Reforming the PhD process

Education has been one of the hot topics of late (though not as hot as it should be, frankly…but that’s another story), and today Slashdot posted this article in Nature News written by a professor at Columbia. In it, he argues that the PhD system in the US is more or less “broken and unsustainable”. To summarize his main points:

  • Graduate students are trained as “clones” and only necessary to professors for their work in labs and as TAs.
  • There are no jobs for newly-minted PhDs, as they possess no real-world practical skills.
  • Students and faculty alike are overly specialized and are incapable of communicating ideas to anyone outside their respective fields.

As a few mostly inconsequential points, I don’t like how this article is written. I’m not sure if Nature News is always written editorial-style, but for such a respectable journal I’m somewhat surprised that this was published without much of anything resembling empirical evidence; this author’s opinion is pretty much all there is to go on.

And on the note of the author: he’s the chair of the religion department at Columbia, a field in the humanities. Now, I am not an explicit student of the humanities, nor do I know anyone personally who is, so I’m not an expert. But I do understand that graduate study in the humanities is quite different from, say, study in science and engineering. Using my program as a case study throws out all three of the above points, and here’s why:

  • We choose our advisors after a year of work. And if we’re not coming up with our own ideas, we will be kicked out of the program by the end of our second year. Original research or bust.
  • Internalizing the scientific method, designing and executing experiments, conducting verification studies, and pouring through reams of previous research isn’t remotely close to “no real-world skills”. Nevermind the computational aspects of our work.
  • Our program is, by design, multidisciplinary: computer science + biology = computational biology. We have adjunct professors in machine learning, biology, chemistry, genetics, structural biology, computer science, statistics, biomedical science, and many others.

The fact that this professor calls for either “radical reform” or shutting down programs entirely across the board screams of broad platitudes having little basis on empirical facts, and it’s doubly frustrating given that it’s in Nature.

Higher education in the United States isn’t perfect, and every field has its own set of issues to deal with. But as always, the best (and most difficult) way of dealing with it is to fix what is broken and leave what works alone. Furthermore, some facts–perhaps percentages indexed by field of students having jobs upon graduation over the last 30 years, or some quantification of the “overly specialized” assertion (no idea how you would quantify this, but it’s a claim the author made so he has the burden of proof), or something along these lines–would do wonders to turn this from a rant fest from a lone humanities professor into an issue with broad implications.

Of course, something that is a very serious issue:


About Shannon Quinn

Oh hai!
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2 Responses to Reforming the PhD process

  1. Melpomene says:

    Those are interesting objections to PhD studies; maybe it is just because I am so much in my own academic bubble, but I had never heard some of them.

    The PhD program at my University does particularly attempt to broaden our field of experience by having an interdisciplinary core that included Literature, Philosophy, and Politics classes. And the stated goal of the education is to learn how to think, not just know one subject.

    As a humanities graduate student I don’t know much about how the sciences go, but isn’t the point of all education to prepare to engage the world more fully? Even if I don’t get a job, everything that I learned will still make me a happier person!

    • magsol says:

      I probably should have made explicit the possibility that I, too, am in my own academic bubble 🙂

      I fully agree with all your points. Though my PhD program is in the sciences, it sounds like the rigor and general philosophy are very similar, so it still leaves me wondering why this professor is sounding the alarm.

      Thank you very much for your comment!

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