The Other Grad Student (TOGS) mentioned today that her sister is thinking of going into grad studies perhaps in England. Apparently someone told her sister or she read somewhere that a masters degree takes about a year and a PhD about three years in England. Not knowing much about grad studies in England I questioned this. I mentioned that usually shorter graduate degrees rely more on courses rather than actual experimental data and publications. TOGS didn't think so. She figured three years is all you need to get a PhD and that over here in North America 5 or 6 year PhDs in science are ridiculous. I'll admit that few people like to be in school that long but that's what a PhD is. TOGS logic went like this: research in grad studies is quite repetitive in the case of the experiments you do and so to learn the actual techniques doesn't take long. And learning how to analyze experiments isn't all that difficult so why does a PhD need to take 5 or 6 years?
I agree with the techniques not taking long to learn and sure analysis isn't all that difficult if you understand the point of the experiment but her comments about grad school left me wondering if she has learned anything in her five years. In my opinion if you want to just learn techniques and analysis then take a lab technician course and not grad studies. The point of grad studies isn't to just learn techniques and how to analyze data. It's critical thinking, being able to develop a clear research plan to effectively test a hypothesis and then being able to write up those results in a coherent format that will not only be publishable but will add to the current knowledge in that area. Sure that could be taught in a course but I think you need to actually do the work to be able develop the skills. I mean I could read a whole manual on how to fly an airplane but that doesn't mean I would be able to. Same with grad school, you can't learn critical thinking from a textbook.
Maybe I'm wrong and TOGS is right, grad school is all about the techniques you learn. Somehow I doubt that though since how many profs do you see doing actual lab work? So what should you get out of a PhD besides a lovely piece of paper?