current glut of Ph.D.s and b) inadequate research funding to support them.

In the case of astronomy, we in The American Astronomical Society are regularly beseiged with dire warnings of the pressures brought to bear by budgetary constraints on astronomy and astrophysics jobs. An editorial in a recent AAS Newsletter noted, for example, that more than 6 out of 10 jobs for Ph.D. degrees in astronomy are currently outside the academic marketplace. The percentage is slightly better (5 of 10) for Masters recipients.

The newly minted astrophysics or astronomy Ph.D. basically faces a herculean task in getting his or her foot in the academic door. First, he must compete with postdocs - those with Ph.D.s already in hand who now are hired at lower than standard pay rates to teach classes and work for 3-5 years "earning their stripes". Next on the totem pole are the graduate teaching assistants who teach tutorials as well as lower level classes and problem-solving sessions. Finally, there are the adjunct lecturers, who are paid by the hour only and hired just to teach a course or two. Adjuncts receive no benefits at all and are what some call the "temps" of the academic world.

Ph.D. students themselves often pass as cheap labor, especially in American universities where they must double as research or teaching assistants. In the first case, they basically do all the scut work and research on behalf of the supervisor who ultimately may claim most of the credit for the work. As a teaching assistant, the Ph.D. student gets to grade all the primary staff's papers and hold tutorials. Most Ph.D. students - as I was- rightfully describe it as "slave labor" - given you're working seven days a week and 10 hours a day for a menial "assistantship". In my case it was just $9,800 a year. (At the University of Alaska - Fairbanks).

Meanwhile, had I been able to complete my Ph.D. at The University of the West Indies (for which my primary supervisor had approved it) I'd not have had to do any extra teaching, or marking or other extracurricular work. Which brings up the next point about the Ph.D. : the requirements vary enormously between countries, universities and even subjects.

In the Caribbean, which follows the format of British universities (since most universities there are affiliated with one or other English university, e.g. University of London) the path to the Ph.D. is by way of research exclusively, no courses. Even at the Master of Philosophy level, my degree emphasized the research aspect - directed toward the thesis and research papers. The only courses were done to complete preparation to pass the Qualifying exam for commencing the research degree.

Had the degree been received there- as originally approved by my senior advisor- I'd have continued to receive a grant from the Barbados government for the work, and also likely have been hired on as a lecturer in the Physics Department. Alas, as noted earlier, many conflicts arose in the course of the degree not the least of which was when an outside examiner recommended it be completed at a U.S. institution.

Of course, in the U.S. the requirements basis is entirely different and much more structured, with so many hours of courses replacing the intensive research aspect. Soon after landing in Alaska, in fact, I realized the "fit" was wrong, and the Space Physics Ph.D. degree I was pursuing was out of synch with my Masters from UWI. Apart from a bifurcation of research priorities, I'd need at least double the time that a normal Ph.D. would to finish, to make up for all the coursework needed under the more structured requirements. (Alas, none of this information was conveyed to me before I left for Alaska, though I wrote numerous inquiries). After two years I decided to cut losses, since beginning a new program somewhere else would've consumed even more time and more problems ....and so it went.

I went right back to Barbados where I was immediately hired as a Physics lecturer at Harrison College. Others doing the Ph.D. at the same time I was weren't so lucky, they actually went on to do comprehensive exams, lost interest in the advisors and the work loads, and ended up with no jobs at all. I understand one of them now owns a candy store somewhere in San Francisco.

According to The Economist article, 43% in the U.S. leave a program without finishing the Ph.D. The reasons again are as diverse as there are candidates: being enmeshed in negative office politics, philosophical clashes with one's advisor, exploitation by one's advisor (e.g. to get you to write papers to which s/he can attach his or her name and exclude yours), and poor organization of the department. But also noted in the same article, research has shown "those who finish the Ph.D. are no cleverer than those who do not..Poor supervision, bad job prospects or lack of money cause them to run out of steam". It is also a mistake to believe those who complete a Ph.D. are "more educated" than those who leave with a Masters only. In fact, in many cases those who complete Ph.D. programs are simply lucky by virtue of having either: a) Generous advisors who do more than their fare share for the student, or b) are beneficiaries of an office politics that more often aids them than inhibits. In any event, the only standardized measure to gauge educational attainment is the Graduate Record Exam, and Masters candidates fare just as well as Ph.D. candidates. (My total of GRE scores for admission to the UAF graduate program was a 1330 (verbal plus quantitative), which was better than all the other Ph.D. candidates, who went even further in the program).

The sad fact today for the aspiring Ph.D. is that even if they make it through the hurdles there are no assurances of glory...or academic jobs. As I noted earlier, the newly minted Ph.D. must compete with postdocs as well as adjunct lecturers. Since most universities (especially after the credit meltdown) are on tight budgets, it makes more sense to hire more adjuncts or keep postdocs longer, than bring in new full time Ph.D.s. A potential to generate research funding is the main item which may elicit a university to look more closely at a prospect, but even here those prospects suffer because of the current impetus toward congressional budget cuts - given the size of the deficit.

Currently, under the new budgetary constraints (see recent issues of Physics Today), the Earth & space sciences, physics and astronomy stands to lose nearly 25% in basic research funding. This means many more facilities may close within the next year, with more existing researchers tossed out - while new ones can't get a foot in the door!

Meanwhile, the pathetically low pay and negligible job protections (with few benefits) means that far fewer native born Americans are opting to pursue the Ph.D., as in the sciences. According to The Economist, the proportion of foreign Ph.D. students has now increased to 48%. It is more worth it to them because: a) their governments usually pay their way (e.g. as in the case of Cao Fei, shown in the picture, paid for by the Chinese while he was doing his Ph.D.) and b) they are automatically assured of a research position with their governments when they return - unlike the typical American for whom budgetary decisions will usually decide for him.

If people ponder all these points, it may help them comprehend why, for example - so many physics Ph.D.s (or would be Ph.D.s) left physics to go into high finance and become the "quants" - who helped to create the destructive derivatives (credit default swaps) that triggered the credit meltdown in 2008. Or why other Ph.D.s - like Jason Lisle - became fundamentalist spokespeople and promoters. Well, because "selling out" was easier than pursuing their putatively true passions!

Those of us who didn't sell out, can at least feel some relative peace in knowing we didn't sacrifice our principles or integrity for some extra bucks or a fleeting limelight. And as far as conducting debates or discussions on the existence of a deity, having or not having a Ph.D. is neither here nor there. At the end of the day the quality of the debate rests on the quality of the arguments given. What we have seen from Jason Lisle, is very little quality. See also:

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