It's time to build a better PhD

Dec. 1, 1995
In this column in September, I suggested that we should "reinvent the master's degree" as an alternative to the doctoral degree.

In this column in September, I suggested that we should "reinvent the master's degree" as an alternative to the doctoral degree. That column provoked a great deal of interesting e-mail correspondence, some of which appeared in the "Letters" page of the magazine. Most of the letters agreed with my recommendations but few addressed the other side of the coin: if PhD education is broken, then it's time to fix that, too.

The PhD degree has been around for more than a hundred yearsit was imported from Germany around the middle of the 19th centuryand has changed very little over those years. In fact, the process of doctoral education resembles the training of apprentices by medieval master craftsmen. In those times, apprentices slaved for long hours for little reward under the stern gaze of an often authoritarian master. After several years, the apprentice might hope to become a journeyman, but few went the full distance to become master craftsmen.

More PhDs than jobs

And so it goes today in the PhD mills around the country. The universities produce an astounding 25,000 PhDs in the sciences every year. A recent study by William Massey of Stanford University and Charles Goldman of the Rand Corporation suggests that doctoral production in science and engineering averages around 25% above employment opportunities. The authors note that few academics are taking steps to remedy this situation and, indeed, the PhD factories continue to churn out researchers who may have little hope of an extended academic career.

In a recent issue of Science, a prominent scientist, who, tellingly, asked for anonymity, said, "I have produced some twenty-odd PhDs and now I'm beginning to feel a little like a Catholic mother who has just woken up to the population program." Others have suggested that the universities should practice birth control by reducing the number of openings in their PhD programs. There are also calls to reduce the time taken to gain a doctoral degree to five years (some students take eight or more years to obtain a PhD). There's little doubt in my mind that some drastic population control is called for here.

Maybe we should consider revising the PhD degree so that its objective is not to replicate the country's leading researchers but to produce practicing scientists. After all, the MD degree is aimed at producing medical practitioners, most of whom will leave the academic womb and go out into the real world to practice medicine. Fewer than half the graduating PhDs can expect an academic research career, a number that is likely to decline further as government research funds dry up. Increasingly, doctoral programs will have to revise their functions and objectives. But, as of today, there are few signs that universities are willing and able to radically revamp their PhD programs.

One example of an innovative doctoral degree is the DChem offered since 1983 by the University of Texas at Dallas. In addition to a wide variety of course work, the degree program replaces the standard PhD dissertation with three separate year-long practicums designed to train candidates for careers in industrial research. The first practicum is an apprenticeship, the second an assignment as a professional in an industrial or government laboratory, and only the third involves an original research paper. The program's emphasis is on training problem-solvers or clinicians who apply knowledge rather than researchers who extend knowledge. While the program appears to have been successful, "in the 12 years since the program was founded, no others have appeareda fact which ought to give new PhD program designers pause," say the authors of a recent book, Rethinking Science as a Career (Research Corp., Tucson, AZ, 1995).

Problem solvers needed

The idea of working for years on one narrow facet of a scientific problem may be over for the next generation of PhDs. What's needed in industry are scientists who can work in flexible teams, who have a grasp of business and budget implications, who can see applications for their activities and who can explain their work to nonscientists. What's also urgently needed is more experimentation in doctoral training, an activity in which the universities appear to be sorely lacking.

About the Author

Jeffrey Bairstow | Contributing Editor

Jeffrey Bairstow is a Contributing Editor for Laser Focus World; he previously served as Group Editorial Director.

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