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Is a PhD a waste of time?

Ask a panel of PhD holders and the answer, not surprisingly, is "no."

By LÉO CHARBONNEAU | NOV 25 2013

This week we have a guest post by Rosanna Tamburri, a frequent contributor to University Affairs who attended a session at the Canadian Science Policy Conference last week.

Is a PhD really a waste of time? This was the question that a panel at the Canadian Science Policy Conference held in Toronto from Nov. 20 to 22 was asked to consider. Since all of the panelists had a PhD, with the exception of one who was a doctoral student, it was little surprise that they all agreed that no, it wasn’t a waste of time at all.

Yes, the panelists acknowledged, it’s true that the number of Canadians under the age of 35 holding tenure track positions had dropped to 12 percent in 2005 from 35 percent in 1980. And yes, only 15 percent of PhD graduates in some fields will land a tenure-track job, according to one survey.  And yes, PhD enrollments have ballooned over the past decade. David Gallo, a PhD student at the University of Toronto and organizer of the panel, summed the situation up nicely, although perhaps with a bit of understatement, when he said: “This leaves a problem for me and people like myself.”

Still, most of the panelists chose to look on the bright side. PhDs will continue to drive the knowledge economy and lead innovation, said Avrum Gotlieb, U of T’s interim vice-dean of graduate and life sciences education. He noted how lucky Canada has been to have had the benefit of the knowledge and skills of PhD-trained researchers to see us through the HIV-AIDs crisis, the SARS epidemic and, more recently, the outbreak of the H1N1 flu virus. And where else but within academia do young researchers have the freedom to pursue whatever idea or problem they wish?

A PhD is a partnership, he said. Institutions have a responsibility to provide the best education possible. Students have a responsibility to maximize the benefits of that education whether that be within academia or not. It’s simply not realistic to expect universities to turn out job-ready graduates, he added. It should be up to employers to do that through on-the-job training.

Doctoral training provides students with the knowhow to generate and analyze data, and the ability to think critically – skills that can be transferred to jobs outside academia such as research scientists at pharmaceutical companies, research institutes and biotech firms, said Trevor Moraes, assistant professor of biochemistry at U of T. These skills are also transferable to positions within business and policy making roles, he said.

“I get a request a least once a week from either health agencies or companies looking for PhD-trained individuals with business or real-world acumen,” said Zayna Khayat, director of development at the International Centre for Health Innovation at Western University’s Ivey School of Business. “There are people who need you but don’t know how to find you,” she said.

Or go out and create your own job, suggested Ivan Waissbluth, chief development officer at ScarX Therapeutics, a Toronto biotech start-up. “For that level of pressure, you can do better in the private sector,” he advised.

But to do any of these things, the audience repeatedly heard, a PhD is necessary but not sufficient. To be really marketable, students also need to know how to communicate effectively and how to network. They need to show creativity and leadership and possess other so-called soft skills, which universities are trying to foster through professional development programs.  Universities are increasingly incorporating this type of training within PhD programs, said Dr. Gotlieb. They are also encouraging students and faculty members to work in teams and trying to find ways to curb long PhD completion times.

Which is all well and good. But missing entirely from the discussion was any talk about the high attrition rates in PhD programs, even within science disciplines. No one raised the possibility of universities lowering PhD enrolments. Only Dr. Waissbluth suggested that schools have an obligation to tell prospective students that their chances of getting a tenure-track job are low.

And if only a small minority of graduates end up working within academia, why does the culture, the curriculum and the entire orientation of doctoral programs still train people for that job, asked Peter Milley, a PhD candidate at Queen’s University, who was among the audience. “There’s a complete disconnect,” he said. Mr. Milley, who started his PhD after a 30-year career as a management consultant, asked why universities even bother having students like him, who have no intention of pursuing an academic career, work as a TA. “There are other things that people with expertise coming in later in their careers can contribute and schools are missing an opportunity in not taking advantage of that,” he said.

Change is coming though, Dr. Gotlieb assured everyone. “The die is cast,” he said. “We’re going to move forward.”

Maybe so. But like the PhD degree itself, professional development workshops and good intentions are necessary but hardly sufficient to fix this problem.

ABOUT LÉO CHARBONNEAU
Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau has been the deputy editor of University Affairs since 2003. He started the Margin Notes blog in 2009 and it has gone on to win several awards, including Best Blog at the Canadian Online Publishing Awards.
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  1. JC / November 25, 2013 at 6:17 pm

    Canadian universities need to wake up and stop graduating so many Ph.Ds. Unless a your Ph.D is in a skilled discipline it may be very difficult to land a job. More importantly, universities must stop graduating 3 and 4 year Ph.Ds. A good Ph.D usually take 6 to 7 years to do.

    • JB / November 28, 2013 at 2:55 pm

      Pffft! Says who? You? The proof is in the pudding. It is not up to the university to decide what a person studies, it is up to the person. If someone chooses to do a PhD in an area that has few applications in the job market then that is the decision of that person. And thank god, if people simply studied for a job in the job market our society would be nothing more than a pack of narrow minded drones. A PhD is not always a gateway to a better job, those taking a PhD expecting that it will get them more money can pull their head out of the sand.

  2. dr.doinglittle / November 28, 2013 at 8:13 pm

    These kinds of pro-PhD workshops are such a load of BS. Faculty and deans do not have the slightest clue about the realities of the non-academic job market. You know the cupboard is bare when the best rationale for doing a PhD is to build a “knowledge economy” – as if that means anything.

    The bottom line is PhD studies have little to no value outside university. Life is too precious to waste in dead-end doctoral programs.

    • JD / September 30, 2015 at 1:17 pm

      Just withdrew from a Pure Math PhD program. Best decision of my life.I earned below poverty wages, received little motivation or guidance from supervisors or faculty, and lacked skills the job market demands. Plus I come from Western University, where guys at the top like Amit Chamka participate in corporate greed while grad students struggle to get by. Shame on the university system. ALL BUSINESS AND CORPORATE GREED! SHAME ON WESTERN UNIVERSITY in particular. I feel like a loser to ever have had such an affiliation with Western University in London, ON.

  3. JC / November 30, 2013 at 9:43 am

    Very well said Dr.doinglittle! Canada needs to wake up. Too many depts are using PhDs to raise their research profiles. Knowledge economy is the new buzzword to bankroll top university administrators that do very little, if at all anything. The point still remains that in Canada, the universities are producing too many worthless PhDs.

  4. AB / December 2, 2013 at 11:18 am

    Sadly I find that many of these panels are a waste of time. The panelists are too often people who have held their academic positions for ~ 10 – 20 years and have no idea of the realities of today’s job market. My PhD is quite applicable to industry and yet I have been holding out for an academic job as I truly like research. I knew going into this that the road ahead would be tough but I find it frustrating to attend similar panels that basically throw around these buzzwords while while not providing any actual useful advice about how to land a job, academic or otherwise. Add in balancing a spouse’s career goals and I’m definitely starting to think my PhD was indeed a waste of time.

  5. Steven / December 22, 2013 at 8:47 am

    Hello!
    I have just began PhD studies and I don’t want to spend the rest of my life writing the thesis… Can you recommend a book that says how to write a PhD effectively? I mean, in a productive way that would not decrease the quality…
    Thanks a lot!
    Stev

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