November 2010

Letter for Too Many Ph.D. Trainees?

DiplomaDear Editor,

The September 2010 president’s message poses the question and attempts to provide practical answers to the perceived abundance of people enrolling to obtain Ph.D.s and lack of capacity in the research sector to provide them with life-long careers. The president offers various interesting suggestions, however, before we seriously start considering any of them and altering a tradition that goes back centuries, we may wish to take a step back and identify the “mission statement” of the degree under discussion and contemplate what it is for. I will restrict the discussion to scientific research, although the arguments apply equally to the humanities.

Although an ancient, formal, degree, “philosophiae doctor” gained a foothold in the 19th century. The gradual increase in its bestowment reflects the popularization and institutionalization of scientific research. Practitioners of research were required to have this necessary “training” to achieve the “license” to conduct research. Like any examination or apprenticeship, the degree serves the dual purpose of regulating numbers and maintaining standards. This followed the trends in other ancient “professions” such as medicine, law or theology.

Today, a major proportion of scientific research is conducted at universities. To be able to participate in this endeavor, it is necessary to obtain a Ph.D. Original scientific research is mainly about questioning, doubting, experimenting and discovering, using questions and problems that apparently do not have any immediate “relevance.” In defense of research, G. H. Hardy, in “A Mathematicians Apology,” proclaimed that the first reason for researchers to do what they do is intellectual curiosity and a desire to know the truth. A Ph.D. is, therefore, a necessity for those whom the president describes in her message as “individuals with burning desire to do research, who are willing to chance the perils of academia.”

I agree with the president that we should not cap numbers of students who may wish to pursue a postgraduate degree and that Ph.D.s should contribute more to the promotion and public understanding of science. I further agree that prospective students should be informed, in very clear terms, of the realities of an academic research career, of lower pay, job insecurity, long hours in the laboratory and a lifetime of writing grant applications to obtain funds to do their research. We should also inform them of the joys and tribulations of teaching undergraduates and training postgraduate students. This, to some extent, will guarantee that only those with a genuine desire and yearning for what Richard Feynman described as “the pleasure of finding things out” will enroll to do a Ph.D. It is the pursuit of this pleasure that not only advances our knowledge of the universe and ourselves but yields unpredictable and unquantifiable benefits to mankind.

Ph.D.s can, and do, contribute, immensely, to the various professions they join after dabbling in research. What we must refrain from doing is attempting to alter the nature of philosophiae doctor into a faddish, “marketable” and “transferrable” skills course. If a Ph.D. student decides to pursue another career, they should do this as a matter of personal choice. If they indeed wish to become lawyers or teachers after they obtain their Ph.D., they should pursue these by engaging in numerous well-established courses and qualifications traditionally available for these professions.

Yours sincerely,
Aamir Ahmed
University College London

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