Friday, May 9, 2014

If you get a PhD, leave academia

In a recent discussion with a friend, comparing the pros and cons of getting a PhD versus a Master's degree, several competing articles happened to came to mind. From Allison Schrager at Quartz, "Get a PhD—but leave academia as soon as you graduate" argues that "Enrolling in a PhD program is, from an economic perspective, a terrible decision." It may sound controversial, but Schrager's main point is how difficult it can be to find academic employment that can help you pay off all those student bills from earning your PhD.

Schrager was personally invested in earning her PhD, reminding us that she'd "have earned more money if I did an MBA, but going to graduate school was the best thing I ever did. I went in ambivalent about a career in academia, but I wanted a PhD simply because I loved economics and wanted to learn everything about it." But at the same time, it's awfully hard for newly minted PhD's to find employment in academia.

Schrager also discusses what you get out of a PhD. From Schrager's perspective, getting your PhD prepares you for academia, and PhD students may lose perspective from the norm outside academia:
But nothing about the PhD process educates you on how to find a non-academic job, apply your skills, or sell yourself to employers. The PhD process involves a long, intense, and often fraught, mentorship with your adviser. At the end, the adviser places you in your first job (or abandons you entirely), her opinion of you determines the course of your career. Enduring this dynamic for half a dozen years leaves many PhD students an emotional wreck, convinced they can’t do anything without their advisers’ approval and help. It also leaves them totally ignorant of how the mainstream job market works.
So in her conclusion, Schrager advises that "If you don’t graduate with a solid academic job or compelling post-doc," you should leave academia as soon as possible.

It's not a unique point; Rebecca Schuman shared a similar statement in her Slate article, "Thesis Hatement." Schuman makes a very grim comparison when discussing the likelihood of getting a tenured academic position after your PhD:
Well, someone also has to not die from small-cell lung cancer to give the disease its 6 percent survival rate, but would you smoke four packs a day with the specific intention of being in that 6 percent? No, because that’s stupid. Well, tenure-track positions in my field have about 150 applicants each. Multiply that 0.6 percent chance of getting any given job by the 10 or so appropriate positions in the entire world, and you have about that same 6 percent chance of “success.” If you wouldn’t bet your life on such ludicrous odds, then why would you bet your livelihood?
It's a point of view that reminded me of a 2011 blog post from Gwen Pearson, aka "Bug Girl." Pearson compares the PhD and the Master’s degree in this way:

A Master’s degree is intended to do two things: to prepare you to be a professional in a disciplinary field, and to learn how the tools of that field are used to solve problems. Master’s come in lots of different sizes and flavors; they may or may not complete a research thesis, and sometimes complete a practicum. A Master’s does not always have to lead to a PhD; in the past it was viewed as a terminal degree in its own right.

A PhD is a long research apprenticeship in which a student is expected to create new knowledge, including creating new tools and techniques and broadening the knowledge base of a field. PhD students are expected to perform original research with minimal supervision. It is not meant to be vocational or career-related training.
And in parallel with Schrager, Pearson says "Academia is a world where your research is your identity (and your value)." Pearson's view is that earning a PhD prepares you to do research, while the Master's degree prepares you for a job.

You may understand why these articles came to mind recently. In my Master's program, the Master's capstone is intended to be a professional practice, where we exercise what we have learned throughout our program towards the completion of a project. In the first few weeks of the capstone, we discussed the importance of the capstone being a reciprocal relationship between academia and practice. On my other blog about open source software and usability, I shared insights from Andersen (2013), that academia and practice need to develop a reciprocal relationship. It's a cycle; academia needs to provide accessible, actionable research that is published in places visited by practice. That allows the practice to advance, which provides future research opportunity for academia. The cycle continues, and both academia and practice benefit.
photo: PerfectZero

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