Is a science PhD worth it?
Daniel Lametti gives it a resounding yes:
The pharmaceutical industry, the Washington Post reported, has cut scores of chemists. Even so, the American Chemical Society told me the unemployment rate among its Ph.D. members is 3.4 percent this year, down from 3.9 percent last year. During these rough economic times, the unemployment rate of scientists in one of the hardest hit fields is less than half the national average. Why? Because scientists learn more in graduate school than how to peer into microscopes and pour chemicals ever so carefully from one Erlenmeyer flask to another. As one biologist told me, the statistics and computer programming she learned during her degree can be applied just about anywhere. More generally, scientists know how to solve complex problems, and finishing a doctoral dissertation shows that you can get things done…
You might argue that if I leave academia to, say, teach high school or become a journalist, I’ve wasted my laboratory training. This argument is ridiculous. Since the Ph.D.’s inception in 18thcentury Germany, the product of a doctoral education has been a dissertation—a body of research that, in a small way, moves a field forward. There’s nothing wrong with contributing to science and then moving on. The work won’t disappear. Dissertations are published, and doctorates last a lifetime.
I greatly appreciate Lametti’s sentiments, which offer a needed corrective to the all-too-often ‘grad school is a waste of time’ screeds (h/t Freddie). The low salary notwithstanding, there are many benefits to graduate school. And for the most part PhD’s don’t have to worry about unemployment. Though it might take a while, we do eventually get jobs.
But despite its many positives, Lametti’s essay doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know–education generally helps your employment prospects.
The problem isn’t Lametti’s answer so much as it is the question. There are only so many ways you can determine whether a PhD writ-large is “worth it.” By necessity you end up relying on aggregate data data that have limited value to questions that are deeply particular and personal. Survey results and national economic trends don’t tell you how I experienced my PhD, what I thought about it, and most crucially, what could have made it better. Given that tens of thousands of people will continue to enter PhD programs every year, and also given that neither Lanetti nor his dissenters will change that fact anytime soon, this last question is what we should be focusing on.
Instead, we end up with a cramped, depressingly binary debate: The “grad school sucks because you spend six years making no money only to end up with a job unrelated to anything you learned” camp vs the “grad school is awesome because you are intellectually engaged for six years and the odds are you’ll end up with a decent job” camp.
Without a doubt, some grad students found their calling in the academy and loved every minute of it. And surely some hated the experience and only have regret. But if my friends and I are any indication,the majority are somewhere between these poles. Like all human beings, we have conflicting feelings about our experiences. Academic research is, after all, just a job for so many of us. And like jobs everywhere, it is constrained by certain immutable truths. Research, like most jobs, can be beautiful in the abstract but ugly up close. There is a daily grind that sometimes complicates and dampens our our enthusiasm without completely negating it. There is no contradiction between loving the idea of your job while hating your actual job.
So for those of us in the messy middle, the blistering confidence of both Daniel Lametti and Penelope Trunk doesn’t seem relevant. Consider the careers issue since it figures so prominently in these debates. Yes, statistics show that PhDs have the lowest unemployment rate among all demographics. But those stats don’t capture the insecurity, the pain, the self-doubt, the “how can it be so hard to get a job when I’m so smart and have a PhD” feeling that so many of us go through. I can’t count the number of people who wished they dropped out after their masters (or earlier) precisely because of feelings like these. And the people I’m thinking of are scientists and engineers. I suspect it might even be worse for those in the humanities.*
The upshot of this is that national data-sets can miss a lot of nuance in this issue. And regardless of the final outcome, we can do a lot to make a PhD “more worth it” for grad students. Even if we all get a job in the end, it doesn’t have to be so stressful.
*In light of the Jonah Lehrer dustup, I feel compelled to point out that I self-plagiarized this passage from a comment on Freddie’s blog.