The value of a Ph.D.
May 3, 2012 § 6 Comments
Do you need a Ph.D.? A Nature article and responses to it have gotten me thinking about the value of a Ph.D. Paula Stephan at Georgia State University wrote a piece in Nature a month ago questioning the economic wisdom of the current Ph.D. training system. In a nutshell, Stephan thinks there are way too many folks with a Ph.D. She argued, “Research institutes, by producing fewer PhDs, lead to a better balance between supply and the limited number of research jobs. Abstinence, after all, is the most effective form of birth control.” (She does make research institutions sound like puppy mills, doesn’t she?)
Her article understandably provoked some responses. One was from Henrik G. Dohlman at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He raised the good point that getting a Ph.D. doesn’t mean you must go into the academic career path. There are other careers out there that benefit from the skills and expertise gained in doing science Ph.D.s.
Take my career choice, for example. Science writing has many paths, and one of them is through a Ph.D. program in the sciences and engineering.
I have no regrets in getting my Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology. Yes, it was astoundingly hard work and a long slog with lots of soul searching, but it was an important time of my life. I learned to ask the right questions, find the correct sources of information, and to be persistent until I got an answer that made sense. I realized what a science writer does is what a scientist does but in different spheres — and that my temperament and innate skills are better suited for science writing than for research. My Ph.D. let me land a job right out of graduate school because a magazine was searching for someone with a science background and the zest for science communication.
Dohlman’s response to Stephan’s article could raise a question: How do you know whether or not you need a Ph.D. to be professionally successful? I certainly was clueless how my Ph.D. would be useful when I was starting out in graduate school. I thought it was going to immediately lead me into a top-notch job in industry or academia and perhaps put me in line for the Nobel Prize.
Graduate school quickly cured me of my naïveté. It taught me that scientists don’t live in a rapid succession of “Eureka!” moments. They keeping hacking away at a question or a problem until they have a plausible answer. There are a lot of failures, but the occasional successes are gratifying and sweet.
So I would say Dohlman has a good point. A Ph.D. is useful for more than just launching careers in academic or industry research. It teaches graduate students persistence, hard work, critical thinking and, most importantly, an appreciation of the ebb and flow of research. If graduate students choose something other than research as a career path, you can think of them as ambassadors of the scientific research enterprise.
But Stephan’s point is also well worth considering. Times are economically tough, to say the least. It costs money to train Ph.D.s. I sometimes have wondered if I would have been equally successful in life had I done a master’s degree in biochemistry. But I don’t know the answer because I haven’t done the experiment.
So I turn to my readers to ask what are the options for gainful employment these days for graduates with master’s, or even bachelor’s, degrees in the biosciences. In my day, the only feasible career I saw with a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry was to be a laboratory technician, which seemed to have limited professional development. But that was over a decade ago. Do you have a story to share about your professional success withouth a Ph.D.?