The Sciences

Pursuing the life of the mind

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanApr 6, 2013 10:19 PM


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Over at Slate there is a piece out which is being shared on Facebook a fair amount, Thesis Hatement: Getting a literature Ph.D. will turn you into an emotional trainwreck, not a professor. As a contrast I think it is useful to read this other piece in Slate, Is a Science Ph.D. a Waste of Time? Don’t feel too sorry for graduate students. It’s worth it. But I want to focus on one aspect of the Slate rant:

Well, what if I told you that by “five hours” I mean “80 hours,” and by “summers off” I mean “two months of unpaid research sequestration and curriculum planning”? What if you’ll never have time to read books, and when you talk about them, you’ll mostly be using made-up words like “deterritorialization” and “Othering”—because, as Ron Rosenbaum pointed out recently, the “dusty seminar rooms” of academia have the chief aim of theorizing every great book to death? And I can’t even tell you what kind of ass you have to kiss these days to get tenure—largely because, like most professors, I’m not on the tenure track, so I don’t know.

Unlike professional degrees Ph.D. programs aren't necessarily there to teach you practical skills. But, if you get a Ph.D. in the natural sciences usually you do gain skills which can position you for a job in "industry" (the term within academia for what everyone else considers a normal job at a private corporation or firm). Learning complex mathematics, programming, or laboratory skills transcend academic signalling (I think math and programming are probably the most helpful, as many laboratory techniques are being commodified and automated). They're actually necessary for the project of understanding the world. The same factor of secondary returns to skills gained is at work in fields like economics where the notional topic at hand is also the exterior world. Though I think excessive formal mathematical modeling within economics is in large part signalling (i.e., it exists to a great extent not because it is necessary for the modeling, but to indicate the modeler's intellectual credentials to their peers), it turns out that mathematical skills are very useful in a general sense at decomposing the world around us. By analogy, there are individuals who work on their physical appearance and health for the purposes of gaining the attraction of others. But a fit physique is useful for other reasons. I believe part of the specific rage of humanities doctorate holders is that their current skills gained receive little validation outside of academia. The empire of Theory within humanities strikes many as totally irrelevant to the world outside of humanity's departments, and perhaps even detrimental to the project of edifying and appreciating literature and the arts. Combine this with the reality that humanity's Ph.D.'s tend to take longer to finish and accrue more debt, and you have a very combustible mixture in the hands of individual's whose cognitive gifts are such that they perceive themselves to be part of the cultural elite. My own bottom line in regard to Ph.D.s is that people need to not get caught in the sunk cost fallacy, and they need to be there for the "right reasons." If you're taking ten years then something has gone very wrong. If you aren't interested in the classes that you are getting paid to take, and aren't passionate about the research you're doing, than something has gone very wrong. If you can't handle the reality that academia is rife with politics, back-stabbing, and an operational Social Darwinism due to finite funds, then obviously it isn't for you. Real jobs in the real world have many of the same issues, but are not burdened with the same idealistic presumptions. The academic pipeline is a difficult and brutal sieve. But we shouldn't get melodramatic, we're not gladiators, death is not the other option. Nor are we 58 year old factory workers. If the working and laboring classes were more verbally articulate we'd be hearing a lot more about them. As it is they wither and suffer in silence, unless a journalist takes an interest in them and speaks up for them.

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