The Sciences

Do You Need a Ph.D.?

The IntersectionBy Sheril KirshenbaumDec 20, 2010 2:49 PM


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The Economist's latest issue features an article entitled The Disposable Academic that outlines the challenges of earning a Ph.D. as well as the limited academic job market awaiting graduates at the other end. Chris and I addressed many of these issues in our book Unscientific America, but here the author provides updated information by including numbers in the US and abroad. She makes a pyramid scheme comparison, pointing out that the U.S. produced over 100,000 doctoral degrees between 2005 and 2009 while adding only 16,000 new professorships. The last paragraph is particularly insightful:

Many of those who embark on a PhD are the smartest in their class and will have been the best at everything they have done. They will have amassed awards and prizes. As this year’s new crop of graduate students bounce into their research, few will be willing to accept that the system they are entering could be designed for the benefit of others, that even hard work and brilliance may well not be enough to succeed, and that they would be better off doing something else.

For high-achieving students (with the financial means to consider it), a Ph.D. often seems like the next logical step after a bachelors or masters degree. It affords credibility, prestige, and a shot at a very rewarding career. But it's also not the only trajectory possible and certainly does not a guarantee a job after years of low pay, a tireless commitment, and personal sacrifice. In other words, the decision to begin a doctoral program should not be taken lightly. During my 2006 science fellowship in the Senate, I observed the tremendous science communication crisis firsthand: Most scientists making the rounds on Capitol Hill were not equipped to have influence there, while psuedoscientific groups were frequently organized, articulate, funny, and prepared. I learned a great deal that year, but above all I realized science is not getting through where it matters most. I knew I'd be able to contribute best by working to improve science policy and outreach rather than by returning to the lab bench. Today I keep a foot firmly planted in academia, but not on the tenure track. I write, blog, and sometimes, I teach. It's a comfortable lifestyle where I'm able to balance many personal and professional priorities. Over the past years, scientists from different fields have encouraged me to join their labs. I considered it once, but ultimately realized that the only reason I'd enroll would be to please other people. The truth is, I love what I'm doing--even if it falls into a "non-traditional" category. A Ph.D. is for those (

such as my husband

) who embark on the journey not for the degree itself, but out of intense passion for a particular field, while being fully aware of the challenges and uncertainties ahead, including the odds of landing a professorship. Still, I expect that there will always be people asking me why I don't have a doctoral degree. And I'll continue to explain it wasn't the right path for me.

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