One of our recent opinion articles elicited a comment from someone with the moniker “Disenchanted social scientist.” Here is part of what he (or she) had to say:
The fact of the matter is that, within academia, the pursuit of prestige and the advancement of political agendas trump everything else. Disinterested scholarship is very difficult to find. The sheen of respectability contained in the widely-touted fiction of “the academy” as a fellowship of seekers in pursuit of “truth” is but a thin veneer masking a cutthroat reality that a Blackwater or Syncrude executive would instantly recognize.
My own experience in the last several years since completing my doctorate has shown that university departments are environments of distrust where motives are seldom transparent, where the personality cult reigns supreme, and where success in a fictional job market depends on your ability to leverage the latest academic trend.
My first thought upon reading the comment was: Wow, this is what pursuing a PhD does to people nowadays? Turns them cynical and disillusioned?
Signs of this disillusionment can be found everywhere, from the scathingly cynical “So you want to get a PhD in the humanities” video (created by a doctoral student) to the more gentle cynicism of the very popular “Piled Higher and Deeper” (P.H.D., get it?) comic strip.
Clearly these are symptoms of a greater problem, and that problem may very well be the PhD system itself, a topic addressed in depth in the current edition of Nature magazine (vol. 472, issue 7343, published online Apr. 20). The magazine’s editorial states simply: “No longer a guaranteed ticket to an academic career, the PhD system needs a serious rethink.”
The problem, states the editorial, is that government policy has driven the expansion of doctoral programs “without giving enough thought to how the labour market will accommodate those who emerge.” The result is a “gloomy picture” where “exceptionally bright science PhD holders from elite academic institutions are slogging though five or 10 years of poorly paid postdoctoral studies, slowly becoming disillusioned by the ruthless and often fruitless fight for a permanent academic position.”
The editorial does not address the prospects for PhD holders in the social sciences and humanities, but I would suggest that their plight is, if anything, even gloomier.
The solution? Produce fewer PhDs, or reform the PhD itself – or both. On the second option, the editorial offers that universities should “reset the expectations of those in the system.” It continues:
Imagine bright young things entering a new kind of science PhD, in which both they and their supervisors embrace from the start the idea that graduates will go on to an array of demanding careers – government, business, non-profit and education – and work towards that goal. The students meet supervisors from a range of disciplines; they acquire management, communication, leadership and other transferable skills alongside traditional academic development of critical thinking and analysis.
A companion piece by columnist Mark Taylor is even more categorical. He writes that the system of PhD education is “broken and unsustainable, and needs to be reconceived. In many fields, it creates only a cruel fantasy of future employment that promotes the self-interest of faculty members at the expense of students. The reality is that there are very few jobs for people who might have spent up to 12 years on their degrees.”
The necessary changes, he says, are both curricular and institutional. On the institutional side, “the solution is to eliminate programs that are inadequate or redundant.” These decisions “should be made by administrators, in consultation with faculty members at their own and other universities, as well as interested, informed and responsible representatives beyond the academic community who have a vested interest in effective doctoral education.”
On the curricular side, one reason that many doctoral programs do not adequately serve students, he says, is that they are overly specialized, with “curricula fragmented and increasingly irrelevant to the world beyond academia.” If doctoral education is to remain viable in the 21st century, “universities must tear down the walls that separate fields, and establish programs that nourish cross-disciplinary investigation and communication.”
He adds: “Unfortunately, significant change is unlikely to come from faculty members, who all too often remain committed to traditional approaches.”
Is anybody listening?