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A new report from Europe notes that positions for PhD holders are scarce, and students and degree-holders are depressed because

only a “tiny proportion” will find work in academia

This is, of course, the situation that North America has been dealing with for years (see examples here and here). And to be honest, so has Europe; their governing bodies are just late to the party.

Answers seem to fall into two camps: (1) train fewer students (currently the model at Hopkins only, it seems); or (2) train students for jobs in industry (currently the preferred option).

Why is #2 better?

The answer is a bit complex, but chances are that universities and industry prefer #2, while students (and/or recent grads without a permanent position) prefer #!.

Graduate training is intensive and many students will drop out along the way. Attrition varies from program to program, but in my program it was around 75%. So if you want to graduate one person, you need to take in four — there’s really no model for predicting which ones will succeed. From the university perspective, then, a steady supply of newcomers is needed for money AND to ensure an adequate supply of research and teaching aides.

(yes, aides. Let’s not fool ourselves.)

From the student perspective, though, a PhD that ends with a job in industry — or no job at all — can be a time sink. There are a lot of reasons to do PhD work: courses are great if you like school; research is fun; you like the topic; etc. But the end point of a PhD is the dissertation, which is a 1+-year, book-length research project. The majority of attrition happens at the dissertation stage. The mental illness and isolation crops up at the dissertation stage.  And can you think of any job that requires a book-length research project?

Yeah, I can’t either.

But does that mean that the appropriate thing to do is change the PhD, get rid of the dissertation, and start preparing students for other jobs? What if they went to school because they wanted to write a dissertation? What about those students who actually like the teaching/research/service triad of being a professor?

There aren’t many of them, to be sure. But maybe it’s time to start differentiating between those students who really like teaching or really like research and those who understand that a commitment to academia requires both. Plus a lot of time spent sitting in meetings while the same arguments are made over and over again.

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