Saturday, May 14, 2011

No Guarantee for PhDs (or Anyone Else)

At Nature, that article on the PhD system and the accompanying editorial have garnered hundreds of comments, and I found the discussion illuminating. The argument focuses on the American system and the problem of over-producing PhDs. The commenters fall, more or less, into two camps. The first is made up of people who agree that the American system is exploitative and unfair. "Walk into just about any university in the world," said one, "and postdocs have the worst job security of anyone working there, including the porters and janitors." There is also a lot of complaining about the waste involved in giving advanced scientific educations to people who end up teaching high school. But these commenters are much outnumbered by the second category, those who think the first sort are whiners who can't compete. Consider:
Life is tough – you have to fight tooth and nail for your job.

Fierce competition for academic positions is the only way to maintain excellence in academia. That's why academia needs more qualified Ph.D.-holding candidates than there are vacancies.

Stop complaining and be creative with your career choices. Getting a PhD in any field doesn't mean you must become a professor or an industry researcher. The PhD imparts general skills that are applicable to many professions and disciplines.
Since one of the findings of the study was that American PhDs have a very low level of unemployment (less than 3%), these commenters do have a point. But this insistence on having to make your own way is a little bit scary:
In other words, the value of your PhD doesn't necessarily depend on its ability to land you a job as an assistant professor. If you had the intelligence and persistence to complete your PhD, those qualities should also help you carve out a unique, challenging career outside of academia. It's up to YOU.
Which brings me back to one of my themes. In the fully-developed meritocracy we seem to be entering, there are no guarantees. Not even a PhD in biophysics guarantees you a good job. No academic credential does -- except, as one of the commenters observed, an MD or a nursing degree, and who knows how long that will last? Getting all of your academic credentials, no matter how long it takes and how much effort you put in, is just one step on the road to a successful career. It also takes lots of hard work -- I read all the time about young scientists, lawyers, and so on who work 80-hour weeks -- networking, self-promotion, and maybe a bit of luck.

Is this the world we want? I was struck by one rather flip commenter who said, "let's face it, it just sucks to be a junior scientist." Nobody contradicted him. Scientist is one of the top slots in our world, one of the most prestigious positions, a job thousands of young people dream about having -- should it really suck to be one? More broadly, we seem to have dumped a whole lot of trouble onto people in their 20s, who now have to somehow carve out their own career paths. Those who rise to the top will do so via lives of such extreme effort that they have time for little else. I don't have any numbers in front of me, but I would be willing to bet that successful scientists these days have very few children.

Is there something wrong with the whole notion of a guaranteed job?

Should a willingness to sacrifice almost everything else be a pre-requisite to entering a prestigious career?

I worry that in the system as it now exists, important categories of thoughtful people will be excluded from academic, scientific, or any other kind of prestigious job. I mean people who mature slowly, people who prefer to ruminate rather than bustle, people who can't stand to network and promote themselves, people who take time off for children or just to bum around. Some of my favorite academic books were written by people with very low overall productivity -- for example, Religion and the Decline of Magic, which took Keith Thomas 16 years to write. In the current system no junior professor would be allowed 16 years of secure employment to let his masterwork mature.

When I was at Yale there were two European intellectual historians -- Peter Gay, who had a flashy career and had written lots of famous books but was a terrible teacher, and Franklin Baumer, who had written rather little (by Yale standards) but was deeply thoughtful and had an extraordinary knowledge of his field, and who was a really marvelous teacher. Would a man like him even be able to get a top academic job now? Or any academic job at all?

Imagine a future in which current trends in inequality continue. The world will be more and more divided into a small class of the wildly successful, whose main characteristics will be an immense capacity for hard work, boundless self-confidence and willingness to promote themselves, intelligence, and intense dedication to their careers, and then the rest of us, who will toil in cubicles, classrooms, and retail outlets for ever falling pay. Will we eventually revolt and try to impose medieval-style guild limits on the productivity of the master class? This seems far-fetched, but some of the academic conferences I attend limit presenters to one paper each, which strikes me as a small step in that direction. Perhaps a more realistic option would be a re-invigorated union movement representing all the mediocrities of the world and built around the notion that everyone deserves a fair deal.

I wonder, sometimes, where we are heading.

No comments: