Too Many Docs?

The April 21 issue of Nature has a whole section devoted to “The Future of the PhD.” The gist is that the world’s system of doctoral education needs to be fixed, overhauled, or done away with.

Thinking just about sheer numbers, the U.S. produces about 20,000 brand new PhDs in the sciences each year. Germany produces only slightly fewer, but China turns out more than twice the U.S. number. At issue are both the quality and the quantity of these degrees.

Quality matters because there is little control over what occurs during graduate education in most countries. The U.S. has program rankings that suffer from all the usual limitations of such score keeping. And in all countries, even the best of places decides for itself what to emphasize, what not, and who passes muster.

Quantity matters because many of these young people cannot get suitable jobs in academe or industry in their own countries. Some go to India, Singapore, or other places that are net importers of highly trained scientists and engineers. Others are left with an expensive degree they worked for their whole lives but with little prospect of landing a relevant position.

One conclusion that many will draw is a call to reduce the production of PhDs. My vote goes for increasing it!

Why? Because doing research is really about problem solving. It’s about careful analysis of competing ideas. It’s about deep reflection on the meaning of evidence. These are skills that transfer to practically any walk of life.

And really, doesn’t it seem likely that the more highly educated we are, the more prepared we’ll be to solve the many challenges facing humanity? Besides, knowing more has its own intrinsic pleasures and makes life all the more glorious and fascinating.

Posted In: Education

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