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A PhD should be about improving society, not chasing academic kudos (theguardian.com)
301 points by lingz 10 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 210 comments





When you look at the stats, it’s hard not to conclude that the current PhD system is fundamentally broken. Mental health issues are rife: approximately one-third of PhD students are at risk of having or developing a psychiatric disorder like depression. The high level of dropouts is similarly worrying – and possibly another symptom of the same problem. Research suggests that on average 50% of PhD students leave graduate school without finishing – with numbers higher at some institutions.

The biggest risk factor I've found for a PhD student is lack of research experience during the undergrad degree.

I've seen it over and over.

A newly-minted bachelor's student without research experience has no preparation for the frustration, isolation, and sense of futility that real researchers face.

When it hits them, many discover they lack the temperament to actually move a research project forward. By then, they will have sunk 2-3 years of their life (or more) and a major amount of prestige into a failed attempt.

If you're an undergraduate and harbor the slightest ambition to get a PhD, drop what you're doing right now and start looking for a research group to join. You're going to need 2-3 years of experience actually doing research to know if it's something you'll enjoy long term.

You may well discover that you don't like what you find. If so, better to know that now than when you're in your late 20s.

If things do work out, you'll have a better idea of what to look for in advisors and schools.


Of course this quote also suggests that maybe people who go in to PhD programs have higher rates of mental health issues. I would definitely argue that PhD programs are both bad for mental health and also attract people with poor mental health in the first place.

I have known plenty of people who didn't feel like they had the skills (both technical and/or social) to go in to industry so they applied to grad school.


Hoping that the degree will mask a lack of actual skills. I encounter this often, 'guy has phd but struggles with the decisions to make actual progress in practical terms'. Is it possible to attain a phd and rely mostly on rote memorization? Are all phd candidates required to make an original contribution to their respective field?

It is not possible to rely solely on rote memorization, and to get a PhD is supposed to require making a substantive original contribution to a field.

Having said that, the skills required to get a PhD are pretty specialised - it's absolutely not a given that people with PhDs are highly-functioning human beings, or even necessarily capable of holding down a conventional job. They will at a minimum have demonstrated the ability to self-organise, a high level of bloody-mindedness, and some very deep knowledge in a probably very obscure field. But unless you move straight into solo academic research in the same field, that's not the same thing as being trained in any strong sense.


"Is it possible to attain a phd and rely mostly on rote memorization?"

No, but it's possible to just be a research serf to the professor, and the professor will carry you more or less to completion - very little indepenent thought needed. You do need to be able to do lots of (well defined, but tedious) work.


It's a shame that completing a mountain of well-defined, but tedious work with little independent thought is considered an original contribution to the field.

Well of course it isn't, and you won't see any job openings saying 'looking for a 4 year slave'. And you generally hire people expecting them to be capable of working independently. But sometimes it doesn't turn out that way, and instead of losing years of work and effort, things just turn out a certain way.

> rely mostly on rote memorization

What on earth would you be memorising and for what purpose?


For same reason for which we memorize alphabets.

Do people do PhDs in things similar to reciting the alphabet? What do you think the examination for a PhD involves? It's a thesis and oral example. You can't produce a thesis by memorising someone else's work.

My current research is on retyping coding examples because I believe we don't give enough repetition (or rote memorization) in CS and that initial frustration is a primary reason for the high attrition/failure rates.

To shift the view, I don't need to be a kinesiologist or nutritionist to work out. By all means, they help, but are not necessary. The "memorization" of repeatedly going to the gym creates the motivation to get better, which motivates learning how nutrition and kinesiology impact performance. The point is there is some degree of "regurgitation of facts" that is necessary for progress.

"To memorize" vs. "To understand" is the core difference in Eastern vs. Western education styles. You need both obviously, but when and where to "memorize" and when and where to "understand" are often debated. My research idea is that more foundation of facts is needed because then you can talk about theory without worrying someone doesn't understand.

(To invoke Bloom Taxonomy) So while I'm not "just memorizing" all these different meta-cognitive theories of how people learn, I need to know them well enough that I can apply them. Once I can apply them, I can evaluate them, and eventually see enough patterns that I can create my own models and theories.


I love the idea there. I know I and many others were taught coding by being plopped in front of an empty editor window.

If I had to design a curriculum that wouldn't happen until very late in the process. Start by copying, then modifying, then adding and subtracting elements, then get to wholly original creation.

I also imagine this would cut down on cheating. No more empty page terror, or panic to grab a solution.


> You can't produce a thesis by memorising someone else's work

I did not imply this. If you looked up every basic result, you'll be demotivated easily.

It does require some memorization.


You bring up a solid point. It would be interesting to see, of the students leaving a PhD program with poor mental health, what fraction already entered the program with poor mental health? My hunch is that the stark majority acquired it while they were in the PhD program, but I have no data obviously.

This is the _exact_ reason I went to grad school. I didn't believe I was a "good enough" chemical engineer so I went to grad school. About 2-3 years I was miserable but stuck with it to get the letters after my name. Thankfully my program pushes us to get out in under 5 years.

I also struggled with mental health during my PhD, but there were a lot of compounding factors. The PhD was fuel on the fire, but not the spark.

Now I've transitioned successfully into the "data science" field, so I'm much happier!


This is scarily close to me.

Not sure if you're talking about the Chemical Engineer part, but I've met a lot of people trained as ChemE's that have nothing to do with that profession. But maybe that's true of a lot of professions and I'm just biased!

Did chem eng undergrad, a PhD (not fun), and am now a data scientist! I also worked on a website using public data and found out that only 7% of chem eng majors work in the field...

link: https://careertrend.com/major-chemical-engineering.html

Other majors (e.g. accounting, nursing) work much more in their field. There just arent many chem e jobs.


I find this funny since I had the opposite experience: at the time I left undergrad I didn't think I had the chops to do a Ph.d., so I went into industry instead.

Also, professors are so often in no position to offer genuine advice. They often have massive conflicts of interest which they do not disclose: funding sources, requirements, and plans.

In my own personal experience, professors and academic advisers have consistently given me the worst advice (about choosing a path or personal development) when I have asked for it. It takes a certain temperament to become a professor. There are a couple exceptions, but most of the professors and academic advisers I talked to seemed to be unable or unwilling to connect with people who were not there for academia qua academia, and very few had enough experience outside academia to give any kind of credible comparison.

Find someone who got a PhD and works in industry, or who got a PhD and works in an unrelated field, or someone who didn't finish their PhD. More viewpoints will give you a better picture.


I'm the inverse, and so are most people I know.

Every faculty member I spoke to in undergrad told me very clearly that a PhD was bad for my career, enormously stressful and risky, and led to a faculty job search that was likely to fail. I was told not to pursue it unless I desperately wanted to be a faculty member. The most common advice I got was "don't do it".

This wasn't because I was a shitty candidate. I was accepted to four of the top five schools.

It's a mixed bag whether you will get good advice I guess.


That could also be gate keeping. The fewer people who want a slice of the pie the better.

That seems overly cynical to me. What GP was told is the honest truth. Even in STEM fields finding a faculty position is quite difficult.

this. They don't mention to students, who are too inexperienced, to understand funding and how it works. Professors want the prestige of having tons of students which isn't always in the best interest of the student. The professor's plan can also be "vague" in order to always hold the carrot in front of the horse's mouth. Endlessly chasing something it will never reach.

Money is the source of evil when it comes to corrupting graduate school programs. This has been especially acute since the late 2000's.

This. This describes my entire undergrad experience.

> The biggest risk factor I've found for a PhD student is lack of research experience during the undergrad degree.

Previous research experience might help, but there still are a number of factors that need to align in order to have a relatively smooth PhD. In my mind, it depends on the quality of your previous research experience, your advisor, and your goals upon graduation.

For my experience in particular, I did two summers of research at an R1 when I was in undergrad. Continuing on that path, I went to graduate school for my PhD. I am five years in; looking back, I was still extremely unprepared for the realities of research. When I did the undergraduate research, my hand was being held by the PhD students I was working under. Sure, I did some interesting stuff, but I received a substantial amount of guidance. Now in graduate school, my PhD advisor is very hands off, and our group tends to work in isolation. I have to push my research forward on my own. It took me years to get used to this, and not feel completely incompetent. My previous research experience was not a good predictor of my life as a PhD student.

In my mind, the best preparation would be to do a thesis-based masters degree and try to publish during that.


The bulk of the second year of my master’s research with limited class work. Learning how to set up experiments, writing a thesis, and doing the groundwork for publication (which happened a few years later) helped a lot get right into my PhD although it was not at all related to my Master’s work.

These phenomenons are interesting to witness for someone like myself who loves doing research but followed a very different academic path because I felt demonized by formal school systems in high school and at a state uni. Speaking purely from observation of many peers, there were definitely some who navigated the social and academic realms well, and garnered respect from socially-encourageable and conformist mentors, but for some reason their ambitions often lacked.

All my friends with PhDs are unhappy, and do not enjoy doing research. They are all intelligent, some a little bit creative, and only curious when forced. They are experts of citations (a tease that never gets old to me, sorry) and I’m afraid are most concerned with not being left behind or achieving prestige.

Having had countless long late-night chats with them in empty bars about this, I gather their habits of conformity got them that far and let them down once they were on their own. They consistently think what I’m doing in my life is more interesting than theirs. I think the opposite and would die to be in their shoes.

These friends are all in mathematics or humanities, and for those in humanities, I would especially die to be in their shoes. I recommend them books on a regular basis, collaborate with them on papers for fun, sending loads of notes that get chiselled down to whatever the editor is expected to prefer.

The whole process is nasty from my perspective. A pile of people desperate to wiesel off the next because that’s the skill they were selected for from early on. In my best effort to put bitterness aside, I can only rationally conclude it’s rotten to the core.

To be clear, these are very intelligent people. But, the system of schooling most go through selects fiercely against curiosity at it’s earlier stages. This is only a theory. Feel free to point to research on the topic.


I work in a large academic research lab and I'm with you on the lack of creativity and conformism. Most people here don't have ambitious ideas. They always think in terms of basic improvements to ideas that were recently published about. They seem to automatically think that progress can only be made in the direction of the latest cool papers from well-established authors in the field. Me, I'm with Peter Thiel... Don't compete. Differentiate yourself. Try to find a niche that everyone isn't already trying to fill.

People here are also seemingly very conformist. For the most part, they work extremely long hours, are in hetero-normative relationships, with similar life goals (get a high paying job, buy a house, have kids), they don't do drugs or rarely even drink. If they have any hobbies, it's going to be your typical going hiking and camping sort of deal.

I'm surprised that STEM research doesn't attract more "freaks" and free-thinking people. People who want to challenge assumptions and do things differently, explore new possibilities. Unfortunately, I guess where I am, the main draw is prestige and the possibility of getting a high paying job when you finish.


I'm surprised that STEM research doesn't attract more "freaks" and free-thinking people.

At least when I was at university, those people generally didn't have the focus to graduate with good grades (or graduate at all for that matter). It's one thing to sit around and talk about all the 'out there' implications of quantum physics. It's an entirely different thing to get your quantum physics course work in on time and study enough to pass the exam.


I think I'm one of the freaks in question. I'm not one to sit around pipe dreaming, but I've found a vastly better fit writing code at startups than I ever did in grad school.

I get to invent, experiment, learn, and at a vastly faster pace. I'm even working in the same field, solving similar problems to the ones I worked on in school.


This is great if the problems you want to solve have direct business applications with a turnaround time of tomorrow.

There aren't very many startups funding basic research, though.


I know. That's why I went back to grad school in the first place. Big mistake :)

I don't think there's such a clear link between nonconformity in the sense of having a "normal" lifestyle and nonconformity in research. Or at least I have never viewed people who don't drink as less creative in research than those who do (to use one of your examples). If anything, a conformist is more likely to drink given that most people do and that there is a lot of social pressure to drink.

I think the problem comes more from uncritically accepting standard practices or beliefs, not from just doing something superficially different from others.


I worked in an medium sized research lab while I was doing my graduate work in BioEngr. While I was doing research as an undergraduate I felt I had much more leniency to be free-thinking and out-there with my research/papers.

Once in grad school the reality of winning grants in 6-12 month cycles meant that the most successful PhD's were really much better at marshaling undergrads and master's students to do their work for them, rather than being elite, creative scientists themselves. I saw a lot of time being wasted tweaking previous research into something 'novel' so we could cite ourselves as much as possible and still put up a good introduction about doing something to improve society.

Ultimately, the lack of long-term vision coupled with a pretty unstable PI made me reconsider the academia route. As an aside, I was doing all of my advisor's "peer-review" of articles, reproducibility is a huge issue, I saw a ton of funky stuff submitted that I personally didn't have the time or budget to check, but couldn't in good faith outright reject, because I was also sending out papers to be reviewed.


Because of the way that STEM is taught, free thinking is often discouraged, and the 'freaks' leave academia as soon as possible or become conformist. This is not a new thing, Einstein was mocked for his free thinking ideas.

If that's the case, what is a non STEM bachelors degree that you would recommend for 'freaks'?

Philosophy.

Why philosophy? Additionally, some notable ceo's (Peter Thiel, Sergio Marchionne) also pursued philosophy degrees. Are philosophy degrees prevalent in c-suite exectives, and if so, why?

What institution are you at? We've got plenty of weirdos here where I work. I'm one such person.

Most things are a lot more fun when you're free to do them as you please and pick the good stuff. You get the fun stuff, they get all the stuff. :)

Running across an interesting book might feel like gold, makes you imagine research must be gold. You forget about the countless days, months, or years (sometimes even more depressing, decades) spent digging in between the gold veins.

I suffered from much the same disappointment when I started my PhD, after a masters that left me imagining research is a world of fun. Shortly after, I dropped it when I found a job/career that really brought me satisfaction. A move I have done more than once over the years after that.

So I have one advice for people who feel the disappointment of being "stuck" and not knowing what to chase: Consider just the work that passes the threshold for a decent standard of living and then pick the one that fulfills you more, rather that the one that makes others say "wow". Living on "kudos" means you're at the mercy of others to get your satisfaction.


I agree that academia selects for conformists, which is bad for curiousity driven research.

Jeff Schmidt's book "Disciplined Minds" makes a similar argument. I have not read it all, though, so perhaps I should pick it up again.

The book has a good description of the problem, but in my view the author views the process as more political than it necessarily is. I also think the book's solutions are unlikely to help. But I still recommend the book as one of the few on the subject.


Disciplined Minds is a great read.

Early on the book discusses some data that indicates more highly educated people tend to be more supportive politically of the government than the population in general. (E.g. during the Vietnam war lawyers defending anti-war activists in the US were trying to figure out how to pack juries with people who would be favorable to their clients and discovered that roughly the more educated someone was, the more likely they supported the government and would disapprove of anti war activism)

The book makes the argument that gaining professional credentials is less about gaining knowledge/skills, but more about demonstrating that one can be trusted to work in an organisational and confirm to the assigned goals/ideology of that organisation.

One rough argument made in the book is for workers performing roles with work that can be completely specified by superiors, it's less necessary for workers to demonstrate they can conform to how their employer wants them to think, provided they do the work. For professional roles involving more intellectual work where an employee's day to day tasks cannot be completely specified in advance, it's important for such employees to demonstrate they can think how the organisation wishes them to think, so an important part of training for these roles is essentially political training.


> One rough argument made in the book is for workers performing roles with work that can be completely specified by superiors, it's less necessary for workers to demonstrate they can conform to how their employer wants them to think, provided they do the work. For professional roles involving more intellectual work where an employee's day to day tasks cannot be completely specified in advance, it's important for such employees to demonstrate they can think how the organisation wishes them to think, so an important part of training for these roles is essentially political training.

Great summary. I guess my qualm is that this is not necessarily political. I'll admit it often is, but in my field I think people are often dedicated to bad ideas because of what I see as institutional inertia, the sunk cost fallacy, or not liking math, not just politics.


Jeff Schmidt's book "Disciplined Minds" makes a similar argument. I have not read it all, though, so perhaps I should pick it up again.

Having never heard of this book, I googled it after your mention and found this:

http://disciplinedminds.tripod.com

which immediately convinced me to order a copy. Sounds like fascinating stuff. Thanks for bringing this up!


Oof. Funny you mention that. I just bought it, but haven’t read it yet; only flipped through a little. It’s clearly a dangerous topic for me and if I can find the discipline in myself, I’ll return it before it’s too late.

Thanks for the thoughts, and the other comments here are all very lucid. These points aren’t lost on me, and I expect plenty of truth to them.


Norbert Wiener's book "Invention" is another on a similar topic. He argues that research should be driven more by the interests of individual researchers rather than managers and bureaucrats.

Research will always be driven by the interests of whoever is financing it. It just happens that it's almost never the researchers themselves.

And one thing to consider: a researcher's mind is an inquisitive mind that will "dig" even in directions nobody really cares about, don't help humanity, etc.

The one upside of someone else giving the direction is that you can be sure that there will be some concrete benefit from it. The downside is that it's mostly about money and power...


> The one upside of someone else giving the direction is that you can be sure that there will be some concrete benefit from it.

Wiener argues that this often is not true, because the people with the money often have a poor understanding of what's actually important.

To give an example, in my own area of research, my impression is that most industrial folks hate math. They consistently deny the benefit of it. As a theorist who tries hard to do practical work, I find it very irritating for my work to be written off by industry for a bad reason. I went to a conference a few weeks ago, and it was clear that industry folks won't attend my talks, but when I spoke with some of them in private they seemed much more interested in what I knew. It may be mostly an advertising problem, but I still have the math barrier to break through. My mantra now is "math is cheap", which seems to resonate with people who are used to paying tons of money for new experiments which usually don't give you useful information. At the very least I can tell them what sort of experiments would be valuable based on my theoretical understanding.

Ultimately, we need a balance of input from those with money and those with more detailed knowledge. This is what I strive for. At the moment I'd say the vast majority of research is directed from above, so I'd agree with Wiener that we need to move in an individualistic direction.


I won't claim to understand the topic better than this author but one thing I know: important is an incredible subjective concept. So I will quote the perspective of another writer. In Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind there's a chapter dedicated to research (the Sugar Daddy of Science). The short version is you have limited resources. You can't invest in every research project. You are more likely to invest in the ones that increase those resources or to try to solve a pressing issue at that time.

There is no scientific answer to the questions "Which project to fund? What is good? What is important?", only political, economic, or religious reasons. Science studies for the sake of expanding human knowledge and satisfying curiosity.

What's important for you, the scientist? Finding a cure for Alzheimer or developing a new semiconductor? What's more important for the person funding it?

So I will argue that "having a poor understanding of what's important" in a generally valid conclusion about anyone. And unfortunately I am acutely aware that a scientist might just be curious enough to spend money on studies that will bring no palpable benefit to anyone but his own curiosity sometimes. While this is an admirable academic exercise, is it better than any other study that produces in the end a more palpable result, like money?

I might be to cynical or pragmatic but sometimes there's no going around it. Just recently I read about a new archaeological dig that uncovered a viking toilet and could finally describe their approach to human waste over the centuries. While this definitely increased the total human knowledge, can you imagine a more practical way of spending that money? I can assure you someone a poor understanding of what's actually important could :). Or at the very least you can expect that they will be able to identify the "importance" based on the financial and profitability aspects.


I agree that the problem of selecting which research to fund is difficult and (usually but not always) subjective. While a very interesting question, it's not actually relevant to what I was arguing. I'm getting the impression that you didn't understand one of my points, so I'll restate it in more detail.

> While this is an admirable academic exercise, is it better than any other study that produces in the end a more palpable result, like money?

You seem to believe that research results in the most revenue when managers and bureaucrats are in control, but I disagree. Wiener's argument is that managers and bureaucrats often don't even accomplish their stated goals (which should be fairly objective) due to their lack of subject knowledge, e.g., in your example, how to increase revenue. Required subject knowledge makes the right path forward invisible to most people. Many people are fond of efficient market type arguments suggesting these things are unlikely, but if the number of eyes who can spot the problem is small, efficient market ideas don't work.

Jacob Rabinow, a prolific inventor, had a list of "laws", and this is one of them, which basically summarizes the problem:

> When a purchaser, who doesn't know the difference between good technology and garbage, orders "good technology," he will always get garbage.

If someone can't tell the difference between good quality research and bad quality research, they'll likely optimize on cost or some other axis and make a poor decision.

I try hard to provide value to industry, but I find that industry folks avoid the sort of theoretical engineering work I do because they don't like math. Again, some of this is a marketing failure on my part, but this is only a fraction of the problem in my view. You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink.

Some of this seems to stem from managers and bureaucrats not trusting researchers. Yes, many researchers would waste the money, but this to me is similar to managers and bureaucrats wasting money because they don't know what they're doing. I see no reason to be "acutely aware" of researchers' faults but not the faults of managers and bureaucrats. Ultimately we need a hybrid approach, not the largely top-down manager and bureaucrat controlled approach we have right now.


> When a purchaser, who doesn't know the difference between good technology and garbage, orders "good technology," he will always get garbage.

That may be perfectly right but I think we're both right only when taking it to an extreme. A purchaser might as well understand the technology very well. Just as a researcher could be a manager at some point.

The problem lies with "pure" researchers and bureaucrats. They will always see just their way so there's no middle ground. The perfect situation happens just by accident, where the researcher's curiosity happened to intersect with the bureaucrat's ideal money maker. And much of this is down to how each one communicates the expectation: the scientist doesn't know how to state his goal in terms of benefits that the bureaucrat can understand, and the bureaucrat doesn't know how to ask for things in therms that the scientist would understand.

But take the military for example. Their currency is power. And they are perfectly able to drive research in that direction even without being driven by scientists.

And yes, bureaucrats don't trust the researchers with their money. It's because a manager investing in research is like a bet with long odds, where you don't know what exactly you're betting on, and the bookie is a gambler himself. Scientists get guaranteed money without guaranteeing a result. And "worse", a success for the scientist doesn't really mean success for the manager. You are happy you have an interesting result, or a confirmation. The manager is happy if his investment was worth it in terms of time and money.

A more practical example would be if you paid someone to build you a manor and after years of work he comes with a hangar. Unless you're able to monetize on that it's a failure.

Every one of my former colleagues learned to sell their knowledge in terms of benefits a manager understand. It's easier for you to understand their language than for them to understand yours.


> And yes, bureaucrats don't trust the researchers with their money. It's because a manager investing in research is like a bet with long odds, where you don't know what exactly you're betting on, and the bookie is a gambler himself. [...] The manager is happy if his investment was worth it in terms of time and money.

Wiener has an entire chapter on this. Research is a gamble by its nature and will rarely ever appear to be a good investment to a bureaucrat or manager. As I recall, Wiener seemed to want to move away from this model towards funding individual researchers with good track records, for this reason and also because management often does not understand what's important. While I do want to provide value to industry, I don't expect them to fund my research because they seem to be allergic to math in my field.

You also seem to be confusing research with development. If someone is asking for a manor, that's not research in my view. If someone is asking for a structure with certain properties and it's not obvious what the answer is immediately, that's research. Research often returns unexpected answers even when done intellectually honestly.

> Every one of my former colleagues learned to sell their knowledge in terms of benefits a manager understand. It's easier for you to understand their language than for them to understand yours.

I try, but it's frustrating when most industry folks lose interest you once you mention basically any math. As you've said, it's a learned skill, which I'm still learning. There are no guarantees, unfortunately.


> All my friends with PhDs are unhappy, and do not enjoy doing research. They are all intelligent, some a little bit creative, and only curious when forced. They are experts of citations (a tease that never gets old to me, sorry) and I’m afraid are most concerned with not being left behind or achieving prestige.

> Having had countless long late-night chats with them in empty bars about this, I gather their habits of conformity got them that far and let them down once they were on their own. They consistently think what I’m doing in my life is more interesting than theirs. I think the opposite and would die to be in their shoes.

Huh. You'd think they'd just leave academia and go into industry after getting their Bachelors or maybe their Masters.

I mean, I'm fairly uncreative and conformist, but I noped out of college after getting my Bachelors and went right into industry. I'm currently more than happy working at an enterprise telecom in a conservative suburb, and I'm glad I didn't stick around in academia.


> They consistently think what I’m doing in my life is more interesting than theirs. I think the opposite

The grass is always greener


Sure. Fair. But reason can resolve a bit more detail here if we try. Particularly, I am struck that there is such little complaint over the status quo of citation dependence. Popularly speaking, of course there is, but researching PhDs just make their days of it with barely a fuss. Shouldn’t that be particularly concerning? In recognition of the congruency this has with what the authorities demanded of me when I argued with my teachers over subject matter in high school, it is infuriating. When this is what you were asking for all along, how can you be so surprised that it’s what you got?

It does raise a question of how the grass is green, and why it’s on the other side.

Fun fact: The grass on the hillsides in the opening sequence of The Sound Of Music was actually painted by hand. It was worth it for the altitude and the Austrian mountain backdrop.


By "citation dependence" I assume you mean that researchers are judged by how many citations their own work has received. This is an time-efficient, yet imperfect mechanism to measure the importance of a research work.

Are there more accurate ways to measure the importance/impact/relevance of research work?


Intelligent in their ability to memorize or are they making original contributions to their fields and advancing the state of the art?

Can you elaborate what you mean when you say, "experts of citations"?

In Europe the norm is to do a Master after a Bachelor, some Master programmes are heavily research oriented and can give you a taste of what's to come if you choose to keep following that path. (I definitely agree with the point you're making, just pointing out that there are different possibilities)

Its pretty standard in the US (at least in the fields I am familiar with) that if you quit a PhD program you can still leave with a Master's if you've been in the program for long enough.

Not in Texas A&M math department, for example, at least a few years ago.

It is the literal truth for the CS dept at UT Austin, as of when I was there a 10 or so years ago. They didn't have a real Masters program; the Masters was regarded as a consolation prize when you left the PhD program.

Edit: To be honest, I got in by telling the graduate advisor that I would rather be in a Masters program there than a PhD program elsewhere.


Relates a lot with my entrepreneur experience. My last venture sunk like 5 years of my life and money. Guess most risked things are hard. The hardest part is to actually get experience. Experience is different from success.

> > The high level of dropouts is similarly worrying

Why? Some things are hard and those things will by definition have higher dropout rates. The fact that PhD programs have high dropout rates is not necessarily an issue unto itself.

> You're going to need 2-3 years of experience actually doing research to know if it's something you'll enjoy long term.

Is it realistic to expect a college sophomore to know whether or not they want to pursue a PhD program? I wish more undergraduate programs focused on original research but if yours doesn't you may not get any exposure to it until your senior year (if even then).


This is ridiculous. It is literally part of the job description of PhD advisors to train students and provide research experience. It is not the job of the PhD advisor to totally absolve himself/herself of hiring risk, for god's sake. If you already have 2-3 years of genuine (i.e. truly independent) research experience, you are half way to being a postdoc and the advisor is simply a funding source who should in turn have to pay market rate for employees and have greatly reduced powers over them.

> A newly-minted bachelor's student without research experience has no preparation for the frustration, isolation, and sense of futility that real researchers face.

Don't you need a master's degree to be eligible for a doctorate program?

> If you're an undergraduate and harbor the slightest ambition to get a PhD, drop what you're doing right now and start looking for a research group to join.

How does undergraduates find a research groups to join?


> Don't you need a master's degree to be eligible for a doctorate program?

Can't speak for all schools, but NC State accepts bachelors into their Masters and PhD program. While getting your PhD, you have the option to earn an MS "en route".

> How does undergraduates find a research groups to join?

For larger, research-oriented schools, this is as easy as visiting each professor's website. Most will have a link to their current or archived projects and their recent publications. Similar to the joke that you can get any academic paper for free by emailing the professor, the same can happen with research. Ask them about it and if you can join in on any of the on-going projects.

For teaching-oriented schools, this can be a little more difficult. My bachelors program only had 1 (maybe 2) labs, so if that wasn't your interest good luck. You can still do the same process, find a professor in a research area you're interested in and speak to them. There may not be funding, but you could be the spark under that prof's butt to start applying for some grants.


> Don't you need a master's degree to be eligible for a doctorate program?

There are 8 or 9 former classmates of mine with PhDs and only one went out of his way to get a Master's prior, and only because it was a much more prestigious institution (Georgetown) than our undergrad (unknown liberal arts college). Everyone else either entered their respective programs directly from undergrad or had industry/life experience first.


> Don't you need a master's degree to be eligible for a doctorate program?

At least at most US schools, you do not. Having one helps your chances of being accepted in most cases though

> How does undergraduates find a research groups to join?

Research fairs like career fairs, or just asking profs from classes you enjoyed - every undergrad I knew in grad school just asked my prof if they could try out research.


In Australia, it's normal to go from a bachelor's degree with honours (which is usually a 4 year program rather than the usual 3 years) straight into a PhD which is usually 3-4 years full time.

Absolutely right! I did it in my third and fourth year of engineering and got very clear academic research isn't the way for me to go even though I turned out to be pretty good at it. Ended up in business research and analytics

Man, this view of getting a PhD, which seems fairly common, is so alien to me. Both my parents are research professors, both regularly have students, and I have never seen any of the misery or stress that people keep bringing up.

Sure, if you are unprepared to do research then you shouldn't do a PhD, but my parents' students are hand picked, and it is very rare that they end up with a student that doesn't want to, or is unprepared to do research.

Being a PhD student should be one of the most fun parts of an academic career. You get to focus on your research, and are mostly removed from the politics and stress of securing funding. You aren't constantly being barraged by requests to review papers or having your time used up by a myriad of other responsibilities.

I guess it is totally possible that the corner of academia that I grew up around (ocean sciences at a lab removed from the main campus) is an outlier, but my impressions of getting a PhD were always positive, and the reason I never did it was because the part after your PhD seemed like it sucked.


I guess it depends on your field, but I've definitely seen that happening in Physics and Math. I have many friends who continued school to pursue a PhD while I left to work in the industry. It's a mix of:

* dropped out (some changed field completely)

* failed to pass their defense

* were miserable until they obtained their PhD

* managed to obtain their PhD after a looooong time and a lot of financial trouble. After that followed a long quest to look for a job (humanities).

* was uber successful and loved it

Note that these are people I know from all over the world, not just one country or one school.

The one guy that was uber successful absolutely loved what he was doing. The others either did not have the passion, or found out later that they did not enjoy doing research that much, or worse loved it but could not afford being poor.


> The one guy that was uber successful absolutely loved what he was doing.

This is the absolute most most important thing. I could have taken an increased scholarship however I would be bound to researching what the top-up provider wanted. Instead I opted to be on a base level scholarship but I got to choose exactly what path I wanted to take.


> You ... are mostly removed from the politics and stress of securing funding.

This is definitely not normal in the humanities. Want to continue working next year? Win this annual contest for your subfield that 800 other people are also applying for. It will cover your costs for 5 months if you win, after you spend an entire month preparing your submission for it. Didn't win this time? I guess you'll have to spend 20 hours per week every week on course prep readings and grading essays for the next six months. Good luck getting your research done at the same time.

Humanities PhDs also on average take significantly longer than STEM PhDs. 7 years post BA is normal in the humanities. 5 years post BS is normal in STEM. Guess where all that extra time goes.

It's because DARPA and Dow Chemical don't drop $30 million on your advisor for Enlightenment history.


If you are thinking about getting a PhD (in any field), you should be looking at an institution that guarantee's N (typically 4 or 5) years of funding. The best (and even the better) graduate schools do this, even in the humanities. It is much harder to get a job appropriate for a Ph.D. if you do not get into one of those schools that guarantees funding.

Define "best and better", though, because I can say with certainty that, for instance, Harvard's definition of "guarantee" doesn't align well with mine. See for instance the recent fight to unionize Harvard grad TAs because even (or perhaps especially) the "best" schools very regularly treat their students poorly, guarantees and all.

> I guess it is totally possible that the corner of academia that I grew up around (ocean sciences at a lab removed from the main campus) is an outlier

If only there was some way to investigate your statement. Like some sort of study that went for a few years and produced a report...


This is a rather poor essay.

"Many academics enter science to change the world for the better. Yet it can often feel like contemporary academia is more about chasing citations. Most academic work is shared only with a particular scientific community, rather than policymakers or businesses, which makes it entirely disconnected from practice.

...

This new PhD would see students go out into the field and talk to practitioners from day one of their research, rather than spending the first year (or more) reading obscure academic literature."

So... do industry research? Let's be clear: a PhD is a training program for research. As such most research done during a PhD is generally not that impactful, certainly not to go beyond fellow academics and to non experts. In my experience most people who go into it don't have much of an idea of what they want to do afterward -- they mainly know they enjoy research and are interested in the topic. AFTER a PhD is finished they can go on and try to influence society using their skills, or not.


> AFTER a PhD is finished they can go on and try to influence society using their skills, or not.

Exactly this. The primary skill developed during a PhD (for me, and those around me), is knowing the difference between:

1. solutions that can be pulled from literature (bake),

2. solutions that should be easy to assemble from existing solutions (buy),

3. what technology requires a small-to-medium delta above and beyond the bleeding edge (build)

All those are research, but far too often (3) is what everyone targets.


If all three of these are research, what is engineering?

I guess research deals with solutions under ideal conditions while engineering deals with real life constraint solutions?

A lot of this seems ridiculous:

> Mental health issues are rife: approximately one-third of PhD students are at risk of having or developing a psychiatric disorder like depression.

The baseline percentage of the population which experience depression (and other mental illness) each year is known to be pretty high -- and highest in for people in their 20's. One third sounds fairly normal; at any rate, there is a burden here to show that this is an exceptional proportion.

> For instance, a PhD in Germany is supposed to take three years, according to university regulations, but most students need five years to complete one.

If you are starting from an undergraduate degree, you probably need at least two years to take the PhD intro classes. One year to start a research program might work in a subject like the author's where your papers are chats about social implications, but there are plenty of subjects where even the data collection is going to take longer than that.

> In the US, meanwhile, the average completion time for a PhD in education sciences surpasses 13 years.

These programs are dominated by people who are working teachers, working on PhDs part-time.

> One study found that for every 200 people who complete a PhD, only seven will get a permanent academic post and only one will become a professor.

Being a professor is only one possible goal and for some fields, it isn't even the primary one.


According to this website, the baseline for depression in America is 6.7%.

http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/conditions/depression

1/3 is not normal at all.


The article says 1/3 are "at risk" of depression. It looks like the statistic is based on a web survey (https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/9ac3/478bc1263be53f5150a54b...), so I suppose they couldn't do an actual diagnosis.

Ive theorized the people getting a PhD are not your average american. Most college grads finish school and go into industry.

My peers who went onto get PhDs without going to industry were... different. Not necessarily super smart, but not the best socially or in leadership positions.

I can think of 3 people that were getting their PhDs in engineering, but I thought they were average students at best. One was an average to below average working with me on labs. Another was just a goofy weirdo, I couldnt be friends with him because he'd shoo me away. Another was somewhat a brainiac, but to a fault, He'd get As, but didnt really have friends from what I could tell.

I imagine lots of this is correlation not causation, and that things are different at big names schools.


My experience was the opposite. The people in my PhD program (at an upper-tier state institution) were far better thinkers in my field (biology) than the people in my major at an upper-tier liberal arts college (who, granted, were largely pre-med).

Your article says 6.7% of Americans have a depression in a given year, not that 6.7% of Americans get depression at all.

That can very well mean 1/3 of Americans get depression over their entire lives, and a PhD program would seem like the time to get it.


I agree with your latter two points, but I must take issue with your first point about mental health. I've posted some links below for your further reading which can explain the stressors better than I can, but graduate school is a breeding ground for mental health problems -- you have constant pressure to always be working (often up to 80-100 hours a week), constantly comparing yourself intellectually to other graduate students, and dealing with the overbearing reminder that you need to take a candidacy exam and defend your thesis. As a poster above said, 30% is absolutely not normal for society as a whole. Most articles point out the dearth of students who seek help, which I don't think is uncommon, but what is uncommon is the additional stressors.

I don't know if you've been through a PhD program, but as someone who has, it's really difficult to explain the pressures and stress that you encounter during it to someone who hasn't.

https://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2014/02/paying-graduate-s... https://psychcentral.com/blog/highlighting-mental-health-in-...


>If you are starting from an undergraduate degree, you probably need at least two years to take the PhD intro classes. One year to start a research program might work in a subject like the author's where your papers are chats about social implications, but there are plenty of subjects where even the data collection is going to take longer than that.

In Germany, you need a Master's with the coursework done before starting a PhD.


Right. The first two years of our graduate program were "breadth" and "depth" courses. After that, you could exit with a Masters or do PhD research.

> If you are starting from an undergraduate degree, you probably need at least two years to take the PhD intro classes.

Outside of the US, I don't think most PhD students take 'classes'. In Europe a PhD is purely a research degree.


In Europe you won't get hired if you only have an undergrad degree.

Putting aside the fact that this is clearly untrue, what does it have to do with the parent or GP comment?

By Europe I meant 'mainland Europe', where it is very exceptional to get hired in any PhD position without a masters. So you've already taken 5 years of classes, which is what the gp was talking about. Very few continental PhD's will be taking any classes.

GP assumes with no reason the "starting from an undergraduate degree", where the article is quoting 5 years for the PhD only, not for masters + PhD.

> The baseline percentage of the population which experience depression (and other mental illness) each year is known to be pretty high -- and highest in for people in their 20's. One third sounds fairly normal; at any rate, there is a burden here to show that this is an exceptional proportion.

There has been a study in Belgium that showed that Grad students had a relative risk of psychological disorder scored according to a questionnaire used to decide whether psychological/psychiatric care is needed were about 5x times more at risk than the general population, even when matched for the age, education attainment and several other known common confounding factors for mental health disorders. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S004873331...

> If you are starting from an undergraduate degree, you probably need at least two years to take the PhD intro classes. One year to start a research program might work in a subject like the author's where your papers are chats about social implications, but there are plenty of subjects where even the data collection is going to take longer than that.

In Germany, you need a master's to start a PhD, as such your classes load is minimal...

> Being a professor is only one possible goal and for some fields, it isn't even the primary one.

Not according to the professors mentoring you. That's changing, but the normal consideration is that if you are not on a tenure track, you are a failure. If you acknowledge it, quite often you will lose the support of your PI and your peers.


The Bologna system, adopted almost uniformly in rhe EU and other European countries, has three levels of university degrees: Bachelor, 3 full time years; Masters, Bachelor + 2 years or rarely high school + 5 years without an intermediate Bachelor; PhD, Master + 2-4 years, but mostly 3 years. Integrated Master + PhD degrees are extremely rare.

>This new PhD would see students go out into the field and talk to practitioners from day one of their research

I don't think this applies well to all fields of study. I have my Ph.D. in physics and there are loads of people researching problems that don't really have counterparts "in the field." I'm assuming "in the field" means industry or possibly a government service. I would think the same is true for mathematics at least.

>I research how to mitigate the social impact of hydropower dams.

Of course in this case, contact with people in the industry makes lots of sense. In fact, I'm not sure how this research would be conducted without this contact.

I certainly have gripes with academia but I don't think there is a monolithic motivation for students. For me, I think of academia as having the goal of advancing human understanding of the universe. Whether or not that has a social impact is probably up to some debate. I believe that one of the cool things about academia is allowing some people the ability to pursue ideas and work on problems that don't have obvious, short-term impacts.


> I certainly have gripes with academia but I don't think there is a monolithic motivation for students.

Well, there is chasing funding. In your area of the universe, does the money follow worthwhile problems?


No and I'm having a hard time articulating what I mean. First, I am no longer in academia. :) I left because it felt a lot like an extension of government. I am not a fan of how the funding operates at all.

I was trying to say that I believe there is value or at least there can be value in the advancement of human understanding without it being tied to a social or business outcome. It seemed that the main thesis of this article was implicitly denying that value by stating that Ph.D.'s should be required to show the real-world impact of their work.

As others said, the Ph.D. students themselves don't really "chase funding" but their options are a result of chased funding, I suppose.


During a PhD you don't have to chase funding- either you have funding (via a scholarship etc) at which point it normally lasts for the three or four years you're expected to finish your PhD, or you don't, in which case you probably don't start at all- unless you can pay the PhD fees and your expenses out of your own budget... in which case you don't need "funding" (in the sense of funds given to you from some source specifically to do research).

Funding is simple. It's all about experience and prior use. Funders fund what they did before, what the fundees did before, and did they use up the funds from last time.

My question stands. :)

Replace 'academic kudos' with 'the metric which we measure to check if you are improving society' and the issue becomes more apparent.

>A PHD should be about improving society, not chasing the metric which we measure to check if you are improving society.

It seems to be Campbell's law in action. Of course you can determine a different metric to use, or just tune the current metric some, but you'll eventually see the same problems emerge, maybe worse, maybe better.

I also think this issue shouldn't be viewed in isolation of other related issues, such as how the current system discourages reproducing the research of others and of publishing trivial results (we tested to see if we found this unexpected thing and we didn't).

Figuring how who is a good scientist, given that some theoretical good scientist could spend a decade chasing down an issue that ended up being nothing, is not an easy problem to solve. Tenure is one attempt to fix it, but it largely just re-frames the problem into deciding which scientists deserve tenure.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Campbell%27s_law

>Take my example. I research how to mitigate the social impact of hydropower dams. My core paper on this topic has been cited three times so far. I read in the promotions guidelines at my university that if I want to be promoted from assistant to associate professor I need to accumulate significant citations. As a result, I have now published a paper in which I reviewed 114 definitions of a current academic buzzword, circular economy, to propose the 115th definition of this term.

>In academic terms, this paper is a hit: it’s been cited 39 times since its publication. It is in the top 3% of all research outputs ever tracked by Altmetric, a tool measuring a paper’s influence among academics on social media. People I’ve never met before come up to me at conferences to congratulate me. But I’m not celebrating: this paper symbolises everything that’s broken in the academy. Academics love definitions, not solutions.

This feels like the pure distilled essence of Campbell's law.


I don't understand how it's possible that a "social scientist" thinks that he has identified the great problem and its solution in every other academic discipline. Well, actually I do understand that, I've been around sociologists. I wonder if there's any chance that people that simply feel something about a tiny corner of the whole picture start speaking just for themselves. Maybe he's realized that his field is organized BS, but I don't think that makes a case for destroying modern science in order to build this society where laypersons decide what is worthwhile knowledge and what's not, in the newspapers. That's a great recipe for going back to those several centuries in which the rationale of doctorates was "improving society" as well.

> people that simply feel something about a tiny corner of the whole picture

Why is this about the author's feelings? There are plenty of links in the piece to underlying data sources, and these show that the problems mentioned don't vary a lot by discipline. For instance: http://phdcompletion.org


> destroying modern science

As the author points out, it’s doing a decent job destroying itself.


I disagree totally. A PhD should be about curiosity and asking the most interesting scientific questions you can think of, also known as 'basic research'. You have the rest of your career to have as much impact on society and commerce as you want.

Unfortunately, the social impact factor has been creeping in, in the form of more 'applied research' funding which is not fundamental and does not move scientific knowledge forward. The government has limited role in funding applied research, since industry is better positioned to understand what applied research is important and has a strong incentive to fund it.

Academia is imperfect, but the genius of the system is that letting scientists chase down interesting things does end up improving society dramatically in the long run.


I talked to Two advisers + 1 role model before deciding a PhD wasnt right for me.

The professors wanted to push their own ideas rather than my own. I knew the problems I wanted to solve were highly desired as I was getting hundreds of people visiting my website a day.

The two professors were pushing that the PhD process would teach me how to research, but I realized that I would be the professor's tool.

I talked to someone I looked up to, while he wasnt incredibly successful, he told me that- I was ready to do something, I no longer needed school.

I'm very thankful, I had a bachelors and masters degree in engineering fields with industry experience. I had products people were paying money for. The PhD didnt seem like it would be as valuable as 2-6 years of working on my website or other projects.

My take- If you arent going to work, school can force you to work hard. If you are already inspired, you are ready for life, go go go.


Who is paying to support you while you explore some curiosity of yours? A PhD program is not a summer camp, it's a social tool and the public is paying money in order to grow the human knowledge base. I don't get this attitude, appreciate the fact that the public is giving you grants and funding because the alternative is you get nothing.

Perhaps you misunderstand. Scientists should study important _topics_ (virology, human genetics, materials science etc.), but within that, research direction should set by scientists not bureaucrats.

Many people share your view, though, and it's a shame. We have all of private industry to focus on short term benefits. Grad school is one place where the grinding expectation of immediate return-on-investment can be suspended. PhD students take low compensation hoping they can use curiosity and passion to direct their research. Increasingly, that's not the case.

>> appreciate the fact that the public is giving you grants and funding because the alternative is you get nothing.

This is cutting off the hand to spite the face. Taxpayers get an _unbelievable bargain_ for the work of PhD students and postdocs. Gutting research funding won't hurt them for long, they'll easily move on to much higher paying work, it's future society that will suffer.

I'd argue you get the best and most significant contributions to society in the long run with stable government funding of basic research. Don't believe me? Ask Steven Chu, Nobel Prize winner and energy secretary:

https://www.amacad.org/multimedia/pdfs/wsjoped.pdf


>> A PhD program is not a summer camp, it's a social tool and the public is paying money in order to grow the human knowledge base.

"letting scientists chase down interesting things" as per the OP's comment is how the "human knowledge base" grows in the first place.

Besides, who would decide what research is useful to pursue, other than the experts in a given field? If you don't really understand a research subject, how can you figure out whether it's useful or not?


I agree (with you). I think also it's not crystal clear what exactly 'benefits society', so what to research then? Let people research what they want to, at least they'll be passionate about it and maybe 'reach the end' when they otherwise wouldn't if that makes sense.

It is true that people chase citations, but only because they are a surrogate for impact. If you are doing research, the goal is to do research that matters and citations are one way to measure that people cared about the work (of course, once something becomes a measure people start optimizing for that instead of the original objective).

A PhD is a degree in doing research. When students start, it is true that many think they want careers in academia. Many then realize that academia isn't what they want after a few years in and seeing how their advisors live, realizing salaries are lower, and realizing how competitive it is. There are plenty of amazing career doors that open with a PhD besides being an academic... any career that requires the ability to conduct, interpret, and/or communicate research.

The comments about meeting practitioners are pretty foreign to my experiences doing a PhD (in AI) and being a scientist. If anything, when I meet people in industry they often think non-practical research isn't worth doing even if it might have long-term value.


> "It is true that people chase citations, but only because they are a surrogate for impact."

I think the author would agree, although he is making the distinction between impact in academic circles vs impact in society. His claim is that impact in academic circles has become out of touch with impact in society.

> If anything, when I meet people in industry they often think non-practical research isn't worth doing even if it might have long-term value.

Is there a way to measure how much non-practical research ends up having long-term value? Intuitively, the marginal utility of a 115th definition of a circular economy doesn't seem worth the academic man power yet that is what the author is being incentivized to work on because citation culture in academia.


Great idea! Pay me for improving society rather than chasing academic kudos and I'll gladly spend my time doing that instead of writing grants and papers.

> Although 80% of science students start their PhD with the intention to pursue a career in science, their enthusiasm typically wanes to the point that just 55% plan to continue in academia when nearing graduation

These seem like different questions to me. There are plenty of ways to "pursue a career in science" that don't involve academia.


This article has some true observations, but the conclusions seem to go in a totally wrong direction.

Writing a PhD is a very ambitious endeavor. You will inevitably have your downs and crises, because research is hard. This is independent of the research topic. Now asking that the PhD thesis should not only advance research, but also 'improve society' will only increase the pressure.

The author also has the purpose of a PhD wrong: this is your research journeyman time, and delivering the PhD thesis is like creating your masterpiece as craftsman (in the original meaning where you create a fine piece of work which earns you the right to call yourself master of a craft). The real, unsupervised research career starts after PhD. This also means that it would be a very bad idea to start with high-risk research. Do this as PostDoc, when you have acquired all the necessary skills.

Not focusing on publications is the worst advice one can give aspiring academics. Research is about advancing shared knowledge, and the only way to do this is to share your results. If you don't manage to publish, either your results are not relevant, or your work is not considered sound by your peer researchers. Successful publishing in reputable venues validates your research, and is the most effective way to disseminate new insights. I agree that the publishing system is broken. You have to work around that by choosing the right venues. This is another academic skill you need to learn.

If you really want to improve society and feel insufficient if you 'only' improve your research field, then don't pursue a research career. Better go work for some non-profit organization, or found one.


What are the politicians there for then?

I'm not being facetious here. Politics is one of the primary avenues of bringing about social change. Ditto civil service.

A PhD should be about novel contributions that increase the sum total of human knowledge.


Ok but we shouldnt pursue knowledge haphazardly for knowledge sake. There are an infinite number of interesting avenues of inquiry we could send our academics down that would be completely useless. The paths we choose should be guided by the needs of practical application. How else can we value information if not practical application?

"Practical application" is the domain of the engineer, the business person, the sales department, etc. Science and pure curiosity are one and the same.

If we were guided by the needs of practical application we would have devised many ingenious medical probes but never discovered the X-Ray etc.

I agree that we should prioritise STEM, but within STEM the research areas should be decided by the scientists themselves.


Great! Except that if you stop chasing those kudos, you will promptly find yourself unemployed and thus unable to do any research at all.

Exactly, while imperfect, these kudos are one of the only measures of academic ability.

That’s not even close to true.

However, these “kudos” are the principle measure of academic ability/productivity used by those making hiring and funding decisions so...barring a top-down change, we are stuck with them.


A PhD should primarily be about learning how to do research in your chosen field, not the research itself.

That's what the diploma was for once ... (at least in Germany).

How in the world do you measure and teach them that without having them actually do research and demonstrate that they've succeeded? It also does a lot for them by building professional relationships and making sure their name is at least somewhat out there by the time they've finished the PhD.

A PhD should also be about being honest in ones arguments in the popular press. PhD's in Education may take 13 years (is that the median?) because most students are part time. In good graduate programs that provide guaranteed funding for students, 4-6 years is customary (and funding sometimes runs out at year 5). It's hard for me, as an academic, to trust an author who twists statistics to make his case.

And what does it mean to improve society? Basic biomedical science rarely promises improvements, but has given us revolutionary technologies (the structure of DNA, the genetic code, cloning, transgenic animals, etc, etc). The essence of basic science is that you do not know what you are going to learn, or whether it will be useful. You cannot plan unimagined discoveries.

Should graduate students start doing "research" sooner? That is certainly the standard in biomedical research, where very few courses are required. But the consequence is that students know a lot about what they have done, and very little about other disciplines. How does a graduate student in biology become a computational biologist without learning programming and algorithms?

The comments about having research experience are spot-on. And many of the frustrations people describe could be reduced by learning more about one's advisor before joining the group.


I agree that the PhD system needs some rethinking but I don't think focusing research on more 'practical' problems is necessarily a good idea. I have seen 'practical' research going on in industry labs and I think it often falls into a no man's land of neither being practical nor advancing the state of knowledge in any meaningful way. Citation counts are problematic in some ways, but they do approximately measure what the research community thinks of as important work. I agree they seem to suffer from overly promoting "what's in fashion." OTOH, there is benefit to having a community of researchers all focusing on one topic at a time so that ideas can be exchanged and build on one another. Just like with startups, for some good ideas, it may just be that they are being proposed at the wrong time or haven't found the exact right form yet.

> Most academic work is shared only with a particular scientific community, rather than policymakers or businesses...

The university where I am currently doing my PhD has a very heavy focus on the outputs of a PhD contributing something worthwhile not only to academia but also to industry or the world. It isn't a massively high ranking university but it does force academics to think practically as well as theoretically. We are required to have an industry (non-academic) advisor on our supervisory panel who helps guide the research so it can be useful and not just gather dust once finished.


A corporation should be about improving society, not chasing shareholder value.

Well, that’d be great!

I totally agree with the problems of academia chasing citations, but the solution sounds odd to me. There are plenty of applied master programs aimed exactly at what is proposed: engaging with the professional community and fixing simple stuff.

But I still think some people should be isolated from the daily torment of humanity to push us forward. Maybe we just need less PHD.


At least here in Sweden there are also PhD programs where you do your research at a company and split your time 50-50 between that company and the University.

One thought I had about this was related to a book I was reading recently about the Math Olympiad. It was discussing how in the US the way math is taught never allows the students to struggle with any hard problems. That experience of going up against something potentially intractable is totally foreign to most students, even at the undergrad level I suspect. When you throw someone into a totally new environment where their life revolves around doing something they have never done before, it is kind of a shock. I think part of the solution here would be to introduce harder problem solving earlier into the standard curriculum. For this reason, I would be curious if PhDs in Russia or Eastern Europe, where the school systems are known for being more mathematically difficult from an early age, suffer from the same level of problems that exist in the US system.

Basically every human endeavor "should" be about putting the general good over the individual good. After all, it's in one's own selfish interests for that to be the state of affairs; there are far more people not-you doing things than people who are you doing things, so you stand to benefit more if all those not-you people are doing work that indirectly improves your quality-of-life. ;)

The (sometimes literally) million-dollar question is: how do you align incentives to bring about that desired end-state? Ph.D's are not unique in struggling with this age-old conundrum; if the government is willing to pay for robotics research for drone warfare but nobody is putting up the cash to pay for nursing-care robot research, then we can make some pretty firm predictions what kind of robots we'll see mature and reliable in twenty years.


I posit that "one's own selfish interests", which can include pursuing a research topic for the "general good", is a major driver of scientific inquiry.

The evaluation of whether "general good" is advanced when answering a scientific question is subjective. Might I remind you that our foundations of probability - a pillar of mathematics and more - was furthered with the intention of winning gambling games? Or that our understanding of the limits of human physiology - how much force a skull can withstand, time before death under hypothermia - was furthered by Nazi scientists at the expense of Jews and other minorities?

While born out of sin, these two examples of science unequivocally better the "general good" - now...


Fourier or newton did not persue improving society, and they did.

To my understanding, Newton was motivated by trying to decode the Bible among other occult studies which he thought would unlock some mystical knowledge of the universe for humanity. So in that respect, he did sort of pursue improving society? Albeit perhaps in a misguided way. But hey, it yielded massive benefits

Fourier and Newton's work was almost entirely of a practical and applicable nature. Fourier's main work for example was on investigating how heat propagated through different materials, with his famous transform being more of a useful biproduct of that work.

I don't understand this system at all. Only 1 in 200 Phd student ends up becoming a professor, yet in college we have classes of 200-250 students per professor. And some of the older professors have been teaching the same class for many many years, without attempting to change the material. They are just repeating the stuff the already know, over and over again. It seems for me a waste of human resources, for me, to put some of the smartest people in to such repetitive task. Instead, I think the hiring bar for academia positions should be lower, the classes should be smaller, and the student should receive more customize experience.

The only real rot I see in the PhD track is the dangerous imbalance of degrees to jobs in certain areas (not STEM usually, although STEM is pretty uncompromising for tenure track). IMHO in the humanities the PhD is some kind of sick ponzi scheme, where advanced degrees serve to subsidize tenured faculty's careers with little to no hope of going on to anything of their own. (I know STEM isn't much better, but it's a little better, especially with industry being willing to assume some risk.) But I've got friends $100K in debt for an art history PhD, and that's craaaaaaaaaazy given what awaits on the other side.

I don't know a single reputable program that makes you pay for a PhD. Typically the salaries are subsidized through the school, that gets it's money from taking a cut of stem grants, donations, masters tuition, and undergraduate tuition. Saying that most humanities professors get their salaries by doing some sort of ponzi scheme of charging their advisees is just spreading misinformation.

That is mostly true for reputable programs. But there are a lot of unreputable Ph.D. programs. They may even graduate the bulk of PhDs.

And even some reputable programs will let some people "buy their way" if they don't qualify as for a fellowship/funding.


The annoying thing, is since there are more unreputable programs out there, all the stats about PhD students are heavily skewed by those students. Basically this rhetoric about 1/1000 phd students landing a job, or phd graduates being $100,000 in debt, or 9/10 students drop out or have mental health issues, are not about the usual PhD program we think about at universities that are household names and hear about in the news.

Academic kudos should be realigned better with scientific achievement.

Academic kudos translates directly to money (tenure, research funding) and power (gatekeeper positions) and that makes it microeconomics problem. Highly competitive person with high scientific achievement may not be the best person to judge and distribute kudos of others.

We should find a way to quantify kudos distribution to create good incentives. Researchers should get impact factor for mentoring, accepting papers to journals or giving voting for tenure to others who produce high impact studies after they get the tenure.


This could literally be said about any other human endeavor. I mean, Comcast should be about improving society, but I don't see articles in the Guardian shaming them.

Academia has always been, and always will be, about new knowledge. The article laments the pursuit of citations but fails to note that it is today's primary quantitative measure of new knowledge - though imperfect.

"Improving society" as academia's objective will have its own set of misaligned incentives, potentially much worse than the pursuit of "academic kudos". How would this be measured?


You all are kind of scaring me a bit...

I just finished my Bachelor's and am starting my Master's this month. I have no formal research experience, but I planned to dive in during my Master's. For anyone who has done/is doing there PhD, if there is any advice you all could give me in order to get the most out of this next year before I apply for PhD programs, that would be great.


I did the same route as you (Master's first, then starting on my PhD right now). It's a great route! In general, the best route is to try and join an ongoing project where you can be guided/mentored by a Post doc or senior PhD. This is easiest is larger labs, though in a smaller lab the professor might interact with you more (unlikely you will meet with prof much in larger lab). For your application two things matter: recommendation letters and publications. Joining a project on which you can have mentorship and showing yourself to be resourceful and productive is the best way to attain both. If you find a lack of guidance or a bad fit in whichever lab you first end up in, don't hesitate to try and change things up. In general, also always feel free to ask for advice and guidance; PhDs and post docs have been in your shoes and are more than willing to help out, you can always just ask someone out for coffee to talk about research and ask for advice.

What if the research options available are not something you're too interested in? I had a professor tell me I could work with him, but he said I had to work on what he has decided. That doesn't seem very attractive to me.

Think of your PhD not as as finding solutions for a specific problem you have in mind, think of it as working in a specific area of research. Like with a startup, you usually have to pivot your research because things don't work out as imagined, and other directions turn out to be more fruitful.

With that perspective, it doesn't matter much on what specific problem you start your research. Instead, find out which research groups are doing amazing work in the area you would like to work. And apply there.

To identify these groups, read a lot of papers in your favorite research area.


That is one of the subtler points of the PhD - you can't just do what you want, and certainly not at first. The ideal is to find a professor who has a project that aligns with your own interests. If your hope is to find a professor who will back a wholly new project you thought up, that's kinda hard to do during a Master's.

I think doing a master's is a great way to find out if you are cut out for/want to do research. I did a master's, was very happy I did, and very happily didn't pursue a PhD afterward.

What type of masters degree is it? Course-based or thesis-based? If you are interested in continuing on to a PhD, a thesis-based masters would give you a much better insight. Even better if you try to publish while you are getting your degree. If it is a course-based masters, it will take you a lot of extra work outside of classes to get a taste of research.

Do you already know your area of interest? This would be tremendously helpful for trying to pick an advisor.


I choose to take the thesis route, but I still have 27 hours of coursework to complete as well. My goal was to have 2-3 publications over the next year, but I am not sure how feasible it is. I am in the middle of determining a route for my research right now. Leaning towards AI, but also enjoy Operating Systems, Networking, and Security.

Wow, 27 hours of coursework and a thesis! Are you sure you can complete this in one year? That seems like a very heavy schedule. I guess it depends how your department accounts for course credit hours. My department was 30 hours of coursework for the course-based masters, 18 for the thesis-based masters -- 3 credit hours per course.

It sounds like a very important role of your coursework will be to get a more refined idea of what research you'd like to perform. I'd recommend taking classes in each of your areas of interest. The more advanced classes might give you a better idea of research in that area. These are probably the classes the PhD students will be taking.

I think a goal of 2-3 publications in one year is pretty lofty, but it depends how motivated you are and how much work you have to put into each of those publications. I think one solid publication (long paper, good conference/journal) will already give you a substantial edge in PhD admissions. This is a good goal; if you can do more, all the better! But I would hate for you to feel like you didn't meet your goal, and not be satisfied with one publication. Honestly, even if you go through the trouble of submitting a paper and it gets rejected, that is still an incredibly valuable learning experience.

Feel free to email / google hangouts me at adam.r.drescher (at) gmail (dot) com if you have more detailed questions, want my perspective during your graduate school experience, etc. I'm happy to help.


Yeah 2-3 publications in a year, unless you've been working on them for 2 years before that, is not going to happen. If you can get one good publication, you'll get into nearly any program in that field.

Apply straight to a PhD program. Don't pay for a graduate degree.

I disagree. A Masters with thesis is more directed, a good way to learn how to do research, and not hinged on a novel contribution for a successful defense. My PhD went much faster and smoother because I had learnt the ropes and decided it was something worth doing.

I think part of the problem is people jumping straight into PhD without any research experience. I watched quite a few students struggle when taking this road.

I do agree that it's a problem if grad school costs money, but a large stipend is only really available in STEM or medicine.


In my experience PhD candidates always get paid, and Masters don't. They do sometimes, but you aren't priority and guaranteed. I do always suggest getting the Masters on the way though. 5 years is a long time, and if you decide it isn't for you, well you come out with something (and it was paid).

My graduate degree is already paid for.

To be a psychologist in Canada, you have to earn a PhD. It's neither about improving society or chasing kudos. It's just a job.

"They would finish their PhD when they have made a difference in the real world."

By that metric, most fundamental discoveries in the last 200 years would not have been enough to finish a PhD.

Even Hamming's error correcting codes took 10+ years for Bell Labs to implement it. And even then it was because they had no other alternatives and were in a bind.


Great, I can play too! Corporations should be about improving the public good, as they used to be [0], not chasing monetary value. Your turn!

[0] Not just "in my day"-ism. According to "We the corporations", demonstrating this was originally part of the legal requirement for many governments' approval of articles of incorporation.


(I forgot to link to "We the corporations", which is an interesting book, and far from the screed its name suggests: http://books.wwnorton.com/books/detail.aspx?ID=4294993473 .)

The two aren’t mutex. And publish or perish. The suggestion is that academia should be utilitarian and short-term focused. This will never happen. It’s tantamount to saying “we should get rid of archeologists because they aren’t a profit-center department.”

^ this guy. exactly.

Measuring the utility of academia is futile. If anything should be said about utility it is that empirically, the average ROI on academia from the point of view of The State is always net positive: economically, culturally, socially, etc.


How much of this argument should apply to more theoretical areas of research like pure mathematics?

I used to be in a math PhD program. Probably would still be if not for some life circumstance.

I think it is worth taking a hard look at the value all of this mathematical research actually produces.

I understand how number theory has been useful to cryptography. I understand how branches of pure math can have a surprising influence.

But when these examples are given by pure mathematicians, it often strikes me as anecdotal and motivated reasoning. Where are the hard numbers? Where is the cool-headed evaluation?

They very much want the NSF to continue giving them grants so they can keep funding their mathematical interests. Because it personally and immediately benefits them.

It may be true that 80% of the mathematical research that is valuable to society is done by 20% of mathematicians. In this case, not much can be lost by reducing research funding.

This is how I look at it: Funding mathematical research means your society is wealthy. When the vast majority aren't worried about putting food on the table, it is a privilege when you can get paid by them to pursue your mathematical hobby. A hobby that has some relatively low chance of impacting society.


Your claim we could reduce mathematics research misses one big step -- that we can tell, in advance, which mathematicians (and researchers in general) are doing the "useful" research. In my experience that is very hard to predict. Also often researchers are "standing on the shoulders of giants", so the people who look most real world useful are extending earlier, "not useful" research.

In perhaps pithier words, accepting abnry's figures

> It may be true that 80% of the mathematical research that is valuable to society is done by 20% of mathematicians. In this case, not much can be lost by reducing research funding.

, you can probably get 80% of the return by cutting the right 80% of research; but, if you cut the wrong 80%, then you might be left with just the 20% return on the remaining 20% of work, or 4%.

(Also, there're lots of ways to cut the wrong 80%, and only one way to cut the right 80%.)


Meritocracy. The mathematicians at Princeton University are going to be producing potentially more valuable pure math research than a professor at name state university 145.

I don't know what the exact figure is, but it wouldn't surprise me if it was less than 25% of math PhDs who go on to get a research job in math. How much are we funding these students here? I was on the receiving end of some NSF money for a semester. Was it worth it for the NSF? I barely contributed much. Granted paying a grad student is relatively cheap. But I wouldn't hold it against the NSF if they were more stingy.

It may be that we really are funding the right amount and the benefits to the whole ecosystem are great. But I want someone to give a cool-headed discussion of the numbers, not some vague persuasiveness motivated by job security.


> Meritocracy. The mathematicians at Princeton University are going to be producing potentially more valuable pure math research than a professor at name state university 145.

On average, maybe … but, if we just axe those at NSU 145, then we're definitely not going to be funding the proof of the bounded-gaps conjecture. Now, Zhang managed to prove it anyway (https://golem.ph.utexas.edu/category/2013/05/bounded_gaps_be...), but who knows how many people at small universities have a big proof in them, if they could only get the funding to have time to explore it?

(I would also argue that this is dangerously close to the point of view that big companies obviously know something about doing business successfully, so the best way to save government money spent on business is to cut out small-business loans.)

> I don't know what the exact figure is, but it wouldn't surprise me if it was less than 25% of math PhDs who don't go on to get a research job in math.

Did you flip a 'not' there? I suspect that it's the other way around, that less than 25% of math Ph.D.s do get a research job in math, or perhaps even worse. (At least, that's if by "research job in math" you mean "academic job in math with research expectations"; if you count industrial research, then maybe I believe it.)


Zhang is an outlier. From what I followed when his proof came out, there were actually very similar ideas being developed by Terry Tao at UCLA and by a PhD student at Oxford. The sort of places you'd expect. And IIRC, Zhang actually come from the top math department in China. He just had trouble getting a good job in the U.S.

It is also fair to wonder just where this twin prime conjecture is leading us in terms of usefulness. I know it's hard, but we should be able to draw direct comparisons to how something like RSA panned out. Though RSA is pretty easy to understand. Maybe a better example is elliptic curve cryptography, though I know nothing about that. Can we at least provide a road map for how understanding the twin prime conjecture will lead to useful, practical techniques?

(And yeah, I accidentally added a "not" there. Will edit.)


> Zhang is an outlier. … And IIRC, Zhang actually come from the top math department in China.

Well, sure, and that's my point; there will be outliers. They'll probably have some indicators, like coming from good schools, or prior good work, even if they are currently in lower-ranked places. Every time an outlier comes along, one can certainly retroactively find something that reveals all along that he or she was going to excel; the challenge is finding the people with this potential in advance. (You don't want to fund only the people who have done good work; eventually you'll just get an unduly privileged class of people who did a lot of good math now and no longer can.) So we should have some way of finding these outliers by evaluating their academic history and apparent future potential … and that's a grant committee. (Hey, I hate to find myself defending them! I'm an academic and grant writing is low down on my list of favourite things to do; but it's better than being told that, since I'm not at Princeton, I won't even get a chance to seek funding.)

> From what I followed when his proof came out, there were actually very similar ideas being developed by Terry Tao at UCLA and by a PhD student at Oxford.

I don't know about the Ph.D. student at Oxford, but (although I can't find it now) I am pretty sure I remember reading a post on Terry Tao's blog in which he was much more charitable than this; essentially, his view (I believe, though I can't find it) was that commonalities could be found between his work and Zhang's, as there always can between even the most revolutionary work and its predecessors, but that Zhang's work represented a genuinely new idea and huge step forward.

> It is also fair to wonder just where this twin prime conjecture is leading us in terms of usefulness. I know it's hard, but we should be able to draw direct comparisons to how something like RSA panned out.

RSA took essentially from the dawn of recorded mathematics (Euclid) to about 70 years ago; it's now the prototypical example (second, perhaps, to Riemannian geometry) of apparently "purely pure" mathematics that turned out to have applications. I think that's an excellent argument for taking the long view.


You're not alone. I think it was Martin Gardner that observed that discoveries in mathematics predated their use in physics by approximately 100 years.

I suppose a derivative of serendipity is at work here. That is we accidentally find something unused and is suddenly very useful (backprop although not a perfect example). But I think there was a paper sometime back that showed if you want to take advantage of seredipity you may want to divide your resources equally.

I think we have 50 years worth of data, at the very, in the modern era to give at least some sort of evaluation of the usefulness of the money we are spending on math research.

Yeah, it's hard to quantify the value of research. I want research to be funded too. But I prefer some quantification over none at all.


Number theory is an excellent example since it was an academic curiosity until it suddenly became very very useful. While cryptography is built on number theory, that earlier research was not done with the explicit goal of developing cryptography. Instead, people took existing math and built new applications around it.

Obviously, it would be nice to fund only things that are eventually useful, but this is virtually impossible to predict in advance so....we fund a bunch of things and see what works. (Also, math is shockingly cheap compared to lab sciences so it makes even more sense to spread the bets widely.)


I imagine that a lot of people responding to this do not realize how abstract modern pure mathematics is.

The number theory that makes up the basis of cryptography was established in the 1700s. For example, Euler's theorem is the basis of RSA and was proven in 1763. The theorem is a small generalization of Fermat's little theorem which was known (but not proven) in 1640. These theorems are really just simple facts about groups and other cryptosystems, such as elliptic curve cryptosystems, are essentially the same facts except the multiplicative group of integers is replaced with an elliptic curve group.

These concepts could be taught to advanced high school students with no formal pure mathematical training. The "hot" areas in modern mathematics require not only an additional 4 years of undergraduate mathematics but usually ~2 years of a PhD program to begin to understand the current papers.

This is extremely different from other fields such as theoretical computer science which seems to have applications almost immediately. Even professional mathematicians likely do not research in hopes of applications hundreds of years later.

I will not claim that modern mathematics cannot possibly have applications. I will, however, claim that pure mathematics is an extremely poor way to allocate funds if you are simply looking for a return on investment in terms of "useful theorems proved per dollar". Mathematics research should be justified by stating that people trained in pure mathematics can be useful in industry, other applied fields or to teach mathematics.


Exactly. Modern pure math is extremely abstract.

I want careful, level-headed arguments justifying research in swath of pure math fields. Give me numbers, give me details. Not just vague anecdotes. It may be worth the cost, but I don't want that taken for granted.


I can't argue for pure math. But atleast in applied areas such as pde a lot of the problems are motivated by real physical problems. To solve many of these would require theoretical breakthroughs I guess (cant be sure I dont have a phd). So perhaps funding pure math may not be such a bad idea.

I always find the example of PDEs interesting, depending on which mathematician you talk to PDEs could be anywhere from "as pure as it gets" to "extremely applied"

I believe this demonstrates the spectrum of pde research. You have people from both ends contributing. Since functional analysis gets used a lot in pdes especially when dealing with weak solutions it would make sense that it appeals to be pure math folks. But once you find ways to construct viable test functions it becomes the basis for writing numerical schemes. So that appeals to the applief guys and of course once you have the numerical solution this can be used for engineering. This demonstrates a good pipeline for "consuming" science (of course assuming this pipeline is indeed correct). However take any component out and the value creation wont be that high. Perhaps finding more such pipelines for pure math woulf help evaluate its valur.

> A hobby that has some relatively low chance of impacting society.

As opposed to more important pursuits, such as advertising.


Cryptography is a trivial example.

The entire field of computing was invented by pure mathematicians like Turing and Church working in the 1930s. At the time, no one had any idea what the applications, if any, would be.

It's like any science. Some work has immediate applications. Other work is pure exploration of the unknown.

And it is pure exploration of the unknown that leads to the truly revolutionary discoveries. You can't set out to discover penicillin when you don't even know it exists.


Something like the Fast Fourier Transform has had a much significant impact on society than a proof of the incomputability of the Busy Beaver function.

Saying that Turing and Church "invented computing" is too vague of a justification. I want numbers and details. Folks like Babbage were already thinking procedurally in practical enough terms that once the technological capability (not the theoretical capabilities) caught up, algorithms like the FFT could be discovered and put to use.


You're only thinking of the immediate practical applications of the mathematics, not the importance of that work for future work.

Turing's work was so important that he, not Babbage, is generally recognized as the founder of computer science.

One example of the importance of Church's work is Lisp. Church's lambda calculus is the foundation of Lisp, which pioneered nearly all the features of modern programming languages [1]. The designer of Smalltalk, Alan Kay, called it "the greatest single programming language ever designed" [2] and talked about its influence on Smalltalk quite a bit [3].

And your example, the Fourier transform, was itself a mathematical tool long before the first computer was built, and the first published FFT algorithm also dates from the 1930s. [4]

1: http://www.paulgraham.com/diff.html

2: https://www.quora.com/What-did-Alan-Kay-mean-by-Lisp-is-the-...

3: http://worrydream.com/EarlyHistoryOfSmalltalk/

4: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fast_Fourier_transform#History


Exactly. A lot of discoveries can be viewed as useless for quite a while before someone figures out a practical application.

but isn't pure math research very cheap (compared to the cost of other scientific research) and therefore could still be cost-effective?

It very well could be. I just dislike vague justifications that it actually is worth the cost. Give me numbers and details.

While everyone is pointing out the practical, long-term benefits of pure mathematics, I disagree with the premise that there needs to be a practical pursuit associated with mathematics or any other theoretical fields (including the humanities). Sometimes we study things to pursue knowledge itself. If we're talking strictly about public funding, then sure, let's talk about practicality, but otherwise I'm happy that someone is getting funded by a university to devote their lives to something like the Riemann hypothesis. Expanding known human knowledge is justification itself I think. One shouldn't expect it to be easy, or to pay especially well -- it's its own privilege.

The reason I completely hated my phd program:

- it was incredibly political, much, much more than companies I worked at.

- most students were just trying to tweak some equations and get the hell out of that place.

Overall it was a very unhealthy environment and wasnt worth It.


A PhD is about getting paid, like any other job. This should be pretty obvious.

I think changing the PhD system is a great target, but how can you identify that as the culprit without changing the professoriate/tenure system?

That system has already changed. Tenure tracks are largely phasing out as older professors retire. They are being replaced with part-time adjunct teaching positions, supplemented by big name researchers that bring in grant money and institutions can write marketing articles about. Those big names are not incentivized to stay by a tenure system, as they can easily accept positions at other institutions or in private industry to continue doing their research.

Can you give me a few examples of major universities that have moved/are moving to this system?

A PhD should be in fact about earning a decent living and secure a better life for yourself and your relatives.

Maybe the solution is to allow fewer people into Phd programs?? Not everyone needs a phd.

From the comments, one of the "Guardian picks":

I strongly, strongly disagree. A PhD should be about science. Not about utility for society. I am pretty sure that Max Planck did not think about the utility of computers when he proposed this completely absurd, little mathematical trick of discretising energy. Still, without quantum theory: no computer, no laser, no magnetic resonance imaging...and I could go on forever.

Progress in science is necessarily chaotic - if you disallow incoherence, absurdity, non-applicability, you will kill science. The author is conceptualizing "science" (maybe he talks about engineering and not science?) only as a tool of problem solving for the society - that is actual the role of science in Orwell's "1984" and that was the role of science to a certain extent in socialism. By making science teleological, one makes science ready for totalitarian abuse. Thank you very much!

By the way, comparing PhD systems from different countries is absolutely rubbish. In Germany, it is already rubbish to compare PhDs from different faculties from the same university....


Bizarre. This is coming from someone presumably embedded in the grant-writing machine that is modern academia. How do grant proposals justify their cost, exactly? Academia would be healthier if some back slaps at the next conference was all it took I think

100%

No. PhD should be about truth, research and advancing knowledge. Knowledge/science shouldn't be politicized.

It's such an absurd assertion when you consider that different people have different ideas on how to improve society.


Wait. Incentive structures in academia are screwed up? No. It can't be.



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