Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The problems with grad studies - part I

I'm sure there are many problems with grad studies, I have two in mind hence the "part I" in the title. Some may say I'm just a bitter grad student at the end of her program but I like to look at it as the rose coloured glasses have finally come off. All the hype professors tell you about how great a PhD is and how academic research is so flexible and that you can follow whatever your heart desires seems so wonderful in the beginning but the honeymoon phase is over.

I've been thinking about the numerous problems with academia for a while now. This is part of the drive behind my search for a non-academic career. A recent article in The Scientist titled Are We Training Too Many Scientists? reminded me of one of my bigger complaints with PhD training. The article goes into the statistics behind the number of PhD granted and the number of post docs and how the numbers have risen drastically, yet the number of tenure-track academic research positions have not kept pace. This leaves a lot of highly skilled and highly educated scientists at a loss of what to do next. Now I'm not going to focus or speculate why the numbers are different and how we could fix them. No, that article reminded me of my frustrations with leaving the Ivory Tower and obtaining a career outside academia. Besides the gasps and the comments like "well what are you going to do then?", "but you can't direct your own research there", "isn't it time you started having babies anyways?" (that one especially annoys me) very few people have had any advice on what jobs there are for those with PhDs who don't want to go into academia. For a while there I was getting so frustrated and stressed about how I took so many years of schooling and yet had limited career choices beside academia. This, however, is not true. Upon further investigation and speaking with a career counselor I realized I did have numerous option. However, I never realized these options existed until I actively searched them out. In academia your mentors are professors, usually your supervisor. These people live and breath academic research and to do anything else, in their mind, is somehow considered lesser. I realize mentoring a grad student is like raising a child. You want to teach them as best as you can and see them succeed. The problem is that most academics only see success as obtaining a tenure-track position. As such, they don't really counsel you in alternative career options. It could be that they aren't familiar with them or that they don't want to open all those other doors for you for fear that you will take the time and money they invested in you and do something that is considered, by them, to be of a lower standing. However, all schooling, whether it's a Bachelor's degree or a PhD, is about training people for their future careers. Why in the case of a PhD does that career have to focus on academia?

With the decrease in tenure-track positions and increase in number of PhD graduates you would think that training or career counseling in areas outside academia would be beneficial to universities. Potential PhD students wouldn't see a PhD as a dead end degree and many of those recent PhD graduates would not be so disgruntled and give up on science altogether. As I mentioned, I did seek out career counseling. Although it was through the university I still had to pay for it and it wasn't soley focused on science. It was just general career counseling. It was helpful although it would have been much more helpful to have career counseling focused on jobs you can obtain with a PhD in science. I've found that most of my knowledge on careers outside academia has been self-taught since the university has limited resources in that area.

A PhD program shouldn't just center on getting the degree but should include career counseling and specific courses to prepare you for a career, whether that be in academia or outside academia. This idea of [B.Sc. + M.Sc. + Ph.D. + Post-doc = tenure-track position] is outdated. Academia needs to change with the times and better prepare the students they are training so that when they graduate they can enter into successful careers in a broad range of areas and not just tenure-track or unemployment.


ScienceWoman said...

hear hear!

Anonymous said...

I went to a careers counsellor a few weeks ago to talk about what sort of options there might be for humanities PhDs outside of academia (just in case), and she looked at my CV and laughed. A lot. Then she started to talk about my options with me. Starting with secretarial work in offices, moving through private tutoring for foreign students, through to retraining at a community college.

I suspect that the options might be a lot cooler for people in the hard sciences, but for linguists, it kinda sucks.

Anonymous said...

I think the whole talk of PhDs taking jobs outside academia is ridiculous... we have to understand that the PhD is an age old concept that has been refurbished by the academic mafia and utilized to create a system whereby cheap workers can be obtained. It is not all about teaching, yes, no matter how ordinary the research of grad students, remember that junior engineers do not design WTCs either, but they are PAID for their work. If your dept assistant can get paid for licking envelopes, so can you for being a research assistant, or perhaps all salaries for all professions should be eliminated altogether and all designations can be renamed as "degrees": starting from "janitor" to "president". In this framework, it is wrong to play into the hands of the academic mafia to get raped in grad school and postdocs and then leave to do something else... academia is a vampire: learn to be a vampire yourself, no less.