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A few months ago I attended a panel discussion on non-academic future careers for physics PhDs. The panel was made up of two senior physicists, a science communicator and freelance journalist, and a CEO of a finance corporation with a degree in physics. At some point I raised the question of whether the PhD program is functioning properly, and maybe we should do something about the PhD program before lecturing senior graduate students in theoretical physics on the importance of acquiring skills suitable for non-academic careers to get a job after grad school. To be more concrete, I referred to a Nature article that I had come across a few years earlier. The two physicist panelists blatantly dodged my question. The CEO, who I suppose had received his degree in early 2000s, added a comment along the lines that it is better to have more highly educated people in the society rather than fewer.

Are advisers hiring more graduate students to get more research done and compete better in getting grants, or there is an actual need for more PhDs, at least in natural sciences?

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    Are advisers hiring more graduate students to get more research done and compete better in getting grants, or there is an actual need for more PhDs - are we assuming those are the only two options? – ff524 Sep 2 '14 at 16:55
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    @ff524 Are those two options even mutually exclusive? :/ – OJFord Sep 2 '14 at 19:04
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    What does it even mean to say that "there is a need for more PhDs"? Does it mean "are there jobs for them"? Does it mean "will the world be a better place with them"? And should one base one's own decision to pursue a PhD or not on whether "there is a need"? (I certainly didn't take any such thing into account when I made the decision, and wouldn't want to). – David Ketcheson Sep 2 '14 at 19:15
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    This question is about economics and cost-benefit analysis of government funding more graduate students. I don't think it is appropriate for this site. – Superbest Sep 2 '14 at 22:07
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    @ff524: In particular, in mathematics, there is a general feeling that hiring more graduate students results in less research getting done. – Nate Eldredge Sep 3 '14 at 0:34
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We can make the same conversation for BSc or MSc degrees. There are probably many unemployed people with BSc degrees, as well. We cannot suggest that people should not go for higher education, because there are actually fewer jobs than university graduates.

Your question seems to neglect an important, yet simple truth. That sometimes, certain people want to go for a higher degree, regardless of their job outcome. Education (PHD included) is more than filling resumes or getting a better job but a fulfillment in itself. In this sense, it is the same as learning to play the guitar. Does the world need a new guitar player? No it does not. But you do not learn the guitar to benefit society. You learn the guitar to benefit your soul.

If the few lucky PHD holders manage to get the job they wanted that is fine. If they did not, at least they tried. Life is not linear and you cannot predict by your actions on what job you will land, even if you do everything perfectly. But at least, you must be provided with a chance to try. In that sense, it is better than there are actually more PHDs available than the available jobs for PHD holders. More people have access to an even higher education and that is (as aeismail said) a benefit in itself.

So to directly answer your question: Do we need more PHDs? No, we don't. Would the world be a better place if you or I get a PHD? No, it won't. Would we get the job we want with a PHD? Probably not. But that does not mean that I must not have the right to do a PHD and try my chances.

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    I wish someone in my department would have said this when I was in school. Particularly the parts about jobs and PHDs. – sixtyfootersdude Sep 2 '14 at 20:38
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    I don't think anyone argues that specific people should be prevented from going for a Ph.D. But, for example, undergraduate advisors could consider whether they are honestly informing their students about the pros and cons of graduate school, including the job market on the other end, or suggesting that they consider other options. I suspect this would ultimately decrease the supply of PhDs. I think when many students tell their professors they are considering grad school, the response is "Great, I'll write you a letter", rather than "Have you considered issues X,Y,Z?" – Nate Eldredge Sep 3 '14 at 0:39
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    "We cannot suggest that people should not go for higher education, because there are actually fewer jobs than university graduates" - Why? That's an assertion which flies in the face of basic economics concepts. – DVK Sep 3 '14 at 22:20
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    +1 for "But you do not learn the guitar to benefit society. You learn the guitar to benefit your soul." ...that is a beautiful phrase. – Blue Ice Sep 4 '14 at 0:59
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I've discussed this topic with my advisor on several occasions. His rather logical viewpoint was that if there were a serious glut of PhD's in a given field, you would see this because there would be a spike in the unemployment rate of PhD's in those fields. At least in the natural sciences and engineering, there does not seem to be any evidence that PhD graduates aren't finding jobs.

Certainly there is a glut of PhD's if the only possible destination were to remain in academia. However, especially for PhD's in so-called STEM fields, there are many other career options that do not involve staying in academia.

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    The logic is faulty. Those jobs are not all "hire a PhD or go unfilled". Lesser education may be perfectly suitable to fill the position, but normally a higher educated candidate is favored even when the additional skill set is not required. More PhD's may have no issue finding jobs, but that does not equate to them being needed. – Brian Knoblauch Sep 2 '14 at 18:52
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    I'd like to point out this Forbes article on the fallacy of the purported shortage in the STEM fields. – S.G. Sep 2 '14 at 20:36
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    @Brian: If employers are willing to pay a premium to have a PhD in a position, that suggests the PhDs do offer value and are not excess, even if they may not precisely be needed. – Ben Voigt Sep 3 '14 at 0:42
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    One can also question whether the PhD work itself has value, or whether the PhD qualification merely serves to the employer as a proof of a great intellect. If the latter, then there might be a more efficient way to signal the same thing, in which case we could still say we don't need more PhDs. Employers using a side-effect of the academic system (the letters after the name) when the main product (the thesis and the skills learned on the PhD programme) is utterly irrelevant to them, doesn't specifically constitute a need for PhDs, it constitutes a need for indicators of great intellect :-) – Steve Jessop Sep 3 '14 at 8:31
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    ... and of course the same issue can apply to degrees below doctorates: to what extent is education worth something to the employer, vs. serving as a rather expensive signal to distinguish applicants? Evidence that employers favour better-educated applicants doesn't separate these factors. – Steve Jessop Sep 3 '14 at 8:35
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EDIT: This answer doesn't address the question whether we need more PhDs. It's pretty clear we don't. Instead, it addresses the issue why faculty members are so reluctant to admit this.

I'm not surprised at the dodge. There are enormous social and professional pressures on faculty members in the US to never ever admit that there are problems with their PhD programs. Here's one such article explaining the reasoning from the point of view of a humanities department, but the issues seem comparable.

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    This doesn't address the question of "Do we actually need more PhDs." – ff524 Sep 2 '14 at 17:18
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    I thought the paper OP cited already answered his or her question quite directly. I thought, further, that the people who were interested in the link he cited might also be interested in the ones he cited. If most readers think my answer is out of scope, it will be voted down. So, I don't see the need to necessarily open a new question about that matter. – shane Sep 2 '14 at 18:26
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    Please include the main points of the linked article in your answer. – Mangara Sep 3 '14 at 20:39
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In the middle ages, if you wanted to do scientific research, you had to pay yourself the career, meaning no salary, just living on your savings, which meant only the wealthiest could afford to dedicate their life to scientific research.

That's why there were so few inventions and discoveries.

In the renaissance, people become aware that there was 1,000 years of dark ages, and that science had been forgotten. They studied old classics and were able to re-create science. It was continued refinement of ideas by carefully testing them. But only the wealthier could afford.

At the same time the ideas of the illustration were born. Men should be free. Ideas should be free. People should be free to express their ideas. Science advanced so much in 200 years that vapor machines were invented. Then the american revolution happened. Ten years later the French revolution happened.

It was thought at the time that democracies could not exist, because Plato wrote in "Res Publicae - The Republic" that democracies would convert into demagogic governments, which meant that governments would invent enemies in order to keep in power and destroy democracy. Because of that several european countries wanted to re-conquer the americas. Americans decided to:

  1. Educate their people for free.
  2. Have everyone have guns.

The result is that the USA has more than 200 years, but the education system is failing. The main reason is that sometime in the past it was decided to follow the "no child left behind" policy, which meant no selection in the public system, so the students are mingled, good and bad, and of course the good have no incentive to study, since the tests are dumbed down for the stupid.

Do we need more PhDs?

If that were the case, then PhDs would make a lot of money, at least following the economic theory. The only problem is that it is very hard to make money on science, and even if you do, it takes several decades of research, so it is a very expensive and very risky investment. No rational investor would invest in science. Only if the result of the research is already proven and you just need to produce the thing, sure, some investor would be interested. We can't call that science though.

So I guess the answer is no. If you pursue a PhD is not for the money, but because you are interested in learning more about a subject. If you study computer science, maybe you go work for Google, Yahoo, Netflix, Facebook, Twitter and the like, and recover your investment of time and money, but otherwise it is a rather risky investment.

  • [citation needed] – Mangara Sep 3 '14 at 20:43

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