As another academic year gets on its way this fall, universities all across Europe and the world welcome their new PhD students. Mostly accompanied by some sort of introductory speech and a medium-quality buffet, for the new students this marks the end of being taught knowledge and the beginning of creating it.
As cheesy as it sounds, this is the fundamental idea of a PhD: except for some graduate courses, most of the time is spent in the lab or the office, reading other people’s work, pondering on new ideas and of course testing them. But is this not the job description of research assistant? So why are PhD students still called students? And why are we handing out PhD degrees in the first place?
Originating in the middle ages, the PhD degree was initially equivalent to the Master of Arts degree. It meant that whoever attained this degree could be called an expert in the field. However, through time, it evolved into a degree for which original research should be performed (and published) in order to obtain it. Today, PhD students are commonly at the bottom of the academic food chain: they work long hours in the lab, do the heavy part of the academic teaching and have a lot of responsibility. This responsibility does not only extend to conducting an independent research project. It also involves the task of checking the reliability of their own work. Precisely because it is novel, nobody else can really check whether they conduct their research in the correct manner. This is why faked results in a PhD thesis may only come to light years later. In 2009 Peter Chen, to name just one example, resigned as head of research of ETH Zurich because his former PhD student from 1999/2000 had faked experimental results.
However, despite all these experiences, a PhD degree does not count as work experience on the job market. And although the graduation requires the submission and defence of a PhD thesis, the «original research» is in almost all cases published in scientific journals. And even when it isn’t – due to unsuccessful experiments or a tradition to focus on the thesis as the main form of publication – the existence of platforms such as arXiv.org (a non-peer-reviewed online platform) and the possibility of publishing technical reports enables any student to spread his contribution.
So what is the upside? The pressure of writing the thesis? This is the same pressure for the submission of a full-length paper, technical report or book. The presentation of your work in front of experts? This is done in conferences as well. No, it is the degree; the fact that after all is set and done and the thesis is defended successfully, the three letters «PhD» can be added to your name. And with an increasing number of students and the inflationary use of titles, having the highest educational title is a good thing, right?
As a current PhD student in Chemical Engineering, I disagree. This has three reasons: First, I believe that it is unfair towards the PhD students to dependent on the successful completion of the degree. In a job, you can leave your company if you are not interested in your work, or do not get along with your boss, or want to move for personal reasons. This is not possible in a PhD: it might be that your research is boring you quickly or your professor is treating you badly and that after one year you realize that this is not what you want to do. But instead of being able to go to a job interview and say «I have had one year of job experience», you will end up saying that you are quitting your PhD, a statement that nobody really likes to make or hear. Additionally, many universities have time limits on their PhD programs. However, especially in experimental sciences, many results can only be obtained after years of experimental preparation and investigation. The pressure to finish your PhD in a limited period of time forces the student to pursue only research strategies which are compliant with this constraint.
Second, it is unfair for the professors: a typical PhD student becomes productive roughly 1 year into his/her PhD. Before that, he or she needs to get acquainted with the relevant literature, build models on the computer, repeat experiments in the lab, learn how to use software and other equipment.. In most countries, the PhD is 5 years or less. Since the last year consists mostly of writing up and going to conferences, the effective production time at most is 3 years. In places like DTU Lyngby in Denmark, the maximum time is 3 years, which leaves at most 1.5 years of effective production time. Therefore, if a professor decides to hire a PhD student, the student has to be pushed hard enough so that the limited time is well spent. If the PhD was a job, then this would be nothing else than a regular contract, and professors would have much less pressure on their hands. This problem becomes even more eminent when considering non-research related tasks such as tutoring of M.Sc. students, teaching or assisting certain undergraduate courses. While these are highly valuable contributions, which in many cases contribute greatly to the personal and professional development of the student, they make the time that is available for actual research even smaller.
Third, it is unfair for prospective PhD students: when the graduation time for the master students comes along and the big «so what are you going to do?» looms over every conversation, many people might be intrigued by the idea of doing research. The university has become the comfort zone, and for many it is appealing not to leave it. If you then consider, however, that you need to subscribe for three to five years, with low pay (mostly), no work experience that is accounted as such outside of academia and complete dependence on your professor, it is scary. And while everybody who starts a PhD knows that it is a commitment for several years, our measure of fairness should not only be that people know what they are getting themselves into, but that we apply the same principles to everybody. When comparing PhD positions with entry-level jobs in companies, this type of fairness is not given.
I am aware that this article (intentionally) paints a black-and-white picture. Not everything about a PhD is grim and gloomy The fact that you cannot quit easily often pushes people to apply themselves to their tasks, learning and growing in the process. It gives others the opportunity to continue the student life, if they do not feel ready to enter the job market. Also, if PhD students could quit all the time, this would create a whole different type of anxiety in professors, as long term projects often rely on the expertise of the PhD students carrying them out.
Nonetheless, I believe that the current system has much more flaws than it has benefits, and I think that many of them are related to the very concept of the PhD degree. This ranges from industry failing to recognize the work done in PhD positions to exploitation from professors and scaring off prospective PhD students. Thus, universities should look at industries and ask themselves what they can learn from the way they do things. Starting from generally handing out proper certificate of employments (as already practiced in certain research groups) to being more project-oriented than degree-oriented, an overhaul of the bottom of the academic food chain would benefit many.