Once upon a time, the PhD was a qualification that only a very small percentage of graduates pursued. PhD students were among the best of the best, at least as measured by purely academic ability. But then, as the number of undergraduates increased, the number of potential PhD students increased. At the same time, the funding for research increased and more and more students were able to avail of the opportunity to study at PhD level. Many were attracted to the PhD lifestyle and were genuinely interested in doing research.
As the value of stipends increased and students realised that they could (just about) survive financially as a PhD student, the attractiveness of the PhD increased. In addition, a whole new cohort looked carefully at career progression in multinational companies and recognised that doing a PhD was a good, and even necessary, career move.
Then, someone got the idea that, as a country, we need to double the number of PhD graduates if we were to compete in the ‘knowledge economy’. More PhDs would get us out of ‘this hole’ – at least that’s what the academics were saying. The fact that academic scientists are not experts in the interaction between academic research and economic development was, and is, rarely mentioned. Indeed, the justification for increased PhD numbers was driven, in part, by the fact that we produce fewer PhDs than some of the best performing economies. But, correlation doesn’t imply causation and it is quite possible that increased PhD numbers is a consequence of economic success rather than a cause.
So, eventually, many of the better (not just the best) graduates were being snapped up by the Universities to pursue PhDs. Between increased undergraduate participation rates (which reduce the average standard of graduates anyway) and the diversion of the best graduates into the PhD market, employers began, not surprisingly, to see a reduction in the standard of the graduates that they were interviewing.
Furthermore, the companies now found themselves recruiting people with PhDs in increased numbers. But the PhDs did not seem to be exactly what the companies wanted even though they had an extra four years of (research) training, typically at the taxpayer’s expense.
And so the structured PhD emerged. The thinking was that if many of our best students are being encouraged to do PhDs, and given that many of them will pursue business or industrial careers, they should at least get a wider training in subjects that are directly relevant to the industrial world.
Thus, we have got to a point where we divert many of our best students down the PhD route, assuming that this is an essential part of our supposedly vital ‘knowledge economy’, only to realise that the PhD path is a rather circuitous one and maybe in need of an upgrade.
In all of this, the main argument for the PhD has been that students acquire valuable skills in critical thinking, problem solving, communication etc. and that these skills are transferable to real world problems.
But it seems to me that there are two key problems when assessing the value of the PhD to the wider economy. Firstly, the PhD population has a better-than-average academic ability anyway and the career success of PhD graduates may be as much a reflection of their innate talent as their PhD training – not to mention the value of the ‘Dr.’ title itself. Secondly, when extolling the value of PhD training, I think many of us tend to compare the PhD with a raw BSc graduate. But the real comparison should be between the PhD graduate and someone with similar innate talent who has at least four years experience in a relevant industry. If the job in question were to have substantial research role, one would likely go for the PhD graduate. Otherwise, it’s not necessarily an obvious choice.
This whole argument relates to my recent post about plausibility. It sounds plausible that we need to populate our industries with PhDs. But I’m not sure that the training obtained in a PhD is really as useful and important as people claim.
There is some research to be done here, I believe. Someone needs to examine a large cohort of PhD graduates, track them through their careers in business or industry and scientifically evaluate the benefit of their PhD training to themselves, the companies they work for and the wider economy. Maybe this has been done and if it has, I’d love to see the results.