Sunday, April 24, 2011

Would You Like Fries With That?

Mark Taylor thinks the PhD production line is broken, and needs to be reformed or junked.

The system of PhD education in the United States and many other countries is broken and unsustainable, and needs to be reconceived. In many fields, it creates only a cruel fantasy of future employment that promotes the self-interest of faculty members at the expense of students. The reality is that there are very few jobs for people who might have spent up to 12 years on their degrees.

Most doctoral-education programmes conform to a model defined in European universities during the Middle Ages, in which education is a process of cloning that trains students to do what their mentors do. The clones now vastly outnumber their mentors. The academic job market collapsed in the 1970s, yet universities have not adjusted their admissions policies, because they need graduate students to work in laboratories and as teaching assistants. But once those students finish their education, there are no academic jobs for them.

In Physics, it appears that getting an academic job now depends on spending a very long apprenticeship that typically takes one into middle age before getting a stable academic position. In a field where many of the greatest physicists have made their biggest discoveries before their twenty-fifth birthday, that hardly seems like a good way to promote discovery.

UPDATE: Bee has more by way of commentary on the same story.

I'm inclined to think that this is another case where economic incentives have become misalighned with markets. Bee cites Peter Thiel's remarks on Higher Ed as a Bubble.