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Monday, October 02, 2017

Is doing a PhD a waste of time? | Irish Times - Education

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"There are almost 9,000 PhD students in Irish third-level institutions" reports

Studying for a PhD can involve seven-day weeks, long days, low pay and uncertain prospects.
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What use is a PhD nowadays? After almost two decades in education, is it really worth committing another three, four or even more years to a doctorate? Will it help you in your career, or are PhDs a frivolous extravagance for the rich?

Once upon a time, the path for PhD students was clear: graduate and become an academic.

Now it’s harder than ever to secure a permanent job in academia - and, unlike in the past, today’s applicants won’t even be considered without a doctorate.

Seven-day weeks, long days, low pay and uncertain prospects are widespread among those toiling away for their doctorates.

For all that, almost 9,000 PhD students in Irish third-level institutions have chosen this path. Numbers rose sharply at the start of the economic crash and have broadly remained at this level since.

Graham Love, chief executive of the Higher Education Authority, says doctorates can still be hugely beneficial in career terms.

He graduated with a PhD in vascular cell biology from UCD in 1997 and then joined Anderson Consulting.

“Back then, the classical path was to go on to academia, although the tide was beginning to turn. 
People asked me: if you spent so long studying, why did you go into a consulting firm?

“It did turn a few heads - including my father’s. I don’t use the direct domain knowledge but I did learn about inquiry, setting out and testing an idea. You learn to face a problem, reduce it to its constituent parts and set out a plan.

“With a PhD, you spend a lot of time getting negative results and this builds resilience. It can be testing at times. And at the end, you stand in front of people and need to explain, in plain English, what you are trying to do.”

Academia is now a minority destination for PhD graduates. In 2015, an analysis carried out by Trinity College and LinkedIn found that, between 2000 and 2010, there had been a doubling of the number of PhD graduates working in industry.

The same study found that 58 per cent of PhD graduates took up their first role in academia but, by their fifth job, 63 per cent were working in industry.

However, the study found that it took 2.7 years for a PhD graduate to move from academia to research, highlighting how postdoctoral research is now effectively an essential part of the graduate’s career path.

For Ireland’s higher education institutions, meanwhile, PhDs don’t just help to advance scholarship: they are a vital - and growing - source of income.

The bulk of this income comes from taught postgraduates but PhDs are still a source of money - albeit a relatively small amount - for cash-strapped universities .

But Mike Jennings, general secretary of the Irish Federation of University Teachers, says that PhD candidates are not getting a fair deal for their money.

He points out that doctoral graduates are increasingly not seen as a qualification, but instead merely part of a long apprenticeship, and says graduates have been raising concerns about this.

“A person with a PhD has a minimum of three years for a degree, one or two years for a postgraduate and then at least three years for a PhD. After this, they may face 12 years of further traineeship which is not, by definition, a career.”

Love says that it is a mistake to think of a PhD as a direct route to academia, and that only about 20-30 per cent of graduates are needed to work as academics. “If you want to be an academic and are clear and driven, go for it, but the people who are getting those jobs are top of their game and it is tough,” he says.

“Be aware you may have to travel or have to break out and try something else. The majority go to work in private companies or the public service.”

While much of the public policy focus has been on science, technology, engineering and maths PhDs, particularly in the life sciences and ICT, Love says humanities PhDs are valued for their critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
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