No one seems to know what they’re good for

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

Somebody has to say it. PhD degrees are useless. Bertrand Russell never had one, law professors still don’t need them. Why do we have them?

Reason №1. PhD programs are a source of cheap indentured labor. Graduate students do a lot of undergraduate teaching — and pretty much anything else their supervisors want them to do — for very little money.

Reason №2. Nobody likes competition, and the PhD requirement adds a bottleneck for academic job applicants. 10 Masters and 25 Bachelors degrees are awarded for every PhD in the US. Nobody wants 10X or 25X more competition, so the PhD stays. It’s all about inertia.

The PhD is not that different from a medieval apprenticeship, where the apprentice slaves away for their master for 3–5 years, then gets accepted as a full-fledged member of the guild of blacksmiths, carpenters… whatever. Except that most PhD graduates don’t get hired as academics, despite getting their ‘qualification’.

In 2007–2009, new professorships could only absorb 16% of fresh doctoral graduates. In biology, less than 10% of PhD graduates end up in academic faculty positions, whereas 53% aspire to it. It’s not like PhDs can just go, “Screw this, I’ll get a non-academic job instead.” 3 to 5 years doing a PhD means 3 to 5 years of lost job experience. Many employers would rather have the job experience, unless they’re looking for a PhD.

Let’s be honest, there’s zero prospects of PhD programs disappearing. But they can change for the better. One way is to replace the single thesis with several published papers on related topics, perhaps with a shorter thesis that connects the papers together into a unified body of work.

This way, the PhD candidate isn’t examined solely by a university committee, but also by a range of expert reviewers across different journals. Since assessment would then be largely separated from supervision, candidates could switch PhD programs more easily, by submitting their published work for advanced standing elsewhere.

This may in turn lead to more bargaining power and better working conditions for PhD students. It would also give them valuable experience in article-writing, and publications at the end of their PhD. Many current doctoral graduates have neither. Someone working full-time could publish some or all of their papers first, then enroll in a PhD program for a shorter period or part-time, for that final wrap-up thesis and stamp of approval. That way, they won’t miss out as much on job experience outside academia.

The good news is, this isn’t just a pipe dream. Some universities in the UK, Australia, and Continental Europe now offer a ‘PhD by publication’ on this model (also known as a ‘PhD by published work’, ‘PhD by portfolio’, or ‘PhD under special regulation’). As expected, resistance came mainly from faculty, both to introducing such a program and hiring PhDs from it. But as more PhDs by publication succeed in academia, it’s only a matter of time before the old model starts to crack. Then, perhaps, we’ll see light at the end of this long, dark tunnel.

Ben writes on the theory and social science of communication, and anything else that comes to mind

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