43

Currently, the situation in academia is that graduating from a top PhD program is almost a requirement for landing an R1 tenure-track job. However, many of these graduates will not end up at similarly top-ranked schools for their job, and as such are at middle to lower ranked schools.

At these schools, their research is generally still along the lines of what they did in their PhD/postdoc, and PhD students as such follow them, doing this sort of research. But some research fields have little to no industry relevance— a PhD student working in such a field at a middle to lower ranked school would have bleak prospects for academia, and also related industry jobs.

These PhD students as such often have to switch fields to stuff like data science etc. (often through self-learning in online courses) which are unrelated to their original field of research, or end up on a string of postdocs endlessly searching for a job. Many may have been better off getting a job right after undergrad and slowly working their way up.

In such cases, is it immoral to advise these PhD students?

17
  • 78
    You seem to make a lot of assumptions. People have their own goals. Why do you want to steer them?
    – Buffy
    Feb 3, 2021 at 1:24
  • 3
    The only thing your PhD matters for in stem is where you go do your postdoc. You aren't getting hired after a shitty postdoc no matter how many times you tell people you have a PhD from Harvard.
    – user133933
    Feb 3, 2021 at 2:53
  • 12
    I think the key here is informed consent. If a student is "tricked" into the job, that is obviously bad, but if you share your concern with your students, and they are still interested in doing a Ph.D. then it is their decision, too. I would also point out that if an advisor is conscious of the difficulties, actually if helps the students a lot, and even an adviser from low/mid-rank university can actively help the student to find jobs.
    – Greg
    Feb 3, 2021 at 4:52
  • 29
    None of our particle physics PHDs, even the one's who just about got through (in the UK) ever seemed to have trouble e.g. finding a job in banking (both on the technical backend and directly related to trading). I think this question is based on a misunderstanding how hiring outside academia works. Feb 3, 2021 at 10:06
  • 5
    @dan_1 the point is not that a neuro PhD will be able to find a job in an industral neuro research lab, but that they will be able to find a job at a bank/thinktank/consultancy/patent company/education and many many other places that use the transferable skills they learnt in their PhDs rather than the neuroscience skills. Feb 3, 2021 at 19:50

8 Answers 8

78

While the question in the title is a good one, your post also makes some assumptions, in some cases dubious, which are really worth investigating first:

  • But some research fields have little to no industry relevance -- The truth is that almost all PhD research is highly esoteric and specialized, and unlikely to have any direct impact on industry. This is certainly true in my field (computer science), and probably true in many others to a greater or lesser extent. Why, then, do industry hiring managers even care that you got a PhD? Sometimes they don't, but often they value far more the qualities that having a PhD demonstrates, rather than the content of your research. For example: the ability to communicate well and sell ideas, the ability to solve technical problems, and the ability to dive deeply into learning what you do not understand -- these are fundamental skills gained during a PhD that are equally valuable in industry.

    What I'm saying is: industry relevance of your PhD research is often not the top criteria for getting a good job; what matters far more is your general knowledge, technical skills, and communication and interpersonal skills.

  • These PhD students as such often have to switch fields to stuff like data science etc. Data science is a rare case where PhD research in data science appears to be valued in industry; most other PhD fields are not as valued in industry specifically, only generally. Do you suggest that all academics should just start doing data science? I think that would have some positives, but overall be a very sad world only motivated by money, rather than a true pursuit of scientific knowledge.

  • Many have been better off getting a job right after undergrad and slowly working their way up -- This is absolutely true, unfortunately. But do you also believe that the only good reason to get a PhD is to get a job in industry? That premise is absolutely false. What we can do and should do: raise awareness and encourage people to get a PhD for the right reasons, rather than the wrong ones. If you are thinking of spending 5+ years on a PhD, it should be because you truly want to do it, and you love the research you are doing for its own sake.

To answer your last question:

In such cases, is it immoral to advise these PhD students?

It is immoral to be dishonest: to make the PhD students believe that their research will have direct practical relevance if it does not, or to lead them to expect a particular job in industry when they graduate which may be beyond their expected skillset. To be sure, some professors are guilty of such dishonesty and immorality.

But no, it is not immoral to advise students in a non-industry-relevant topic, if the expectations are clear and the expected topic is of mutual interest. In fact it is one of the most beautiful and compelling parts of science, that we do not need to be constrained by what is currently practical in industry.

5
  • 29
    "To be sure, some professors are guilty of such dishonesty and immorality." -- it is probably less blatant than that. A STEM professor in a academia typically has no direct knowledge about the skill sets needed to land a job in industry. At the same time, they might know that many of their students over the years have successfully landed jobs in industry. Add to that the effects of living in a world where the link between STEM and economic success is taken for granted, some professors might just assume that their students, if talented, can find an industry job if they want. Feb 3, 2021 at 11:39
  • 1
    "they value far more the qualities that having a PhD demonstrates, rather than the content of your research" Absolutely true. There is actually a name for this: the Signalling Model of Education. I recommend everyone read "The Case Against Education" by Bryan Caplan. Feb 4, 2021 at 17:27
  • 1
    While I agree that dishonesty is immoral (pretty much we all agree with that), there are a lot of gray area of what is "dishonest" and this is a problem. I learned over the years is no so much that these PhD types are dishonest more than they just don't know any better. Sounds like an excuse, but if you think about it, many of these PhD types have been in academia all their professional lives. They never worked in any real industry and sometimes that "dishonesty" comes from a place of ignorance and maybe even arrogance, but not definitely not with malicious intent.
    – hfontanez
    Feb 4, 2021 at 22:53
  • 2
    Entirely true: there is no such thing as a PhD with no industry relevance. I know algebraic geometers who've landed very good industry jobs on the basis of their PhDs. To put it simply: industry likes people who can solve complex problems and communicate well, which is pretty close to being the point of a PhD. Feb 5, 2021 at 0:04
  • 1
    This is a good answer (+1), but the conclusion seems to be missing something. I took the OP's concern not to be that advising students in non-industry relevant topics would make them less competitive in industry, but rather that the students would be unable to build careers in academia, due to the ranking of their school. There does seem to be some tension between "If you are thinking of spending 5+ years on a PhD, it should be because ... you love the research you are doing for its own sake" and being unable to continue it afterward.
    – N. Virgo
    Feb 6, 2021 at 8:10
20

A PhD is about learning to do research without supervision. It is not only about mastering a particular niche topic. Indeed, even the students that do become professors are likely to eventually move onto topics that they did not study during their PhD. So, even given a near-certainty that one will not be competitive for a faculty position, a PhD is not necessarily a bad investment.

On the other hand, I am unmoved by those who say "spending six years doing something you love is worth it, even if it doesn't lead to anything." Or "I will not be a complete person without a PhD." A PhD is just a qualification (and not the only qualification!) for a research job. So, a PhD may indeed be a bad investment for students without a realistic path toward some kind of job that will benefit from having a PhD.

In such cases, is it immoral to advise these PhD students?

Strictly speaking, morality is outside our area of expertise. It's one of those topics where everyone thinks they are an expert and few actually are. Still, I see two possible concerns here:

  • Informed consent. The (opportunity) cost of doing a PhD -- in years and dollars -- is much higher than most young students realize. Further, most students are not knowledgeable about industry and view it as roughly akin to the pits of Mordor. If students were more knowledge about industry and had identified a specific, fulfilling, well-paying alternate career path, they might have made different choices.
  • Societal cost. Many students are funded by tax dollars. These costs easily run into the six figures. If students do not use their PhD after graduation, one might ask whether that money could have better been directed toward fighting hunger or homelessness or disease or climate change.

Still, in STEM, I think we can say the answer is no. STEM students generally earn enough money to live on, and they learn skills that will be useful for a wide variety of careers. Further, the state of the academic job market is no secret. While we might be concerned that some students don't seem to be following an optimal or efficient career trajectory, such things are hard to judge -- everyone's goals are different, and "even the very wise cannot see all ends."

7
  • While I overall agree with your comment, a sentiment like "A PhD is about learning to do research without supervision." is not necessarily shared by everyone. It is a valid concern that many (especially in academia, but also in the industry) hire someone primarily for very specific technical skills (and for the papers proving it), and the candidate has little to no chance to prove herself/himself otherwise.
    – Greg
    Feb 3, 2021 at 4:45
  • I don't know anybody who does research without supervision. Feb 3, 2021 at 6:43
  • 2
    "morality is outside our area of expertise." You should fix that. Especially for morality that relates to your job. Feb 3, 2021 at 6:43
  • 3
    I pay taxes from my job, but that doesn't make me an expert on the tax code. Similarly, trying to do our jobs ethically/morally doesn't make us experts on morality or ethics. But that was just a throwaway comment; I still took a stab at the question from an academic perspective.
    – cag51
    Feb 3, 2021 at 15:42
  • 1
    @DanielHatton I guess, it is very much dependent on the field. In chemistry, many technical requirements skills / choice of field can be predicted 5-10 years ahead in spite there are many fashion fads. Also, it does matter if you want to retrain yourself from a relatively close subject/technique, or if you have never seen modern methods, because your lab/university is poorly equipped. When you start a job first impression (first weeks, months) can count a lot, and if you are seen as slow, has to learn everything, that can be a death spell. Fair? No. Common? Yes.
    – Greg
    Feb 6, 2021 at 16:50
19

It's only immoral if you mislead them about their career opportunities post-graduation. You should help the student make an informed decision to do a PhD, and if they know what they're going into but choose to do it anyway, it's not yours to judge them for their decision. Refusing to supervise someone because you think they'd do better joining industry directly imposes your choices over theirs, and comes across as arrogant (the student would likely go to another university anyway).

If this concerns you, consider having a serious conversation with the student about their career goals before agreeing to supervise them. Make it clear that it isn't an "admissions interview" in the sense that you will supervise them if they want it, but you want to make sure they really want it because of the post-PhD career experience. That's important because "what do you want to do after the PhD?" can be stressful for the applicant to answer if they believe admission is on the line.

Talking points with the prospective student:

  • If they want to have an academic career, point out that it's hard, it's especially hard if a significant other / children is involved, it could require working on a "trendy" topic, etc.
  • If they want to have a career in industry, then construct the PhD project to accommodate that. It doesn't have to involve a topic with industrial applications, but it should involve transferable skills. For example, in recent job advertisements I've seen for PhD graduates, some key skills asked for are Python/C++, SQL, statistical data analysis (multivariate analysis, sampling methods, etc), and so on. The more of these skills can be included in the PhD, the better.
  • If they want to have a teaching-focused academic career, again try to get them the necessary experience: conducting classes, grading, maybe even helping with course design.

If you're really concerned, you could look over some job advertisements with the student (try searching for jobs that require 'phd in [your field]') and discuss how to acquire the core competencies asked for.

5

It is not unethical for PhD students to study things that will not lead to employment. Learning and creating knowledge are inherent goods. It is obligatory to inform students about career strategies and the fact that certain career strategies have very low chances of success. E.g. copying your advisor's career path rarely works.

If your PhD students are doing productive work, your are obligated to pay them at least a living wage. I think more PhD students are abused with low pay during their PhD as opposed to low pay post-PhD.

There is copious evidence that in some fields getting a PhD is correlated with earning more, but I have seen zero evidence that the relationship is causal. It could be that all PhD students are sacrificing their future earnings.

7
  • 'There is copious evidence that in some fields getting a PhD is correlated with earning more, but I have seen zero evidence that the relationship is causal.' What sort of evidence of causation would satisfy you? Would you insist on a randomized controlled trial, or would you be satisfied with a multivariate regression that controls out some particular set of confounding variables? If the latter, which confounding variables would you insist on having controlled? Feb 3, 2021 at 18:46
  • 1
    In the UK, Biology PhDs make less than Biology masters. Feb 3, 2021 at 19:36
  • 1
    @DanielHatton Personally, I would follow the advice of a social scientist with relevant expertise. I'll guess regression, though. Feb 3, 2021 at 20:58
  • In general I think that multiple regression is not reckoned to be a valid way of dealing with questions of causality (see the "Table 2 fallacy"), but I might be out of my depth. Feb 3, 2021 at 22:04
  • It's true that regression does not prove causality, but it can disprove the obvious alternative hypotheses. Generally speaking, conventional statistical and experimental methods only disprove things. Feb 3, 2021 at 22:43
4

There are several careerist reasons to spend several years in a PhD program.

First of all, getting a PhD in some country is the most reliable way to immigrate to that country, for a lot of developed countries.

Second, having a PhD on your resume opens lots of immigration doors that are otherwise shut, even if you don't want to stay in the country where the PhD was based.

Third, the PhD salary may be much more than what you would earn in industry in your home country.

The fourth thing, which applies more to higher-ranked universities: during your PhD, you meet many competent people and do lots of networking, and this can help your career later -- especially if your undergrad was from a non-famous university.

0
1

When I went to grad school after two years doing technology consulting, I swore to myself that I would never work in industry again. I did go to a top grad school, and I did eventually end up with the job I now have at an R2, but it was a close enough thing that I thought about my alternate plans when I was on the job market. I decided that, if I didn't find an academic job, I would work as a peace activist. I hope it's clear that peace activism doesn't make any money and most peace activists support themselves by working minimum wage jobs, part time so that they can devote time to peace activism.

I might add that, before I was tenured, my salary was less than my salary before grad school without taking inflation into account, and, if you take into account inflation, then my salary still is and always will be less than my salary before grad school. But I am still reasonably comfortable financially and don't care.

I'm definitely in the minority, but there are others somewhat like me. I would not have done a PhD on a topic that had a direct tie to industry, and whether a topic had applications or not was and still is irrelevant to me. My view of pure mathematics is that it is an art. Does one ask a novelist or composer if their work has applications? (And do we tell people who have no realistic chance of becoming professional writers or musicians to stop studying writing or music?)

The PhD students I have had certainly understand they're not going to get a research-oriented job. They've decided that spending a few years learning and doing math while making barely enough to survive is worth it to them. I would not agree to work with a grad student who was delusional about their future prospects.

1
0

I think people are confused about one critical point. So, will try to clarify. The question was

Is it IMMORAL to advice PhD students...?

rather than

Is it UNETHICAL to advice PhD students...?

Most of the answers I read answer the question from an ETHICAL point of view. The rest try to tackle moral aspects. And there's the problem. If you go by the strict definition of the words, morals are personal views while ethics are instilled by a professional groups or organizations. For example, medical doctors and lawyers have "Code of Ethics" by which the abide by. Obviously, their code of ethics are different from one another.

Another problem is that ethics aren’t always moral and vice versa. For instance, there are people that have huge reservations with defense lawyers. They ask themselves "how could anyone defend such a monster?" Simply put, because that lawyer has an ETHICAL obligation to do so. And to do so to the best of his or her abilities.

The problem with a philosophical question such as this one, is that our morals are different. So, there will never be a straight answer for this question unless you specifically target a group of people you know share similar moral values to your and ask this question directly to them.

8
  • Too much sophistry here, I think. Morality is simpler than that. Basically, how would you like it if you were misled into deciding to undertake a 3-year research program after trusting a professor's view of what industrial employers would like ? When it's your own case, right and wrong are very clear.
    – Trunk
    Feb 4, 2021 at 22:14
  • I think you are arguing a point contrary of what the OP is suggesting. The OP opened with "Currently, the situation in academia is that graduating from a top PhD program is almost a requirement for landing an R1 tenure-track job" - This is a fact. There is a HUGE difference in graduating with a PhD from MIT than with a PhD from "Hector Fontanez University". And because of that, research from MIT tend to be more relevant that research done by smaller schools. But this is not the point. The point is attributing malice to the intent to "advice" someone. You assume there's malice involved. I don't
    – hfontanez
    Feb 4, 2021 at 22:45
  • @Trunk and you downvoted my answer because my definition of morality differs from yours. Where's the morality or ethics in that? Nothing I stated is factually false. Yet, that didn't stop you.
    – hfontanez
    Feb 4, 2021 at 22:47
  • The distinction between moral and ethics would be acceptable if we were on Philosophy.SE, but these notions are often conflated in daily conversation. For example, Oxford dictionary define "unethical" as "not morally correct" (google.com/… meaning of the question is quite clear.
    – Taladris
    Feb 5, 2021 at 8:57
  • I downvoted your answer (BTW how'd you know it was me ? I didn't know SE provided such detail) as you seem to imply that morality was an entirely subjective thing. I would assert that it has a significant objective component - and that's the bit we all argue about. OP's original point was not purely about Ivy League tech universities - it was also about hiring practices among the major industrial companies who are biased towards MIT et alia. The two factors combined add up to a hard hand to play for a PhD from a minor uni.
    – Trunk
    Feb 5, 2021 at 14:19
0

I wouldn't be as anxious as you seem to be about this.

For sure, if a PhD is knowingly misled as to his future prospects after a particular research programme then that is immoral - and probably also very foolish of the research supervisor from an entirely amoral standpoint: he/she will make a bad name for themselves.

But I wouldn't say that industrial employers are always going to take relevant research experience as their primary criterion in deciding between candidates for research positions. Industry is largely about (or supposed to be) cooperative research and a clear communicative link between candidate and employer's existing researchers in thesis/publications and moreover conversationally at the job interview is what matters most of all, I would say. Cooperability is worth far more than individual brilliance in a team effort.

Sure, it's not nice to see someone sidetracked. But if that person made a decent fist of the project, wrote it up clearly and accessibly and presents themselves positively then they will get a position where they can show more of their talents. If not, it's time to try another métier.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .