PhD = Prepared for an academic job? I really don’t think so

I recently overheard a promising MSc student declare that he did not want to do a PhD because he didn’t want to be an academic. For me, that was the cherry on top of a very rotten sundae of recent blogs, tweets and media articles that make my job sound like the very worst possible occupation in the world. It’s a world with too few women, too much harassment, too much competition. At the same time, universities are training too many PhDs, there aren’t enough academic jobs, and isn’t it unethical to hire postdocs given the state of things? I happen to think that my job, as a professor of marine ecology, is the best in the world. Who on Earth would not want my job?? But I digress. Implicit in the MSc student’s words is that PhD training prepares one well to be an academic (and perhaps not well to be anything else). I’m not convinced, and here’s why.

Being a prof usually means doing, in variable proportions, the holy trinity of academic duties: teaching, admin and research. Take me, for example. I teach a couple of courses a year – not a lot compared to many of my colleagues. Some of my classes are tiny, more like discussions groups, but others are large (300+). I can chat science like there’s no tomorrow, but I have no formal training in teaching. Sure, I was a TA during my PhD. The main thing I learned from that experience is how to dissect a cat really neatly. This did not prepare me to plan an entire course, to choose the best textbook, or to write exams and assessments that test knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis and synthesis. (Ha! Bloom’s taxonomy of learning – I know what you are but how do I implement you?) Just last week, I was asked to write 15-20 ‘student learning outcomes’ for each course I teach. Say what? Sure, many universities offer their new faculty members training programs in teaching and mentorship by older faculty (who probably never benefited from such programs!). All of this still does not make academics experts in pedagogy and points to the lack of relevant training at PhD (and post-doc) level.

At this point, some will rightfully argue that teaching is often a small part of the work of an academic. I agree, although it is one of the more visible parts to university students and to the public at large. So what else do academics do? We do ‘admin’. We manage money, people, committees, research programs, for ourselves, our department or our university. Some of us manage massive grants that are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars or more. In the 10 years or so I’ve been in Canada, I’ve managed projects cumulatively worth over $1 million, and I’m not a high flyer. This is me, who knows nothing about budgeting, who gets palpitations at the sight of words like actuals and encumbrances, and who feels deep amazement when the out-goings don’t exceed the in-comings. Of course, I have a whole department of financial types whose job it is to make sure that the books are balanced in April, but they don’t tell me when I’m about to overspend. They just tell me that I’ve done it, a couple of months later, and ask how I’m going to deal with it. PhD training does not really make you ready for any of this, or for the stress associated with the need to keep the money coming in because people (students, post-docs, technicians) depend on it.

Academics also manage people. This is a big part of our job. Sometimes, PhD students coordinate armies of undergrads or volunteers to get their research done, but for most PhD students, the experience of managing people is limited to one or two field or lab assistants each year, and perhaps mentoring a few undergraduates. Managing a lab full of students is a different kettle of fish. The stakes are infinitely higher because as a supervisor, you can make or break a young researcher’s career. How do you supervise students to bring out the best in them? How do you customise their training? Surely, one size does not fit all, and people learn best in different ways. What do you do when personal problems spill over into professional lives? I was the head of my department’s Graduate Studies Committee for a couple of years and, despite having been a prof for two decades at that point, I felt woefully inadequate at dealing with some of the issues that arose. You can’t really afford trial-and-error when people’s spirits and futures hang in the balance. PhD training definitely does not prepare you to be an effective manager of people.

Of course, there’s research. This is one area where PhD training might be seen as most relevant. As a PhD student, you might have the freedom to choose your area of study and to design your own experiments (but that probably won’t happen). As a PhD student, you definitely have time to read, get on top of the literature, learn or invent new lab, field or statistical techniques and software programs, analyse and write, write, write. It seems ironic that these are all things that you definitely do NOT have time to do after you land your first academic job! However, armed with your PhD and post-doc research experience, you can identify interesting questions, apply for grants, and once the money is in hand, transfer your knowledge about the lab, the field, analysis and writing to your students, who will have time to do what you can’t because you have to keep applying for grants… OK, I’m overdoing it a little, but you get the idea.

People who do a PhD generate in-depth, specialist knowledge, but in the process, they also gain an immense number of transferable skills. They are first and foremost adept learners and problem-solvers, which makes them highly adaptable and actually suited to a whole variety of positions. In fact, the unemployment rate of American scientists with a PhD is just one-third of what it is for the general population (and most, not surprisingly, do not work in an academic institution*).  It’s true that PhD-trained researchers who elect to pursue jobs in government, industry or with NGOs face a steep learning curve associated with a new work environment. However, I believe that being a university prof entails a similar amount of learning on the job because PhD and post-doc training delivers only a small fraction of the skills needed in academic life.

Not wanting to do a PhD because you don’t want to be an academic is nonsense. There are lots of reasons for not wanting to do a PhD, but that’s just not one of them.

* NSF 2013 statistics

Thanks to @JBYoder for pointing out this source


2 thoughts on “PhD = Prepared for an academic job? I really don’t think so

  1. Thanks for this blog with this interesting perspective on a PhD career. As I recently finished a PhD by myself I agree to the points you have raised. I feel that I know a lot and that I gained insights into several methods and skills but for most of them I would not feel comfortable to say that I am an expert in them. This brings me to a situation with many interests, many skills on a beginner to medium level and a few expert scientific skills. This leaves me wondering, what else than research I can do, when most of the position advertisements require expert knowledge in non-science skills, often of many years. Then it is hard to compete against people that are more specialized in these skills. Strange PhD world!

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