PhD bottleneck

This week journal Nature published a few short opinion articles related to current situation with PhDs programs.

Basically, the author argued that we do not need to restrict access to PhD programs because no one can predict who will be the next Isaac Newton (see Pros and cons of the PhD glut).

Reasoning is correct, but the whole discussion misses the point.

For me the question is what is PhD or Postdoctoral training for?

You may think the answer is to produce scientists. Maybe this was the goal in 70s-80s. But these days what I have seen, read or heard, it is primarily to improve Principal Investigators’ (PIs) publication record. These days PhD Students or Postdocs are doing the job that was previously done by permanent research staff, like staff scientists or research technicians. Academia is filling out or replacing permanent research staff positions with temporary “employees”  like PhD Students or Postdocs. It is as simple as that.

If you consider this argument then it is obvious such an attitude towards future generation of scientists would affect their quality. Since Academia has no real reason to invest in development of PhD Students or Postdocs as scientists, PhD  or Postdoctoral training programs became just names with no real values attached to them.

You may wonder why Academia does not want to invest in development of PhD Students or Postdocs as scientists? In my opinion, it has something to do with current employment law and economy. Retirement age in USA is 65. However, many PIs do not retire at that age, and current law prohibits discrimination based on age. Thus, if PIs are healthy and capable at 65, then there is no legitimate reason to replace them with new generation of PIs. This is why so many PhD Students or Postdocs end up as contractors, which are, of course, temporary positions and provide less of everything, especially benefits (thus economical aspect).

What is the solution? Only practical solution is to be open about it. People entering PhD studies or Postdoctoral training should be told that the vast majority of them will end up as contractors, doing scientific research on an as-needed basis or working for someone else (in someone’s lab or in someone’s company). Idea of permanent jobs has become outdated.

Of course, one can argue that we need to scrutinize PhD awards more, increase qualification standards as Flexner’s Report did for Medical Schools in early 1910s, but all these will go against the natural flow of events and will not work.  It is not Evolutionary Stable Strategy so to speak (see John Maynard Smith).

posted by David Usharauli


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