Tuesday, January 31, 2006

What's the point of a PhD?

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?


immunokid said...

PhDs in England (and some other countries) only take 3 years because they leave out the coursework (and rotations with different advisors), rather than relying on it. Undergraduate education is far more specialised so there's less need for further advanced classes at a post-graduate level. The PhD there is more like the last 3 years of an American one.
I agree that the important part is learning the critical thinking and planning skills, but that's not necessarily lost in a 3 year PhD program.
It might be harder to go from a US undergrad program to a UK PhD without doing more classes depending on how solid your background is. There are some 4-year programs that include a year of seminars and rotations first, though.

ScienceWoman said...

immunokid beat me to the punch. I think TOGS is seriously missing out on the primary aspect of graduate training if she thinks that its all about lab work and data analysis. I'd imagine that she will find it hard to get an academic job later on.

ScienceGeek said...

immunokid - thanks for the clarification on PhDs in England. I'm not very familiar with the system over there so I was just guessing on the coursework part.

In my department we only require three courses for a PhD degree and there is no rotation with different advisors so in that case your focus is mainly research, research and more research. It usually takes 5-6 years to get your PhD though because the committee members expect you to find a cure for cancer or something.

immunokid said...

oh, wow. 5-6 years of research does seem a long time to me, but I do know people who've stretched a supposedly 3 year program into 5 years to get enough results. It seems like programs are pretty different even just within the US.

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