Abolish the PhD


(Freeman Dyson, from this interview)

“Oh, yes. I’m very proud of not having a Ph.D. I think the Ph.D. system is an abomination. It was invented as a system for educating German professors in the 19th century, and it works well under those conditions. It’s good for a very small number of people who are going to spend their lives being professors. But it has become now a kind of union card that you have to have in order to have a job, whether it’s being a professor or other things, and it’s quite inappropriate for that. It forces people to waste years and years of their lives sort of pretending to do research for which they’re not at all well-suited. In the end, they have this piece of paper which says they’re qualified, but it really doesn’t mean anything. The Ph.D. takes far too long and discourages women from becoming scientists, which I consider a great tragedy. So I have opposed it all my life without any success at all.”

I have a Ph.D. – actually, I have almost two Ph.D.s, one in experimental and one in computational molecular biology. The latter is to be discussed in the next weeks. I will not go into the (admittedly a bit self-contradictory) path that led me again into the Ph.D. rigmarole. But doing the experience a second time, with also some postdoc and industry experience in between, allowed me to see things with a modicum of detachment and clarity. This is what I concluded: The Ph.D., as an institution, is worse than useless. It is damaging, and it should be abolished. It hurts the professional recognition of early-career researchers, it fosters exploitation, it wastes valuable resources.

The Ph.D. devalues early academic career


Officially a Ph.D. is (in most cases) the finishing line on the track that brings you from the kindergarten to an actual job career. It is officially considered school: in fact, especially in US, it is called graduate school, and who is enrolled in a Ph.D. program is called a graduate student.

Problem is, “graduate students” are not students. They are workers.

The bulk of the graduate “school” is research work. Graduate “students”, in fact, are the main workhorses of modern research. It gives pause that a large percentage of modern science is actually generated by the hands and brains of young unexperienced or semi-experienced “students” (see here for example). A quintessential requirement for successfully completing graduate “school” is to have published at least a peer-reviewed paper as a main author. (By the way, this means that the most important intellectual endeavour of humankind is literally in the hands of inexperienced, underpaid, unrecognized trainees.)

Mind you: this is not part-time work, or even standard 9-to-5. It is hard, continuous work, with weekends and nights spent in the lab or writing research papers (see e.g. here). Journals advise graduate students to work most weekends and long hours, because that’s how you succeed. (After all, having a shitty job is a privilege! The abovelinked article tells it with a straight face: “Those who stick with a career in science do so because, despite the relatively poor pay, long hours and lack of security, it is all we want to do.”)

Granted, in some jurisdictions, most notably United States, graduate “students” also follow university courses, especially in the first couple of years. All of them are also studying somehow, sure thing: they read papers and books that allow them to do their job. So does a tenured professor. The job of research involves studying, but this does not make them full-time students. It makes them workers that need to learn things, as most qualified workers do.


Categories: Education

Leave a Reply