The doctorate is the new bachelor's?

Nov 11 2009 Published by under Careerism, Education, Mentoring, Tribe of Science

Commenter qaz raised an issue the I think I last took up following an observation of Larry Moran. That was also in the context of discussing so-called over-production of PhDs. The new comment from qaz frames the issue as follows:

I AM advocating graduate PhD-level science training for the rest of the population - imagine if our politicians actually understood science (or even critical thinking) for example. A lot of professions would be improved by having scientific training. (But they don't need it, you say. I say, why can't they have it? Why can't spending five years doing some good science not be a part of someone's path in life, even if they don't go on to do NIH-R01-Research?)


This sounds to me very much like the argument for a bachelor's level education in decades past. Even a current argument, I suppose, since college education is still not a universal in the US. An argument I wholly endorse. So I am pretty sympathetic to qaz's comment. It would indeed be a good thing if more people had graduate level training in the sciences. Just so long as they weren't all resentful at Teh Systeme, that is. Good for many things including public support for funding science, resilience against anti-science policy-making and broader influence of science-y thinking across the public sphere. Naturally, I think that we could easily devote resources we use for other purposes (say, making war) to double or even triple the enterprise of publicly funded science and that would be a better use of the money regardless of scientific outcome. I mean have you priced out the latest military hardware in R01 equivalents? Aaaaanyway....
The main objections I can see are these.
First, does the opportunity cost of 6 additional years in graduate study really compute for general edumacation purposes? Is it really worth this additional time for the individual? Worth if for society to have these young folks spending their 20s doing this stuff? I suppose if it were a job with something like close to the same compensation (individual opportunity cost addressed) and accomplishing needed work (the NIH mission) we can cover those.
Second, will the inevitable market consequence cause problems for the existing doctoral model? The response to growing numbers of bachelor's degree workers was a cycle of credentialism. The degree became a handy employer screen for various job categories, whether directly relevant or not. The market responded by providing easier and easier ways to attain this credential, the bachelor's degree. Do we want the University of Phoenix awarding doctorates?

35 responses so far

  • History Punk says:

    Since the bachelor's is the new high school diploma, this means creating a whole new system of degrees above the post-doc level.

  • JohnV says:

    Obviously post doc pay is so high that we need as many new phds as possible to keep our pay down 😛

  • A Reader says:

    Uh... Who else here sits on graduate admissions committees?
    There aren't enough slots in programs to admit even the marginally qualified people who actually desire a career in science, much less the unqualified people who don't even care much about science.
    And who among the PIs here wants to take these marginally motivated and barely qualified new graduate students into their labs?
    Sorry, DM. Science Ph.D.s for people who don't plan on being professional scientists is silly. If you simply want some laboratory skills and advanced training, that's what master's programs are for.

  • Bill says:

    I have to believe that this is one of those times that you are advocating something for the sake of an argument. I'm sure many other commenters can and will articulate this better than I can, but in my crude fashion: Really bad idea. And the point of view that everyone would benefit from getting a PhD in science is actually quite arrogant. There are many highly intelligent people who have absolutely no interest in science, just as we may have no interest in acting, or art, law, philosophy, etc, and certainly wouldn't benefit from spending six years of our lives studying those topics.

  • I don't think so. Master's degrees and higher are much more specialized and would be worthless to a politician.
    Having an advanced degree in chemistry or physics isn't going to help someone vote on health care reform or homosexual marriage rights.
    So, in short to answer the questions:

    But they don't need it, you say. I say, why can't they have it?

    First, just because you asked "why can't they have it" doesn't wipe away the fact they really don't need it. They'd be better off getting a Master's or Ph.D. in Political Science or History.
    Second, they can't have it because it is expensive and pertains to a subject that they don't need. What they do need is unbiased science advisors.

  • niewiap says:

    I support A Reader and Bill in this discussion. PhD-level training requires some pretty advanced skills and some distinct traits that a great majority of college graduates don't have. If you support this idea, DM, than be the first to recruit PhD students without any pre-selection. Are you sure that you would like to have these totally un-scientific folks around in the lab breaking glassware, wasting reagents and requiring their every step to be scrutinized by more qualified lab members? C'mon... Even a lot of PhD students who HAVE passed through the cracks in the system are a pain in the ass to train, let alone this remaining crowd. A better idea is to popularize summer internships and the like for professionals. Lab boot-camp anyone?

  • ChrisZ says:

    How about we just do a better job of teaching science earlier on in kids educational carriers? Sending everyone to science grad school would be a waste of everyone's time, including the poor people who have to try to actually teach to a bunch of people who don't give a shit.

  • Pecro says:

    I agree w/ ChrisZ...teach better science at an earlier age. Without the provision of a better base knowledge, all we would be doing is creating an increased number of dumber PhD candidates. We need increased critical thinking skills not increased credentialing.

  • As I have said many times before, this whole discussion is stupid. The proper way to look at graduate and post-doctoral training in relation to becoming a PI is exactly the same way we look at minor league baseball in relation to major league baseball, or that we look at college and local orchestras in relation to big city orchestras.
    There are lots of individuals who want to make it to the top level and are willing to work their asses off at the lower levels even though they know that the likelihood of ultimate success is low. The lower levels function both for training and identification of those with the talent to succeed at the top level. Many of those who do not make it to the top later complain that the "system" is not "fair".
    I fail to see this as something that needs "fixing".

  • Brian says:

    a contrary view, from http://chronicle.com/article/Are-Too-Many-Students-Going-to/49039/
    "Caplan: College attendance, in my view, is usually a drain on our economy and society. Encouraging talented people to spend many years in wasteful status contests deprives the economy of millions of man-years of output. If this were really an "investment," of course, it might be worth it. But I see little connection between the skills that students acquire in college and the skills they'll need later in life."

  • Heather says:

    @KemaTheAtheist
    Education of any kind is useful to producing more well-rounded and analytical people. In my experience, people with upper level degrees tend to agree that further education in a specific topic was useful, but a huge component of graduate education is learning about how to think about topics and present them in various ways.
    I agree that we need more unbiased, well-educated science advisors. But don't we want those people to be educated enough to understand the science? Or should they too just get degrees in history or political science, since that's where they'll be working?

  • qaz says:

    I absolutely think it'd be great to have better science education in K-12. Part of the answer to that is to have science teachers with real science degrees.
    Just as college is different from high school, graduate school is different from college. There's a fundamental difference in what one learns as a graduate student in a science program than what one learns as a college student. (And Masters degrees are also very different from PhDs.) There's something very general and very important that one learns by delving deep into a topic to the point that one can actually discover something new and write a full-size PhD thesis on it.
    Is a PhD for everyone? No. Does every high-school teacher need a PhD? No. But would it help them be a better teacher? Maybe. I'm not advocating that all politicians need to have science PhDs. I'm just saying that we wouldn't have this pipeline issue if we accepted that getting a PhD is useful training in critical thinking and that it is useful in many places, even outside NIH's limited purview.
    I fundamentally disagree with our dear comrade. I think that one learns stuff in a science PhD about how to think about problems and how to address issues that are useful beyond the limited path that our dear comrade has taken. I understand that CPP has denied any interest or ability to train anyone that is not a clone of its own CPP-self. But given CPP's obvious intelligence and abilities, that narrow-mindedness is unfortunate. If you fail to make the majors in baseball, you're left with injuries and stories to tell and not much else. If you get a physics PhD and go be a high-school physics teacher, that PhD will help you be a better teacher.

  • Alex says:

    I half-agree with qaz: I certainly don't see anybody in a non-academic career as a failure of the system. I certainly agree that advanced scientific training is a useful thing for an individual in a wide range of life paths, and that it is good for society to have such people around.
    But I still think there is a real problem with over-production. While my view of the system is not as narrow as CPP's view that it exists primarily to identify those suited for the next tier of the system, there's no denying that it is specialized training and going from that specialized training to a non-academic job does involve some significant adjustments. This combination of a long training path and subsequent adjustment period eats up a lot of time, time when one was young and energetic and could have been making more money. We should not lightly dismiss the costs that individuals bear when they go through this training and ultimately pursue a non-academic path. While industry has plenty of successful people with doctoral degrees, it also has plenty of successful people with bachelors or masters degrees.
    A Ph.D. beginning a non-academic job after a postdoc might reasonably wonder if there was some other, more practical way to spend those years and still get into industry and have an interesting and rewarding career.

  • DSKS says:

    "If you get a physics PhD and go be a high-school physics teacher, that PhD will help you be a better teacher."
    I don't agree. A high school teacher, regardless of subject, would certainly find it more beneficial to have invested the 5 yrs of a PhD actually being employed in a highschool. College level is (or damn well should be if it was worth the tuition) sufficient to endow a teacher with the appropriate knowledge of their core subject. Truth be told, frankly, you don't really need a PhD to teach undergraduates, let alone high schoolers. The specificity of our fields nowadays mean that many of us have to revisit the textbook before getting in front of the podium on a subject not explicitly related to our research anyway, PhD regardless.
    It's bad enough that a lot of what should be compulsory bachelors education is increasingly getting bumped up into grad programs, and resulting in a needless lengthening of the education process, which is drawn out enough as it is.

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    I'm curious what you'd do to enforce this. Jail time? Joe Arpaio-style sweeps to make sure that employers aren't hiring anyone without a PhD to clean toilets?

  • Monisha says:

    This discussion is quite interesting. I teach undergraduate research methods in my discipline, but essentially, i am teaching about issues of reliability/validity of measurement, careful experimentation, best-possible-approximations to experimentation when that just can't be done, and how to think about data and results. If a class like mine were given a bit more time to cover somewhat more complex (multivariate) research designs (and such classes are everywhere at universities), and if people were required to take it and to demonstrate competence prior to a bachelor's degree, that might result in sufficient grasp of basic logic-of-science stuff for everyday functioning. Better yet, some version of this class ought to be a requirement for all high schools - one could pare down the part of my course that is about 'how to do your own projects' and focus on the 'how to interpret findings other people tell you about' part.
    PhD program is an enormous expense in terms of time and effort for many individuals. I guess i'm partially with CPP and others on that one. I think the problems in the system don't mean everyone should get a phd. They mean that something is broken way earlier in the system, in that we fail to provide basic education in thinking to our population....

  • If you fail to make the majors in baseball, you're left with injuries and stories to tell and not much else. If you get a physics PhD and go be a high-school physics teacher, that PhD will help you be a better teacher.

    Not so. The parallel applies in this context as well. Those who fail to make the majors or who fail to get hired by a big-city orchestra can still leverage off their experiences to do things like teach sports/music to up-and-comers, just like scientists.
    This is exactly why I never said that scientific training is useless to those who never become PIs.

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    If you get a physics PhD and go be a high-school physics teacher, that PhD will help you be a better teacher.

    A PhD does not qualify you to teach high school (except a PhD in education, of course.) For that you need a degree in secondary education.
    From observation, a PhD in any other subject is a liability in secondary education, since it means losing several years (at least six, more like eight) years of seniority. In most districts this would put you far enough behind the competition that you'd have little chance of getting the pay-differential assignments in math and science.

  • That is a dumbass idea. Most of the general society do not have the drive or capability to sit through 6 years of graduate science education. CPP hit the nail on the head, if you want to play in the bigs you run the risk of riding the pine for the Nantucket Nutsuckers. But you could make it big, or you could play off your skills and coach a high school team, thus your experiences were valuable. I gambled my chances to see if with a little luck, a shit ton of hard work and proper motivation maybe I can do well, but I know full well I could end up teaching at a community college if shit doesn't work out, but I'm willing to do it.

  • dean says:

    "Do we want the University of Phoenix awarding doctorates?"
    A little investigation shows you don't really want Phoenix-type institutions granting any of their "degrees".

  • MattXIV says:

    I don't see what benefit anybody would derive from a PhD unless they are planning on doing research in a related field. The only generalizable content is intermediate stats techniques and there's no shortage of people who have PhDs who managed to avoid exposure to those. Even within study design, a lot of it is non-generalizable - a PhD in physics isn't going to give you signficantly more insight into interpreting or desiging epidemiological studies than a BS in physics, which isn't going to make as much of a difference as +/- a stats course. I've encounter lots of people with PhDs in scientific fields who have very little scientific knowledge in areas that aren't related to their degree - this isn't a knock on them, just the reality that they've decided to specialize in a given field and accordingly are more interested in depth than breadth. For those of you with non-physical science PhDs, how many of you could explain how a field effect transistor works? That's not a complicated question - only a slight outgrowth of what's covered in high school chemistry and physics, but I'd definitely take the odds of someone with a 2 year electronics tech degree getting it right over someone with a bio PhD.
    Making a BS/BA a basic requirement for well paying jobs just resulted in a bunch of people sleepwalking their way through undergrad programs because they were interested in the salary, not the content. If they weren't paying attention during the first 17 years, tacking on another 5-7 isn't going to change it.

  • cm says:

    College is an enormous misappropriation of resources. Resources can only be squandered this way because western countries are so incredibly rich.
    At this point, college has got to be something like 45% "fun camp", 20% "slog fest", 25% ritual, and only 15% actual education. Of that last 15%, perhaps only a fifth of it is retained at all (3%) and of that 3%, only a third of it is actually used.
    1% yield.
    So, no, don't send everybody to Ph.D. programs, too!

  • Sarah says:

    Agree with MattXIV. My experience in undergrad was that of a bunch of people who were there just because a BA/BS in *anything* had become the new high school diploma for getting a job. It detracted from my education when they couldn't be arsed to shut up in class. How much worse would that be in a PhD program??
    Teach K-12 science, math and critical thinking skills better. Beyond that it's up to individuals, "can lead a horse to water..." and all that.

  • CPP,
    Flawed analogy. Minor league baseball is still an enterprise with a number limit, and to a large extent a geographical limit as well. No so for PhD grads over the past couple of decades---many more are churning the world over. In the absence of a significant steady increase in the pot of money available, science at the PhD grad level is more akin to a pyramid scheme where the later entrants face increasingly longer odds of making it--the odds get longer with every passing year. And much like a pyramid scheme, there are mechanisms in place to facilitate the entry of people at the lowest level of the scheme---it's once you commit to the scheme that the crunch hits for most.
    Still there are some merits to your analogy in that the rich do get richer. And recent times have seen an increased need for institutions like the ORI. One only hopes that all the significant accomplishments and records in science do not end up being in the hands of those who cheated in one way or another.

  • Klem says:

    Absolutely we should triple the US (non-military) science budget. No huge increase in people, just increase the salaries and grant amounts, especially for grad students and post-docs.
    From the 2009 US budget:
    NIH: $30.3 billion
    NSF: $6.9 billion
    NASA: $17.6 billion
    DoD "Research, Development, Testing & Evaluation": $79.6 billion
    DoD "Missile Defense": $9.4 billion

  • Klem says:

    We should encourage scientists (and science-educated people) to become more politically and socially involved. One way is to mention role-models in science classes and textbooks. There are many of examples:
    Albert Szent-Gyorgyi: Nobel prize in Medicine, anti-Nazi undercover diplomat, humanist writer
    Jimmy Carter: BS degree and graduate courses in nuclear physics, US President
    Linus Pauling: Nobel prizes in Chemistry AND Peace (anti-nuclear weapons testing)
    Ben Franklin: Scientist, inventor, diplomat

  • becca says:

    If science careers are truly analogous to music and sports careers, I think we really need to discourage kids in general from spending significant time on learning science at all levels.
    By high school, students need the opportunity to learn to be a productive member of society (and in this capitalistic society, that means EMPLOYABLE).
    If CPP is right, music, art, sports and science are all in the same boat. They should be seen as optional electives that are incredibly important to a real education, but could be dispensed of entirely in school for most students (at least until the schools actually become proficient in getting people employable).
    Anything else is a scandalous, frivolous waste of precious resources.
    If, on the other hand, science is a field where you can rapidly become employable, where there are diverse reasonably well-paid job opportunities, and that is not intrinsically limited to a few select people with god-given talent, then CPP is full of shit.

  • lylebot says:

    DoD "Research, Development, Testing & Evaluation": $79.6 billion

    The Dept. of Defense funds basic science research through DARPA, so it supports many graduate students, postdocs, and faculty. I would argue that DARPA is the funding agency that supports the riskiest and most visionary research of all of them. And I don't mean the truly crazy projects that DoD has a reputation for; the DARPA projects I've been part of have very long (100+ pages), very detailed proposals that are reviewed very carefully. Most of them do not pan out in their long-term goals, and DARPA knows this, but many of the shorter-term subprojects funded by DARPA have lead to revolutions in my field.

  • Anonymous says:

    @Becca,
    “we really need to discourage kids in general from spending significant time on learning science at all levels”.
    It sounds a little dictatorial and a reminder of what was happening in the URSS some forty years ago, if my history does not fail me. I would prefer to encourage kids to learn sciences from an early eage together with sports, arts, music and let them decide later what do they want to do in order to excel in whatever they choose.
    The unemployment problem has more to do with a failing education system, as well as with economic and social irresponsibility. Not as much with choosing one or other professional path.
    The “If science careers are truly analogous to music and sports careers”, does not justify too well that “we really need to discourage kids…”

  • Anonymous says:

    "If science careers are truly analogous to music and sports careers, I think we really need to discourage kids in general from spending significant time on learning science at all levels."
    Cute, Becca, and, I think, a logical follow-up of CCP's (I think correct) characterization of science->PI as a tournament model where many enter the tournament and only a few achieve success (and employment at it).
    So, if my kid tells me that she wants to go to grad school at Caltech in biology, I should have the same reaction as if she says they want to wait tables in Hollywood to make it into the movies?
    (and, CPP, people complain that the model isn't fair, because it isn't. That doesn't mean that it doesn't work for getting what we want out of it -- i.e. high quality science. But, to many a "fair" system is one where the effort and ability you put into a game results in a predictable outcome An unfair system is one in which luck/factors outside of your control play a significant role in outcomes. In your characterization music, sports, the arts, and, I guess, in science, like life, is unfair).

  • becca says:

    Anon 30- I don't mean we shouldn't LET people learn different things. However, at some point along the line, most folks stop getting blanket encouragement to chase every dream/whim. Some kids *are* going to be astronauts, or baseball stars, or famous painters. A few are even going to be POTUS. But at some point, people start responding to young people much more positively/encouragingly if they say "I'm going to go into biomedical research" compared to "I'm going to be an artist". I think that if CPP is right, this is doing a very dangerous, almost cruel, disservice to young people.
    Anon 31- actually, you should encourage her to be a Hollywood star. It's not considered any disgrace to have to wait tables waiting for your big break in acting. But grad students aren't even allowed to hold outside employment most of the time. The barrier to science is higher- if the payoff isn't bigger or the payout more frequent, it's a shittier deal.

  • Anonymous says:

    Becca,
    I am Anon 30. I can understand your frustration because you’re most likely facing unfairness like many of us have faced somewhere along the process. The fact that you need a paper in Science, Nature, bla, bla, bla to be K-99 competitive does not mean that if you don’t have one you’re not competitive. Not everything that is in those journals is worth a thought or even a tear. What is deserving your thoughts is what you really like doing and you feel strong to work and fight for.

  • DSKS says:

    "Anon 31- actually, you should encourage her to be a Hollywood star. It's not considered any disgrace to have to wait tables waiting for your big break in acting. But grad students aren't even allowed to hold outside employment most of the time."
    Actually, my generation of Hollywood wannabes have moved up from waiting tables to doing scientific research. Tips are lousy, but the benefits are better.

  • Anonymous says:

    “I would argue that DARPA is the funding agency that supports the riskiest and most visionary research of all of them.”
    My PhD was supported entirely by DARPA, my first postdoctoral research project too, so was my second postdoctoral research project (all different programs). I have also written and collaborated as a co-PI on several DARPA proposals. It is not true that DAPRA supports the riskiest and most visionary research. That is what they love to claim. Truth is, they won’t fund your proposal unless you can prove you will get results in 6 months (and it’s also a given that you have to be on the “inside” track or partner with someone who is, in order to be a serious contender for funding even though they post open solicitations for proposals). And then if your proposal is funded, if you fail to meet even one of the major program milestones (that have very specific performance targets) your project will probably be terminated. Oh, and milestones are usually spaced 6 months apart. All of this is counter to "risky and visionary" research. Instead it leads PIs to propose (and get) projects that are in fact NOT risky and visionary but are safe and incremental, but just “packaged” and marketed all fancy-like to sound like they are risky or visionary.

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