Is Getting a PhD a Waste of Time?

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Earning a PhD is hard work. It takes years of work, much of dedicated to grueling research, teaching undergraduate classes, and taking simple joe jobs to pay the bills. But is all that work worth it? The Economist, in a featured story in its year-end issue, say it probably isn't, and that the 64,000 PhDs awarded annually in the U.S. are often a "waste of time" for both the long-suffering student and academia itself.

There seem to be genuine problems with the system that produces research doctorates (the practical “professional doctorates” in fields such as law, business and medicine have a more obvious value). There is an oversupply of PhDs. Although a doctorate is designed as training for a job in academia, the number of PhD positions is unrelated to the number of job openings. Meanwhile, business leaders complain about shortages of high-level skills, suggesting PhDs are not teaching the right things. The fiercest critics compare research doctorates to Ponzi or pyramid schemes.

The Economists suggests that universities know PhD programs are overrated, but has kept them going and often expanded them to exploit the students. "Universities have discovered that PhD students are cheap, highly motivated and disposable labour. With more PhD students they can do more research, and in some countries more teaching, with less money," they write.

But NYU Professor and blogger Joshua Tucker says that the Economist has it all wrong. He points out that PhD students, in exchange for their hard work, get the education that comes with lots of one-on-one instruction and advising from professors. And, he argues, it's actually a good thing that universities hand out more PhDs than there are academic jobs.

It is not a bad thing that we admit more PhD students to programs than we have jobs for as university professors. Because the alternative is that we have to decide a lot earlier who is going to be good and who is going to bad. If I can admit 20 students to the Ph.D. program at NYU next year, then that is 20 students who have a chance to shine. They may not all make it, but it is worth considering whether we are better off giving those 20 students a chance then picking now--based solely on their undergraduate record--only 5 who will be given a chance. ... Personally, I'd rather give more people a chance, in large part because I don't think we know which 22 year-olds are going to make the best academics.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.