is a phd past the point of diminishing returns?

Is becoming a scientist really worth it today? Surprisingly, a lot of PhDs are recommending against it.

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Virtually every scientific, engineering, and business discipline is quite familiar with the concept of diminishing returns, the point where no matter how many more tweaks you make or how much you work to improve what you have, the expected return will be so small, you may as well not bother. And according to the Economist’s recent article, your master’s degree will yield you your maximum return on investment from college while the doctorate either gives you a tiny salary increase or takes you right out of a job market. For example, in the UK, having a master’s degree gives you a 23% earnings premium while a PhD increases that sum only by 3% or so, and only in certain disciplines, which surprisingly, aren’t in the realm of science, math, or technology. This finding actually seems quite in tune with the personal observations of my friend Dr. Ian O’Neill when he talked about the brain drain in British academia and industry on his blog, and the presentation by Professor Brian Cox citing the tiny amount of funding for basic scientific research in the UK. In the U.S., I can’t imagine that the conditions are much better with grad students getting monthly stipends averaging about $1,200 a month, and post-docs working around the clock for maybe $35,000 a year or so if they’re lucky to even land the gig.

Here’s how the problem generally plays out. Undergraduate courses teach students the basic framework for stepping out into the real world and getting some hands-on experience. Graduate courses focus on research, trying to impart more specialized, in-depth knowledge obtained by individual study rather than lectures. Then, the doctorate programs teach students how to be scientists and require them to come up with an original and interesting study to get their PhDs. It’s not quite how the system was supposed to work, but that’s what tends to happen. The expectation is that those with a bachelor’s degree will pursue a career, those with a master’s degree will cement their standing in the professional world, and those with a PhD will go on to be scientists, researching and experimenting in academia, government agencies, or major corporations. But here’s where we hit a snag. We don’t really fund our scientists because it’s just not a political priority to do so. And worse yet, some politicians use them as scapegoats for government waste or targets for populist fury. On top of the small pool of funding and being used as a political football, scientists aren’t even being allowed to tinker all that much, with institutions pushing them to meet goals and hit benchmarks often set by administrative quants to whom any research that doesn’t result in a grant and a publication in Nature or Science is an abject failure for pretty much all the wrong reasons.

In this environment, few scientific positions are open and even fewer are tenure-tracked. This means that the small armies of doctoral students and post-docs working for tenured faculty can quickly become their cheap and reliable workforce, and once they’re done, there’s little incentive and cash to pay them more. And with so few positions in academia, competition will be fierce and only one of up to 800 applicants might actually get a post that still pays far less than the jobs available to those one degree level down. To add another odd twist to this setup, consider that while millions are sunk into academic administration and fewer and fewer research and teaching jobs are being created for scientists, politicians urge colleges to mint more and more PhDs to catch up with other nations. And where exactly will all these new PhDs go? The job market doesn’t want them because they come with too steep of a premium and will need to transition to corporate life, and labs will use the new students and grads on the cheap for their projects, then leave them to fend for themselves. So what exactly is the point of minting more and more PhDs if we’re not going to employ them? And how do we expect the doctorate degree to come with a significant earnings premium if we don’t need them? See that’s the thing about science. You can brag about how many scientists and universities your country has, but just bragging about your national brainpower isn’t enough. If you want their education to be meaningful, you have to provide them with funds so they can actually do their research and pay their bills.

# science // education / higher education / scientific research / scientist


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