Overrated: PhDs

Post-doctoral studies may be a waste of time in the future world of work

Magazine Overrated
(Illustration by Ellie Foreman-Peck)

Getting a PhD has always been a tough task. Although calls for reform have long been voiced, the time spent in graduate programmes hasn’t declined. In Britain, a PhD can typically take four years of study, though many candidates take longer. In America, a doctorate is much more of a commitment. According to Laura McKenna in the Atlantic: “In 2014, students spent eight years on average in graduate school programmes to earn a PhD in the social sciences. It takes nine years to get one in the humanities, seven for science fields and engineering, and 12 for education.”

Your typical PhD can be somewhere around the age of 30 by the time he or she enters the “real world”. Their friends, who opted to take the other road, have years of work experience and savings rather than entering the workforce exhausted and heavily in debt. According to a recent report issued in the US by the National Science Foundation, the demand for science experts  has reduced dramatically over the last decade. Additionally, tenured positions have been replaced by adjunctification, a fancy way of describing an over-reliance on part-time instructors. In the US, more than half of all faculty members now hold part-time, contingent appointments.

Adjunctification is also rampant in the UK. Here, the ill-fated receive no benefits, no office, no travel stipend, and no recognition of their existence. Many associate lecturers teach at multiple sites just to keep afloat financially. The world of academia is an unforgiving one. Faculty members do not interact with each other as equals. Most associate lecturers are treated like intellectual pariahs. Without access to funding for research or paths to presentation, how can one ever escape the associate rut?

Though demand is clearly not meeting supply, universities continue to churn out  doctors. With little chance of securing full-time teaching roles, PhDs have little option but to embrace the much-maligned role of postdoc. By providing cheap labour for the university labs that manage to attract scarce research funding, postdocs live a hamster-wheel, hand to mouth existence, doing the same thing repeatedly with little chance of progression. Any aspirations to set up a lab of their own are largely ignored or discouraged. Why? Neither guidance nor funding is readily available. In many ways, just like the associate lecturer, the postdoc is trapped in a nefarious cycle of servitude.

What is the result? Poorly-paid postdocs, or glorified interns, unmotivated and disillusioned. Young adults who find themselves overworked and underappreciated. Whether in the US or UK, the existing postdoc system has created expectations for academic career advancement that in many cases will never be met.

Is it worth pursuing a PhD? Sometimes, yes. If you wish to carve out a meaningful career in academia, a PhD is a must. However, if academia is not for you, think very carefully before signing up. After years of toil working towards a PhD in clinical psychology, I have been lucky enough to find a secure lecturing job. Nevertheless, the path to PhD completion is littered with landmines. You will spend weeks, if not months, assiduously working on a chapter to make it as close to perfect as possible. When “perfection” is realised, you submit your work to your supervisors. You then wait. After what seems an eternity, you must wait a little more. Eventually, you get the corrections back. The illusion of perfection is quickly dismantled.

That gorgeous piece of work you spent countless hours perfecting has been defaced with unintelligible scribbles. Deciphering this enigma requires the skills of Tom Hanks in The Da Vinci Code. Once you’ve decoded and modified the chapter, submitted the work and waited, you receive more corrections. Think of it as academia’s answer to Groundhog Day.

Though I laugh (and occasionally cry) about it now, the pressure to excel exerts a profound influence on one’s mental wellbeing. Several studies suggest that graduate students are at greater risk for mental health issues than the general population. A lesser-discussed phenomenon also casts an ominous shadow: social isolation. The often abstract nature of the work and feelings of intellectual poverty can lead to a sort of mental degeneration. Add to this the realisation that an almost non-existent tenure-track job market exists, and you have a recipe for psychological meltdown.

In academia, job security is largely determined by the number of papers you have published in reputable, peer-reviewed journals. Today, however, the number of papers being retracted continues to rise. The bar to acceptance has never been higher.

When you’re applying for a faculty job in a hyper-competitive environment, there’s pressure to publish in high-impact journals such as Nature or Science. When you find yourself heavily in debt, slaving away as a postdoc or associate, such a task may prove to be improbable, if not impossible. The world of academia is ruthless. You have been warned.