Replace the PhD

It has been well documented in recent years that the number of PhDs awarded is increasing at a rapid rate, much faster than the number of senior academic faculty jobs. The progression from graduate student to post-doctoral researcher to tenured professor, so long established, is now an uphill battle through a bottleneck; the proportion of PhDs for whom there are faculty positions at which they could aim is startling small at the moment, with some STEM fields having 5:1 ratios of PhDs to professors or more.

Having an overabundance of PhDs within academic circles is not inherently a problem, depending on your perspective. Scientific research in most cases requires extensive legwork, whether laboratory analysis, field sampling, paper writing, or computer coding; PhDs provide a skilled and cheap labour force to get this work done. More students means more work can be done, allowing for more complex and involved research questions to be posed; but what does this bottom-heavy pyramid mean for the students themselves?

The quid pro quo of this low-wage labour for a graduate student is that a PhD degree should theoretically set them up for an academic career; the assumption being that they should be able to work as independent researchers at the end of their degree. But with these academic jobs at a premium in all but a few fields, there has been some recent shift to emphasise the broad skill-set a PhD develops as well; writing papers and presenting at conferences improves communication skills, while research is supposed to hone problem solving ability too. A PhD, we’re told, sets up a student well to work outside of academia too.

This point, however, ignores one of the most fundamental aspects of the modern economy: the prevalence of the division of labour. Large industrial economies have broken down job roles into increasingly minor parts to allow us to produce an increasingly wide range of more and more niche products. Every role becomes more and more specialised, as individuals fill increasingly small parts of the overall economy.

The broad ‘skills’ of a graduating PhD student may thus provide them with a range of options outside of academia, but the expertise they have might well be entirely inapplicable to industry jobs. Some PhDs may study topics that give them comparable expertise to an industry peer, but for some (including myself), a ‘Jack of a number of trades’ set of abilities can’t necessarily compete. Could a PhD compete with a peer who had spent an equivalent amount of time working in the industry in question? It seems unlikely.

The result, I’d suggest, is that PhDs leaving academia who have not honed a specific skill would be forced to enter the workforce at an entry level, behind their classmates who had started years before. Some may disagree, but I would point to the figures suggesting that a PhD does not provide a significant boost in lifetime earnings compared to a Masters’ degree graduate to support the notion of underemployed doctorates, and the difficulty PhDs have in finding jobs.

There’s already a basic solution to this problem in the paragraph above – we should encourage PhD students to pick up and specialise in a given skill if they think they may leave academia. But I would argue for a more significant change in the structure of academic work (particularly scientific study): we should heed the example of the wider economy and build division of labour into our institutional models. In other words, instead of expecting a number of PhD students to take on a range of roles throughout their studies, we should consider employing a number of different specialists, each an expert in their specific role.

There are already examples of this: I was fortunate to work in a research group where laboratory work was significantly simplified by hard working lab technicians, and every student and professor knows the value of friendly admin assistants. Which other roles that PhD students normally take on could we conceive of instead being handed over to experts?

Paper writing and editing take up an inordinate amount of time for almost all scientists; it’s vitally important to communicate formal discoveries in a clear, concise fashion. Specialists could be brought in to work on the drafting and copy editing; we could consider a kind of journalism position for this kind of work. Similarly, conference presentations could be given by specialist presenters; many scientists I’ve spoken to feel that the ability to effectively communicate scientific findings at conferences is the sign of a great researcher, but what about those reclusive geniuses who are making radical conceptual advances but are constitutionally incapable of standing in front of a crowd? Why shouldn’t these researchers’ findings see the light of day in a presentation worthy of their achievement, given by an expert presenter?

Specific roles for student mentors, lecturers, or even professionals ensuring that good scientific conduct is followed (ethical or procedural) could also be considered. All of these individuals would be working toward a common goal, and it would exploit the efficiencies of economies of scale and division of labour. Arguably, with increasingly large and complex projects, such as the CERN particle accelerator or any number of space probes, the concept of the individual scholar is increasingly meaningless; science is a team effort, and we should treat it as such. There’s clearly an appetite for it, judging from the results of a poll recently run by Nature magazine.

Academia still needs senior, tenured professors, whether directing the team, joining the dots, analysing data for answers, or asking the right questions. Those people filling these roles need to understand the whole of the research project; they need an understanding of the “ins and outs” of each role to appreciate how they might affect the overall results. Perhaps a PhD is still a necessary precursor to fill these roles, but to me it doesn’t seem like an absolute requirement.

To those who might argue that such division of labour would introduce unpleasant hierarchies in science, I would counter with two points; first, that industry has achieved it successfully for years, and second that as a PhD student I had more respect and gratitude for the lab technicians and fieldwork specialists with whom I worked than almost any other collaborator.

Such a system would allow for a wider range of individuals to find their niche in STEM careers, while preventing an overabundance of PhD students. Young people interested in academic research could still find a role and hone a specific skill, giving them an edge for a future career outside of academia. Why not stop pretending that a PhD offers a guaranteed career in academia and revise how we treat the increasingly wide pyramid of academic labour?

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