Sunday, January 3, 2016

The Bias against Downgrading: Why too many PhDs graduate

Last month, my friend and fellow blogger David Kent posted a few ideas about restructuring PhD programs at The Black Hole, highlighting three main points:
  1. Collect and provide data on PhD outcomes,
  2. Modernize the PhD degree, and
  3. Cut the number of PhDs.
Though I tend to agree with David's assessments points #1 and #2 in his article, I'm going to take the opposite position on cutting the number of PhD positions. Here's what he said about #3:
I often struggle with this one (and maybe I’m part of the problem for this reason), but to me it seems that as long as we have big unanswered questions in medicine, biotechnology, etc., we need people to educate themselves in the life sciences. Should they all become academics? God no. Should they all move into life sciences related industry positions – again, no. But should they acquire skills and knowledge to critically assess these areas – absolutely. ...

Cutting PhD numbers by making stiffer entrance requirements is a reasonable thought, but as pointed out in the article, these requirements will be difficult to establish. I shudder at the thought of having medical school style requirements for PhDs since this will almost certainly serve to cut off those who cannot “work the system” in the same way as others in more fortunate positions. 
I'd argue that the current system already favours people who can work the system (and social access is a problem recognized in the original Nature article The Black Hole's post is based on). Entrance requirements to PhD programs are already competitive and tend to have a decent weighting on marks, requiring a B+ average at a minimum.  However, good marks accrue to undergraduates who can spend more time studying, which coincidentally include those spending less time working to pay tuition bills. Enter with your favourite socioeconomic argument.

Another way that graduate school candidates can look like prime candidates is by working summers in laboratories, partly to gain "lab experience" and partly to get decent reference letters. I don't mean to make research labs seem unique in this arena, as experience and references are valued in almost any industry I know of. Again, not working for pay in those precious undergraduate summers helps to make research time available.

That said, working the admissions system isn't what I'm concerned with.

Both articles look at the flow of PhD entrants into programs and don't examine how to reduce the number of PhDs exiting training programs. Here's what I think the major reason that once students are in a PhD program, they're committed:

Reclassifying from a PhD to an MSc program isn't seen often enough.

At least, I'm personally only aware of two people that did so; one to accept a job and another to enter medical school. But I digress.

I think one main reason reclassifying this way (i.e. PhD-to-MSc) is discouraged is that every PhD student goes through some period of self-doubt where Impostor Syndrome runs wild, so with the best intention people try to help the poor PhD student through this difficult time. Grad school isn't a game of Texas Hold'em (okay, sometimes it is) and I don't think anyone wants people to fold their hand on a degree because of a period of stress.

On the other hand, there are several possible behavioural and organizational reasons why the "Too many PhDs" problem exists:
  1. Students don't want to be perceived as failures. I've sometimes heard that failing PhD students can be "encouraged" to graduate with a Masters, so PhD students are reluctant to fold their cards and take the MSc. I've never seen this. Similarly, some people may have the perception that by not reclassifying to a PhD, a MSc student is admitting that they can't cut it.
  2. Scientists don't want to be perceived as unable to train PhDs. Here's a more powerful incentive to keep that PhD student around for 6, 7, or 8 years. It may really be that finishing that PhD thesis isn't motivating the student anymore and it's best that they capitalize their experience as an MSc, but the question would remain: "Why couldn't Professor So-and-so help that student finish their PhD?"  There might also be a culture of only graduating PhDs in that department, faculty or university. 
  3. There's a incentive to have PhD students over MSc students. Disregarding differences in individual talents, more complex projects are performed by people with more experience (presumably with the same lab).  Therefore lab heads don't want to let employees (ahem) students leave after two years of experience; they'd rather have productive people around for a few more years.
  4. Finally: No one wants to 'downgrade' from a PhD to a MSc. This problem is caused by academic jargon. The two degrees are for different people, different purposes, and different career paths. You could probably find many talented people where reclassifying to a PhD was, in retrospect, a 'downgrade' for their true career potential. Eliminate 'downgrading' from the lexicon, now.
If you have more ideas about what influences the too many PhDs problem, tweet them to @CheckmateSci and if they're good, I'll update this post (with credit, of course).

A Potential Solution: Replace 'Masters' and 'Doctoral' student classifications and call everyone a graduate student.

In doing so, the relationship between the two streams can be eliminated and the whole problem with 'upgrading' and 'downgrading' becomes moot.

I would like to see a system where the only point of differentiation between graduate students is when they petition for graduation. For instance, such a system could be as simple as an achievement checklist at an exit interview:
  • Completed your posters? Check.  
  • Done your comprehensive exam? Check. 
  • Do you fulfil all the requirements for a Masters?  Check.
  • Published some number/quality of papers needed for a PhD? No.
In this case, why wouldn't you award this person a Masters and let them reach for whatever they had on their mind? No 'downgrading' required. They're not a failure; they just decided to follow another career opportunity and didn't feel working in academia for a few more years was going to be worth it.

They gained scientific knowledge and (hopefully) contributed to some important research direction. They learned to think about problems in a particular way, to follow the scientific method, and now they're going to apply it to something other than basic science.

And besides, I think that's what many research funders expect in return for their dollars.