Should I do a PhD? You asked Google – here’s the answer

Aug 15, 2018 by

Rachel Hall –

Every day millions of people ask Google life’s most difficult questions. Our writers answer some of the commonest queries

There are lots of good reasons for deciding to do a PhD. Deepening your knowledge of a subject you love is an excellent one. Wondering what to do with the next three years of your life and finding out your university will pay you to stay isn’t so bad either. But seeing it as a fast track to a cushy academic job probably shouldn’t be one of them.

PhDs are often glamourised in popular culture. If you grew up watching Friends, you might recall Ross Geller celebrating getting tenure at New York University. Getting tenure in a US university means you are virtually impossible to fire. Your university trusts in your intellectual brilliance to the extent that it’s willing to give you total academic freedom to research what you want. In short, it sounds like a dream.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what it is. If Ross were a real person and not a fictional character, he wouldn’t have been celebrating getting tenure aged about 30 years old – unless he were a palaeontology prodigy. Instead, he’d be on his first or second postdoc, possibly in underpaid, insecure employment. He would also probably be so busy writing research grant applications he’d have no time to hang around in a coffee shop. If – in a decade’s time – he eventually secured a permanent academic position, he’d be one of only 3.5% of his science PhD cohort who did.

The problem with the academic dream is that the pipeline is broken. Employing lots of PhD students is a great deal for universities – they’re a source of inexpensive academic labour for research and teaching. But it’s not such a great deal for the students themselves. The oversupply of PhDs perpetuates the illusion that there are a lot of academic jobs around. There aren’t – and competition for the few that there are is fierce.

The oversupply of early career researchers means they often feel exploited by their universities. According to the University and College Union, which represents lecturers, more than three-quarters of junior academics are on precarious or zero-hours contracts. Meanwhile, competition for research funding and power-imbalanced relationships between supervisors and junior researchers can make labs and libraries ripe for bullying.

Source: Should I do a PhD? You asked Google – here’s the answer | Rachel Hall | Opinion | The Guardian

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