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Cell division
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This is wicked.
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How people in science see each other.
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Probabilities
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more travelling...
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travelling...
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Do academics have charisma?
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Love this.
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Not our proudest moment. But damn makes for a good laugh.
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Staggering, but frankly not surprising.
Friday, April 22, 2011

Hinterland of Canadian science.
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JaniceF

I can't promise to be PG13. In fact I promise not to be PG13.

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Friday, April 22, 2011

Today I had a friend email me this link.  It's a link to an April 21 2011 article in Nature called "The PhD Factory."  The authors suggest that the world is facing unsustainable exponential growth of newly minted PhDs into a shrinking labour market and that it's time to stop and re-examine the system.


Credit: Nature

 

According to the article in 2009, the US produced 19 733 PhDs in the lifesciences, second only to China. In 2009, China produced 50000 PhDs across all disciplines overtaking the US and becoming the worlds largest producers of PhDs.  The UK produced 16 606, Germany 25 604 and Japan 16 296 PhDs.  More PhDs but are there more jobs?

Clearly not in academia.  In 1973 within six years of completing a PhD, 55% of US doctorates were able to secure a tenure-track position.  This figure dropped to 15% in 2006.  Although the annual number of science and engineering PhDs increases the proportion of those finding temire-track academic jobs is dropping, while the number of postdocs increases. The article goes on to suggest that you aren't really better off with a PhD.


Credit: Nature

According to the data (not at all well presented in this paper) those with a Phd in the US and Europe doesn't make more money than someone with one. And they're not happier.  (I'd like to see those stats broken down by discipline.)

All this data isn't really surprising.  What is staggering is to have it presented in a mainstream journal and all at once.  In a world opinion piece by Mark Taylor Chair of the Department of Religion at Columbia University had this to say about the PhD system,

"The system of PhD education in the United States and many other countries 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."

And so at first, I thought thank darwin I'm not starting a PhD today.  Yes, it is totally crazy to pursue a humanities PhD but only because of the debt burden.  I know very few graduate students who are able to obtain an Arts PhD without going into debt.  And I'm hard pressed to believe that with a humanities PhD one could easily find a good paying job that doesn't involve saying the words, "Would you like soya milk with your decaf latte?"

As for the science PhD yes, there are definitely too many.  And yes, industry is not going to absorb the excess.  But is it worth it?  It depends.  But mostly I think, yes.  Shock and horror right? Girlpostdoc have you changed teams?

I say this, because I realize that there are reasons other than wanting a t-t position to get a PhD.  For example, if you wanted to be an industry scientist, a PhD does amount to a higher salary and more responsibility.  And there are ways to combine the PhD with another degree like law or business administration.  But that said, it means that motivation and approach have to change both from the university AND the student.  As a graduate student you should know before you start the PhD what job you want.  This means being realistic.  Knowing that not everyone is going to get that t-t position - what is your Plan B?  It also means that as a student - get in and get out and do not languish in a PhD for 6 years.  Secondly, I think it is beginning to happen that university professors and administration recognize that pursuing a PhD does not necessarily mean a student will become a professor.

Taylor goes on to say,

"There are two responsible courses of action: either radically reform doctoral programmes or shut them down.  The necessary changes are both curricular and institutional. One reason that many doctoral programmes do not adequately serve students is that they are overly specialized, with curricula fragmented and increasingly irrelevant to the world beyond academia. Expertise, of course, is essential to the advancement of knowledge and to society. But in far too many cases, specialization has led to areas of research so narrow that they are of interest only to other people working in the same fields, subfields or sub-subfields. Many researchers struggle to talk to colleagues in the same department, and communication across departments and disciplines can be impossible."

Well yes, our knowledge base may be narrow, but the skill set of a science PhD is not.  I can think of a lot of transferrable skills that I possess like project management, experimental design, statistical anlaysis, relational database expertise, writing and oral communication, critical thinking, basic computer programming skills, logic, etc.  It's a question of getting creative with those skills.

The solution is to eliminate programmes that are inadequate or redundant. The difficult 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. To facilitate change, universities should move away from excessive competition fuelled by pernicious rating systems, and develop structures and procedures that foster cooperation. This would enable them to share faculty members, students and resources, and to efficiently increase educational opportunities. Institutions wouldn't need a department in every field, and could outsource some subjects."

Personally, I can't see university administrations shutting down the most lucrative of programmes.  Researchers that bring in millions of dollars in indirect costs are not going to have their departments closed.  Instead, we will lose the departments that could be integral for that cross-disciplinary research but that don't typically bring in a lot of money.   I agree that we need to encourage interdisciplinary research, but I also don't think in the sciences (at least genetics) that there is a vaccum in terms of collaboration.  Technological advances in sequencing and computing have forced computer scientists and biologists to talk with each other.  And not just in academia.

That said, I still think there are too many PhDs and when you look at the domestic and foreign PhD factories, it ain't going to stop. So I have a few suggestions about how to change things.  First, I think that the PhD program could be modified such that it has two streams: one for those interested in academia and one for those who know they want a career outside academia.  It doesn't mean that if you follow one track you are stuck in that track, but it does force students to think about what skill sets they want and how they want to get it.   Second, programmes need to reduce the number of spots in any PhD program. This would force a reduction in the number of graduating PhDs and help re-adjust the supply demand imbalance. Addendum to original blog: Thirdly, what each department should provide is transparency.  For each PhD student that graduates, a department should offer (as individual PIs do on their website) a list of where their graduates are now, how many are employed in academia, industry, communications, etc, how much debt they started with and how much debt they left with, and readily provide those statistics upon request.  It's not hard - but have you ever asked for them?  This type of information might do the trick in terms of reducing the number of PhDs and concentrate applications towards the more successful departments.

Lastly, in a global marketplace while difficult perhaps there can be some way to standardize the PhD.  According to the article, although the number of doctorates graduating in foreign programs is increasing, the main problem is the low quality of many of the graduating students.  Here is a quote from the article,

"Yongdi Zhou, a cognitive neuroscientist at the East China Normal University in Shanghai, identifies four contributing factors. The length of PhD training, at three years, is too short, many PhD supervisors are not well qualified, the system lacks quality control and there is no clear mechanism for weeding out poor students.

The quality issue should be helped by China's efforts to recruit more scholars from abroad. Shi says that more institutions are now starting to introduce thesis committees and rotations, which will make students less dependent on a single supervisor in a hierarchical system. "Major initiatives are being implemented in various graduate programmes throughout China," he says. "China is constantly going through transformations."

While China may be going through a transformation, I don't actually believe that anything will change here in North America.  The inertia of the system means nothing will happen.  After all that, would I do the PhD again?  Would you?

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Barefoot Doctoral

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Thanks for the link to the article. Have you seen The Economist's view on the topic ? http://www.economist.com/node/17723223 Being The Economist, they focus on the problem of mismatched insentives for people going into fields with long PhD's followed by long post-doc periods, while mentioning a lot of the same points you highlight from the Nature article.

I think there is an additional issue with degree inflation occuring. 40 years ago, my understanding is that Bachelors of any sort were rare enough, that they were a good signal to a future employer of a persons ability, or drive (or at least economic class), and therefore were a good leg up in terms of getting a job. Now, as more people are able to get bachelors degrees, the appopriate signal is in a higher degree (master's or doctorate). This is not _necessarily_ to say that degree mill schools should not exist. There are many circumstances where it really is a piece of paper that is keepiing a door closed that otherwise shouldn't be closed. But there does need to be a rethinking of the structure of degrees, and the expectations of students who attend these programs. Unfortunately, I don't have proposals, just observations.


Suzy
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I really like this:

"First, I think that the PhD program could be modified such that it has two streams: one for those interested in academia and one for those who know they want a career outside academia."

I think this would help new students to focus and get the proper training. And open their ideas to more ideas about science jobs.

I also think that graduate schools should offer career guidance in the form of meetings with an advisor (not their PI) that helps students to figure out what they want to do and help them prepare. If schools had relationships with biotech and pharma, they could help students do internships for a short period to get an idea of the environment.

Penn State University has a program that does exactly this- really innovative and groundbreaking. I met the Director recently. She is totally committed to students and their success.

http://www.huck.psu.edu/education/biotechnology

 


Dr. Girlfriend
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I started a PhD because I wanted a PhD, not because I wanted a better income or career. I wanted to continue studying, and lab work did not seem as bad as real work. Besides, the salary was better than any other job I had had before or during university. I would do a humanities one if I could get a liveable stipend.

I am not at all convinced education pays, especially not considering some of the debts incurred for those not able to get scholarships or parental support. No doubt it does for some, but I also know plenty of graduates working long-term in non-skilled jobs in retail and catering.

For me it was all about the continued pursuit of higher learning. The tenure-track thing just seemed like the best fit once I was forced to start thinking about life after grad school. However, I lost the will to continue trying to fight my way out of the postdoc bottle-neck. Perhaps if I had gone in wanting anything other than a PhD I would have felt cheated.


Brian Krueger, PhD
Duke University
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China is a perfect example of quantity not equaling quality.  Although, those numbers are really scary, talk about a PhD factory!  Maybe my experience at Iowa wasn't the norm but I'd say 50% of my friends were looking at academic jobs while the rest looking into industry or government.  I think we're starting to do a better job of showing students that TT isn't going to be an option for everyone, but we're certainly not there yet.


JaniceF
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@Barefoot.  Yes I've seen this article.  There is a very good lecture presented by the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism in the Fall 2010 by a lawyer named Glenn Harlan Reynolds (http://vimeo.com/15821943).   He talks about the fact that the median family income is not enough to cover a college education.  Hence parents and students take on enormous debt because they think in order to get ahead they need a college degree.  Banks and universities are also to blame because they encourage this.  Ultimately leaving college as at 18-20 year old with a full-on mortage and no capital is outrageous.  The bubble part of this is that as soon as students wake up to this - there will be a crash.  A second good lecture is called The Coming Collapse of the Middle Class by Elizabeth Warren (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=akVL7QY0S8A).  The two lectures have a lot of in common.

We need a profound shift in the idea of university and what is deemed a worthwhile pursuit of higher learning.

@Jade.  That's really great that Penn State has taken the lead.  Thanks for the link.

@Dr.Girlfriend

For me it was all about the continued pursuit of higher learning. The tenure-track thing just seemed like the best fit once I was forced to start thinking about life after grad school. However, I lost the will to continue trying to fight my way out of the postdoc bottle-neck. Perhaps if I had gone in wanting anything other than a PhD I would have felt cheated.

It's possible to enter graduate school with both the idea of pursuing higher learning AND considering the economic future.  It would be a mistake for a grad student to naiively believe that higher learning is all that one should think about when entering grad school.  Besides why does one NEED a graduate degree to pursue knowledge.  I believe that you can pursue education and learning outside of the classroom by reading etc.  When you get down to it, the Phd is really ego fulfillment for all of us.  And the misguided belief that having a PhD comes with some sort of respect.


Dr. Girlfriend
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CanadianGirlPostdoc "When you get down to it, the Phd is really ego fulfillment for all of us.  And the misguided belief that having a PhD comes with some sort of respect."

I totally confess to the vanity aspect of my PhD. Rarely can I just do something – I also want the T-shirt to prove it! I have come across several technicians who do independent research comparable to that of postdocs. Persons who have authored several first author papers should really be PhDs, but I guess not everyone wants the hassle and not many departments are that supportive.

Undergraduate degrees used to be a good guarantee of a promising future, but now so many people have them, graduates are not such hot commodities. I think the same is becoming true for PhDs.

I am just waiting for the super-PhD degrees evolve! Perhaps this will be future of the postdoc – a formalized training program cumulating in a degree higher than a PhD?


JaniceF
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super-PhDs would never fly.  as it stands a Phd cuts into late life history and lifetime earnings.  my feeling is that if they tried to create a postdoctoral degree, it would collapse the bubble almost immediately.


Delfinut
Newcastle upon Tyne
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I'm just about to start a PhD in the coming academic year! I suppose I am doing it for the vanity aspect as much as anything else, but it's also the only way up I can see right now. 3-4 years is a big committment, but I love the I idea of a) being a student, yay! and b) having one big part of your life dedicated to one project that is ALL yours.

I have a Master's and have been working as an RA (a glorified technician) for the past two odd years and this is not what I want to be (the one who works on every little project in the lab). I'm not particularly keen on TT but I definitely want to be at the bench for the next 7-8 years at least. Also, to do anything science related, I still think a PhD would be worth it - I'm interested in the reform of policy, writing for the media that type of thing  - not sure yet. But at the moment, I'm not really employable anywhere else other than research, and because of my loans, I can't afford to be not employed! Ergo PhD :P

I'm not going to be part of a PhD 'program' so in that way I guess I will have more freedom to choose extracurricular activities that will help me develop those skills. That's the plan. Many of you are past this stage I think, what do you think?

On a side-note I think the American PhD where there's no pressure to finish in 3 years (I'm in the UK) has a lot of scope for including more formal training for possibilities other than the academia (like the one Jade mentioned). If we can get our act together, there might yet be a way out of this bottle-neck!

 


AGreenMonster
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I also went for a PhD not for the job.  I went for the personal challenge.  I don't think the t-t position was ever Plan A for me. 

I definitely think something may be wrong with the system- we need to be teaching people that a PhD has more to do about learning to think than automatically getting job.  So I don't like the saying that there are too many PhDs.  Learning is never a waste and it is a worthy goal. People should never be discouraged from the pursuit of knowledge. Instead, I would focus on making sure that people getting a PhD really think about the reasons to get the Ph.D.  That it doesn't not autmatically mean you will a job that even requires a Ph.D. 

Sometimes one doesn't even know what "job" they want before they get that Ph.D. I didn't- still figuring that out.  but I'd never regret my Ph.D. even if I get a job that I could have had without one.  Because the self discovery is a big part of it all. 

But yes, more guidance during grad school may help students be more aware of their paths and the possible end results.


JaniceF
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@Delfinut:  "still think a PhD would be worth it - I'm interested in the reform of policy, writing for the media that type of thing  - not sure yet. But at the moment, I'm not really employable anywhere else other than research, and because of my loans, I can't afford to be not employed! Ergo PhD :P"

I don't mean to be rude - but if you have student loans why are you going back to school?  Will you incur more debt?  If you're doing the PhD because you want to defer paying the loan but don't have a clue as to what you want to do when you get out, then how are you going to pay back the loan when school is finished and you can't find a job? I'm not arguing against getting a PHD, but for goodness sake, get some focus girl. Get a grip on your life and figure out exactly what job you want.  Then go find the person who has it and ask them how they got it.  Don't waste your time humming and hawing about what to do. Sure it may not be the same in 3 years, but at least you have a plan. Life is way too precious.

The American PhD is way too long - the mean time is 7years!  I don't know how old you are but maybe when you're 20, 7 years doesn't seem like a long time - but if you're anywhere near 30, then imagine how old you will be when your done the PhD.   Even if academia is not the track you are interested in, there will still be more training.  How old do you want to be before you get your first job? 40? 45?  The UK system is the way to go.  Get in, get out, and get on with life.

@GreenMonster - There are other ways to find personal challenges and you don't need to go to grad school to pursue higher knowledge.  It's a little thing called books.  I'd like to know if when your 55 and still asking if someone wants soya milk with that latte, if "you'd never regret the PhD."   Dude, I don't shy away from self-discovery - but when you live life, it's all self-discovery, you don't need grad school for that.  As for teaching people to think, isn't that what high school or undergraduate/college degrees do?  There's no need to pass the buck up the education chain.

In NAmerica we waste resources and consume too much.  I think education can simply be added to that list of wasted resources and the graduate education has become a mindless commodity.  I don't think you shouldn't pursue higher education, but do it with purpose and at least a tentative plan for what you want at the end.  Not some wishy washy idea about higher learning.


becca
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I suspect there are many people who have the same reason to want the PhD that I do- they want to have their own lab. Personally, I couldn't care less if I'm in academia, a research institute, at NIH, or a company with large degree of lattitude extended and a mission I can get behind. And frankly, any of those would be far better matches than e.g. teaching at a SLAC.

So I don't think "academia" vs. "not-academia" makes that much sense.


Delfinut
Newcastle upon Tyne
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@CanadianGirlPostdoc Oh dear. Right, so:

In the UK, a master's is only a year long, and I didn't have any lab experience in my BSc. The loan is one of the reasons (the other was more lab experience) that I decided to be an RA before beginning a PhD.

It's a tech post, I've learnt quite a lot, and have had the opportunity to get involved in science outside the lab - science fests, talks, media workshops. This sort of opened up the idea that TT is not ALL that I could be aiming for. But all this is too new to me to figure out what exactly could be an option. Meanwhile, I love being at the bench, and I've got a fully funded position, so no more loans (wouldn't do it if I had to pay).

If I come to the dreaded postdoc bottleneck, I just want to have a few options that are science rather than coffee related. I may not even find a postdoc after my PhD... but that is an uncertainity everyone faces after a degree right?

And I think I made a mistake about the American PhD (the MS+PhD) by assuming people started as soon as their bachelor's was over. But I agree that even at 21, 7 years is a long time to be in graduate school... it's one of the reasons I didn't apply to the US. Obviously I don't know much about the American system so should probably have stayed put on it!

 

 

 

anonymous

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There are other ways to find personal challenges and you don't need to go to grad school to pursue higher knowledge. It's a little thing called books. I'd like to know if when your 55 and still asking if someone wants soya milk with that latte, if "you'd never regret the PhD." Dude, I don't shy away from self-discovery - but when you live life, it's all self-discovery, you don't need grad school for that.
I so agree with what Canadian Girl Post doc said. I seriously dont want to take personal challenges while in my mid twenties, waiting for another 4-5 years before I complete the challenge and get a Phd and still dont know what the future holds for me.I really think undergraduates and graduates should be taught about a life outside the academia. Its a whole world out there with so many challanging opportunities. I was so up for Phd, having my life planned out till I actually started working as an RA and realized I didn't really enjoy bench work and dint find the TT so exciting. I am looking at other options now. I only wish somebody had told me about these oppotunities before....

JaniceF
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@becca <i>So I don't think "academia" vs. "not-academia" makes that much sense.</i>

It's a false dichotomy.  I prefer it to using academia vs alternative careers because in this economic climate, academia is the career where the smallest proportion of PhDs successfully enter (15%).  This means that the majority end up in careers outside academia.

@Delfinut   Sounds like you've given it some thought.  Uncertainty can be minimized by having a plan, even if the plan changes, which it will.  At least you know your options!

@anon 1:57  I think its great that you were able to get work as an RA and find out that you didn't enjoy bench work.  At least you didn't do a PhD and a postdoc and then come to that conclusion!


chall
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thanks for the link, I have missed that article. I've startd to shift a little lately in regards to this "too many PhDs". I mean, I think it would be 'better' (more desireable) if the PhD meant more like it did before - as in quality since there was a smaller number of people and therefore maybe more selection/training available.

However, as society looks today I am tempted to say that I think we are only redefining what we need "in order to do a job". With this I mean that there are many jobs today where a MSc or BSc is desired/wanted/needed whereas a few years ago no degree was needed "since you could learn the job on the job". And one part of me thinks that society benefits from more people having academic trackrecords (this might be one of my romanticizing dreams? ^^)

I do think the "over production" of PhDs might not be the most cost effective thing to do.... neither for the Phds with loans or the univeristies/society grants. Looking at it from my personal view I wanted the PhD since I saw myself in Academia TT although I've changed now and moving into more of an industry setting I still value and need my Phd training. Not to mention that I use my knowledge, details and all that with it. I'd be lying if I didn't say I'm proud of my 'title' but in the end though, I don't think the three letters mean "excellent" since it's more about "where did you do it/what did you do" since there is such diversity in "quality" when you meet different PhDs.

Maybe more than anything it means "I stuck it out and finished after x years and completed my training"?


JaniceF
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@Chall  Welcome to my new home.  Your welcome.  I totally agree with what you are saying in terms of how society redefines what are the necessary qualifications for a given job.  You hit the nail on the head.  It used to be that companies would get people to take IQ tests or standardized tests before hiring them, but now instead they look for a college education.  It's a proxy to suggest the person has to be mildly intelligent and can at least finish something.


AGreenMonster
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As I said, I agree that there are too many people who are choosing to do PhDs for the wrong reasons.  It is definitely not a decision to take lightly.  It's too long a time to spend on something that you doing for all the wrong reasons.

However, again,  the satification I got from my personal challenge is/was worthwhile.  It may be my attitude about education backed by the values I was brought up with though.  Yes, we can learn from books- but a PhD is not about learning from books.  It's about much more than that.   It's about learning how those who wrote the books think and present their work.  That you can't just believe something either just because it's in a book.  There's a big part about persevering when nothing is working.  It's also about opening your eyes to the things that we (humanity) don't know and being part of that search.

Highschool doesn't automatically teach people to think- it teaches them to take in facts and spit them out.  Heck undergrad doesn't automatically teach people to think (and PhDs don't give us common sense as we all know) either.  So perhaps that's another system that's broken.  But at the same time, in highschool you're still too young to really understand the experience you're given...

I try not to live my life regreting my decisions.  If I'm serving lattes when I'm 55 (sorry to those custumers though, I'm sure I'd be terrible at keeping orders straight), I might wonder why I wasn't good enough to get the position I wanted but I don't blame the PhD or those who "allowed" me to get one.  Because perhaps it's naive of me but I love love love knowing that I am part of the process of gathering knowledge.  Perhaps my work will even have been part of figuring out how to make this great lattee I'm serving. ;)

You are definitely right- there are lots of different ways for self-discovery and I don't believe a PhD is right for everyone and that's fine.  It's definitely something that needs to be decided for oneself.

My issue is the fine line between saying there are too many PhDs out there and saying a PhD isn't worthwhile if you're not using it.  I'm saying that at the end of the day there are no guarantees and you have to make a decision with as much information as possible.  So yes, if you're going for a PhD thinking you're going to get a job because of it- that's a terrible reason to do so because the stats obviously show that there aren't as many jobs out there are people with PhDs.  But if you're willing to take the risk and enjoy the ride and take as much as you can out of the experience, you're least likely to feel like a failure.

So admittingly my argument isn't not based on economy (ie job availablilty) but knowledge value. :)


JaniceF
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@GM "There's a big part about persevering when nothing is working."  I cannot agree with you more about that aspect of the PhD.

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