Tuesday, August 2, 2016

More Astra Less Aspera

Last week I posted about how a top-heavy academic environment affects new scientists and very likely the future of academia. This week I'm interested in the supply end of the equation, how many PhDs are granted versus how many are needed. We tend to treat PhD students with an implied assumption that they will go on to become academics, when in fact the vast majority of them won't. (I didn't find hard and fast data on this, but the figure I've heard floated around from those in a position to know is about 3 percent of PhD students go on to become academics.) In some fields the market is saturated with PhDs vying for few tenure track or permanent contract positions. This NY Times article has some good stats (Ro, or the number of PhDs that are granted per current academic position) for different fields. 

Because we're treating our PhD students as future academics or research scientists, other post-doctoral paths can feel like failure.  Doctoral programmes rarely focus on preparing students for professions outside of academia, and those PhD graduates that continue on in academia often find themselves in the difficult position of working long hours for low pay as post-doctoral researchers. A recent Vox article reviewed current challenges in science as reported by 270 scientists, and they highlighted the post-doc grind in the last section, 'Life as a young academic is incredibly stressful'. Those who are then lucky enough to land a permanent contract or tenure-track position often find themselves competing with their former supervisors and their other graduates for research funding (which, as I discussed last week, is not increasing outside of biomedical science).

Some programmes offer professional doctorates, whereby students can focus on the skills they want to obtain more than the novelty of their topic or its groundbreaking contribution to the academic literature. Such programmes are usually geared towards disciplines that involve service provision such as education and health care. I think it's important to consider diversifying our doctorate programmes to reflect the needs of graduates who will go into sectors beyond academia. Professional degrees are an opportunity to broaden the impact of our research, and to justify the substantial investment that a doctoral degree entails.

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