The value of a Ph.D.

May 3, 2012 § 6 Comments

How long do you need to spend in the company of these to be professionally successful? Image by

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.?

§ 6 Responses to The value of a Ph.D.

  • Maitri says:

    Any modern STEM job requires a graduate degree, in my opinion, but not necessarily a PhD. An MS program offers additional coursework and an opportunity for independent research, but in a timely fashion. This approach trains incoming workers in quick-turnaround projects vs. ones that take years and produce specialists schooled in one or two things.

    With two MS degrees, I think I am extremely well-equipped for my current job as a geoscientist in the energy industry, and I think most PhDs are way too qualified for 90% of the professions here. (Leave alone that many PhDs also seem to lack the humility and social skills required to work in a team environment.)

    FYI, I recently wrote a related piece on the future of geoscience careers that in part questions the continued churning out of PhDs in a changing economic environment. What I don’t tackle in that post is the value of the average PhD now, i.e. the era of PhD students as lab workers when research grants and university funds are drying up.

  • Raj Mukhopadhyay says:

    I stumbled across this piece by Mary Ann Mason in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

    Here’s quote from the piece:

    Unless we are more accountable to our Ph.D. students, we will no longer attract the best and brightest to a profession that requires a commitment of a good chunk of someone’s young working life to train for a stressful, underpaid job that might not be available.

  • drsandlin says:

    Chemjobber and Docfreeride (and others) have recently been debating similar aspects of the same question. This recent commentary is a bit more “if a PhD isn’t the only way into a career, is a PhD still a good idea?”

    I had been told that a MSc would not open doors for me, so I earned a Ph.D. For several reasons (including bad economy, lack of experience etc), I am still looking for a job. The only one of my collegues who has successfully transitioned to industry did so with her Masters. I don’t know if she’ll feel like she hits a glass ceiling at some point, but she will have had 5 years of experience before I have any- which is a major trade-off.

  • Raj Mukhopadhyay says:

    Roger Tjian, HHMI President, also weighed in on this issue. Here’s his take:

  • […] things, help graduates start careers either inside or outside of academia. As I noted in a recent post, the degree does more than prepare you to do research. I am glad to see the heavy-hitters on the […]

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