A proposal to improve job prospects for PhD holders and also alleviate college/university costs

In the past few years, there have been repeated concerns in and around academia regarding two different problems: one is the bleak job outlook for newly minted PhD’s, and the other is skyrocketing tuition costs for students at universities.

One way that I think both problems can be tackled simultaneously is an apprenticeship/private tutor model. Here’s how it could work. People who want to “go to college” would be able to choose between the traditional university route with enrollment, tuition, regular classes, and an apprenticeship or tutor route. They would be able to “hire” out-of-work PhD’s in applicable fields of study, paying the instructor directly, and the instructor would then teach the applicable material, skills, etc. When the pupil achieved certain milestones as judged by the instructor, the instructor could recommend recognition of credits or degrees. E.g. a student who would like to obtain a bachelor’s degree but needs English Literature credits could hire someone with a PhD in English and study independently with that person. The PhD, when convinced of the student’s mastery, could present a portfolio of the student’s work to a local university and recommend the issuance of 6 credits of English, possibly contingent on the student also passing standardized exams. If the instructor consistently recommends good candidates, eventually the panel would no longer need to scrutinize portfolios and could start rubber-stamping the instructor’s pupils (e.g. the instructor has become “fully accredited” to issue college credits in English). There is already an analogous process in place in many areas of the US for home-schooled children who would like a high school diploma or equivalency. E.g. this organization appears to be authorized by the State of Pennsylvania to monitor the curricula of homeschooling parents and decide when and if the student has been educated enough to qualify for a high school diploma or equivalency. You could even have assistantships, where students assist the tutor in the tutor’s own research in lieu of some or all of the student’s tuition. E.g. maybe I could sign on with someone with a PhD in Psychology and help them do real psychological research, learning along the way, and become a co-author on five papers that get published in academic journals. Eventually I get good enough and do my own paper (i.e. a thesis), and the PhD pats me on the back and recommends me for immediate master’s degree recognition. The difference between this and existing grad assistantships is that there is no “grad school” to apply to or attend - I’m just working with a PhD I found on www.phdandnojob.co m.

In other words, this is the one-on-one pupilship “Mr. Miyagi’s dojo” model versus the “Cobra Kai dojo” with its highly structured classes, ranks, and competitions.

Workable idea? Good idea? If it’s a bad idea, why? Would it be too hard to administer on a practical basis? Would it necessarily represent a drop in educational standards?

And here I thought it would involve phuds eating each other.

How does your proposal handle access to resources like laboratories and a well-stocked research library?

How would this research be conducted without access to labs and infrastructure? If a student wants research experience and publications, they find an existing professor to do work with, and work diligently. I don’t know of many professors who have more help than they need.

Some public schools have an ever increasing student:instructor ratio. They won’t want to pay for a 1:1 ratio. They can already get away with paying adjunct professors magic beans (benefits = you get to eat) in exchange for teaching large classes.

And an education that is deficient in “sweep the leg” is no education. :dubious:

They pay for it. Maybe they can rent some laboratory space for an hourly, daily, or per-experiment rate and/or pay according to materials used. This could also be a boon for startup businesses who want to open up pay-for-play laboratories. “Try Smith Brothers Laboratories, Inc.! We have the latest Chemistry instruments and the second largest telescope in the Tri-County Area! Sign up before March 5 and get unlimited* refills of litmus paper until 2015! *Subject to recommendation of tutor as to academic necessity.”

Let’s say a hypothetical independent PhD signs tutoring contracts with 6 independent students. Each student pays $10k per year (less than many state schools) for access to a whole year of instructor access with a 6:1 ratio. Much better than Big U that offers 200:1 at best for introductory undergrad classes, 20:1 for upper undergrad classes and basic grad classes, and 5:1 for grad seminars. Our PhD is now making $60k per year. Not supremely great, but much more than beans.

You’re making some incorrect assumptions, to note:

  1. PhDs are good teachers- Nope, in fact, no single course in adult education is required, and many PhDs (including myself) dislike teaching, to various degrees.

  2. PhDs want to teach- Again, even if they are good teachers, they may not want to do that as their solely means to get income.

  3. PhDs can teach within their field- A PhD degree is very specialized in a particular subset. The person may have a deeper understanding and knowledge of the larger general field, but that doesn’t mean they know/understand the material good enough to teach it or want to teach it. In my particular case, there is no way I’d be prepared to teach any introductory-level class, despite the fact that I did take those classes (and passed them well) in order to get to my degree.

I’m sure there are more other assumptions, but those are the first that come to my mind this early in the morning.

Private tutoring, often by otherwise unemployed Ph.D.s paid directly by students or their parents, already occurs to some extent. There is not all that much of it, because there is little demand, and little spare money about in most families to pay for it. Also, much (I think now the majority) of the teaching in US universities is already done by otherwise unemployed Ph.D.s, employed part-time (i.e., without benefits or any job security), at exploitative wages, as “adjuncts”.

Your suggestion seems to amount, in effect, to the hiring (whether or not directly by the universities) of many more adjuncts, in order to achieve a much better student to teacher ratio. Although it might be better for students and currently unemployed Ph.D.s (those that primarily want to teach, anyway, but most primarily want to do research), it is obviously going to cost a lot more than the present system (there will be a lot more teachers), and it brings no benefits whatsoever to the universities themselves, especially if, as you seem to envisage, it is going to involve taking tuition fees away from universities and giving them to Ph.D. teachers who are not currently getting any of them. The universities, as institutions, would rather keep the money they have and keep on teaching as they are (which works for them!), thank you very much.

The current system is horribly fucked up from the point of view of Ph.D.s, most of whom get horribly screwed over (I know, I am one of them), and it ain’t so great from the perspective of the students and their families either (or the postdocs who actually do most of the scientific research). However, it works pretty well from the perspective of the people who actually have the power in the system, the university administrators and tenured (and, to some extent, tenure-track) faculty. They get good salaries, excellent job security, and lots of very cheap, highly qualified labor to do their grunt work. Although some of them may have a conscience about the situation, they have no incentive to go along with a scheme like yours. In any case, your scheme would require that a lot more money be put into the system (only a small proportion of a university’s income goes directly to pay for actual teaching), and if a lot more money were available to be put into the system, there are all sorts of much better ways it could be spent in order to fix things.

I guess the painful but obvious question would be this; if Ph.Ds can’t find jobs, could it simply be that we need to reduce the number of Ph.Ds we have in some areas of study?

Yes, that is the obvious answer, but the rebuttal is: How? Do you tell a university “No, you may not take on a student which is going to give you a ton of money through tuition or grants”? The university isn’t going to like that. Do you tell professors that they can’t have as many grad students as their funding allows? Professors won’t like the lack of slave labor either. Do you ‘fail’ more PhD candidates during dissertation review so only the cream of the already quite excellent crop gets through? Not only will students hate that, but having a candidate fail looks badly on the adviser as well.

Long story short, the current PhD program works great for universities and professors, and while it seems to be screwing over those just getting their doctorates, people are still enrolling in doctoral programs, despite knowing it will murder their free time and finances.

It’d have to start with a governmental commitment to changing the way they allocate money to education. Hey, I didn’t say it was an easy solution.

It’d be interesting to discuss why that is, or if, really, that understanding is as good as you suggest it is.

I had a fascinating conversation with a gentleman a few months ago whose son could not find better work than working in a clothing store, despite having just gotten a Master’s degree. I asked what his area of stiudy was, and it was political science. I was flabbergasted. I didn’t say anything mean, of course, but to myself thought how could someone be so stupid as to think a political science degree would be a likely job ticket? Political Science was joked about as a sure way to burger-flipping when I went to school… in 1990.

This isn’t an uncommon thing; just a few weeks ago the Toronto Star ran an article on disillusioned postgrad grads who couldn’t find good jobs. All spoke of amazement, betrayal, being convinced the economy was broken, and they all had degrees like “communications” and sociology.

Students are, it’s clear to me, being very ill-served by their advisors and guidance counselors. If someone takes a less-than-super-marketable degree with their eyes open - my sister took drama and had no illusions whatsoever that her life after school would be anything but a hell of a slog, but she chose that slog - then that’s fine. Not every education HAS to be about being the perfect marginal addition to the corporate world. But people appear to be being steered wrong.

On top of that, I’m not sure I want my government spending untold gobs of money educating people to be Ph.Ds solely to educate other people to be Ph.Ds - well, maybe not as much as we’re currently doing. The advancement of education, again, has a lot of societal benefit aside from what’s immediately good for business, but clearly there seems to be a glut right now.

Your thread (at least the PhD portion) seems to be a solution searching for a non-problem.

Education is nothing more than an investment IMHO, like the stock market, CDs and the like. When I went to college (and grad school) I made the decision that my MBA would be cost effective in that my cost to get it would be paid for by my increased earning potential. I also received an MA in international relations. I paid for that degree knowing full well that that degree would never be cost effective, but I choose to do that anyway.

So PhD candidates should be smart enough to realize that they might not get their PhDs, and even if they do, it might not be cost effective. Just like that stock I purchased last night might not make me money.

That’s the thing about investments - the risk reward won’t always work in your favor, but it’s a risk that one must choose to accept.

What’s wrong with letting the invisible hand of the market sort it out? If Joe wants to study for a PhD in whatever, Joe can knock himself out. But society doesn’t owe him a job when he can be called Dr. Joe, no more than society owes line workers at a buggy whip factory permanent employment.

The part of the OP’s proposal that I’m not quite following is that it seems to be advocating the establishment of relationships between universities and independent PhDs to assess the progress and award degrees to a particular student that the university, at large, has no knowledge of. To my skeptical eye, it seems like a recipe for diploma mills under a slightly different scheme: pay money directly to Dr. Joe, who will recommend you for a degree from the University of the Great Southwest (Subterranean Campus). Pay a little more, and Dr. Joe will recommend you to the more prestigious University of Samoa. Pay a lot more and Dr. Joe will grease you in with Central Florida State University.

My advisor way back in the dark ages was a poly sci PhD, and was a hell of a smart and humorous guy. He advised everybody that was interested in poly sci to take it as a minor and to take something useful as the major on the grounds that it was fine to be interested in how the political world works as a hobby but unless you were going to be a professional bureaucrat in the State Department there was not really a good way to make a living [this was before political blogging became a way to make money.]

I actually agree that we need to modify our higher educational system - someone with a doctorate really shouldn’t be flipping burgers unless they happen to really want to work a hot line. It does seem that universities will shoehorn anybody with the money into a program whether or not it is both beneficial to the person and society in general. Unless you are independently wealthy there really isn’t a future for many baby docs studying some of the more obscure subjects - big business wants to only hire people who will ultimately make them money, and the era of the independent scientist making huge discoveries in their attic is pretty much over.

The problem, as Harvard economist Richard Freeman points out, is that the PhD process has largely been divorced from the free market economy.

I can speak to the sciences, where I have my PhD. I should point out that my diatribe doesn’t come from a place of bitterness; I’ve been one of the very lucky ones to parlay my PhD into a successful career.

The issue is that to stock a laboratory with the skilled workers needed to do the science there are currently two options: 1) hire associates at free market wages or 2) hire PhDs and postdocs at below free market wages. There is no downside to the universities to choosing number 2, so guess which they tend to do.

In careers like medicine, the supply of new doctors is kept in check because it is in the interest of current doctors to make sure that the supply is low, so that the demand, and salary, is high. In science, the supply is kept as high as possible. Tenured scientists have nothing to fear from the supply being high, and the more PhD students and postdocs exist, the more skilled workers at below market wages there are to be hired.

Universities don’t bother to keep track of PhD outcomes. Most will tell prospective students that the average time to PhD is 5-6 years; this is a lie based on data from 20 years ago. The average time to PhD in the sciences is closer to 8 years now. And once you get your PhD, the postdoc period lasts from 5-10 years before you will even be considered for a tenure track position (which is about as rare as unicorn teeth).

And, now that there is approximately one postdoc for every tenured professor position, it means that every single professor could retire tomorrow, and there would be enough scientists to take over these positions. Since that isn’t going to happen, there is a huge oversupply (despite these odd warnings that there is a lack of STEM workers).

It’s a real problem that no one seems to realize. If you decide that you want to spend your life trying to cure cancer, you are signing up for likely abject poverty. Personally, all I can do is actually refuse to hire postdocs (which I have done) because I don’t want to be part of the problem.

That’s interesting to hear. I would have thought that Ph.D students at this point would be like smokers, past the point of being unable to say that they didn’t realize the risks.

I wonder if part of the issue is that these people probably are disproportionately drawn from the “brightest” student population, so they are overly optimistic about succeeding? They understand that there aren’t many positions out there, but there are some – since they’ve always been good enough to get whatever academic prize thus far, they decide that they will still be the ones to succeed at this level.

Why has the Ph.D process gotten longer? Have more requirements been added? Is it harder to get necessary resources like lab time?

The problem is that we’ve been moving towards cheaper and cheaper labor, which leading to worse quality education and the deprofessionalization of academics. Teaching responsibilities are shifting more and more towards TAs and adjuncts (I don’t have any cite on TAs, but here’s one on adjuncts), who get paid practically nothing. The basic quality of the educational experience isn’t going to hold up when it’s being sustained by people who lack even a minimum level of financial security. But we may see the beginning of the end of even this with the rise of MOOCs (for instance).

Practical reasons include that a lot of experiments require generation of transgenic and knockout mice. These mice take quite a bit of time and effort to generate. No matter how many 80 hour work weeks you do, this process can’t be sped up. I have a mouse that I started generating about 18 months ago, and is still a good six months from completion if all goes well. Then, if it turns out your mouse has no phenotype (or the genetic alterations are lethal) you just lost that time and have nothing to show for it.

Also, the amount of data required to publish a single paper has skyrocketed. If you look at a Nature paper from 20 years ago, all of the data in that publication would be part of Supplementary Figure 1 in a paper today.

Non-practical reasons is that it serves as a holding pattern. Similar to the postdoc period, which used to be an optional 1-2 years to learn a new skill and is now a required 5-10 years because there are no positions available, the time to degree has crept up dramatically. Also, the tenure track scientist has every reason to hold on to a PhD candidate as long as possible. By the time he or she is ready to graduate, he or she is a very highly skilled worker making 20K per year. You have the option to let that person graduate or hold on to them for just six months longer (and then just another six months to finish up just a few more experiments and then you really, truly will be ready to defend your thesis). There are some good guys out there who choose the former, but more that choose the latter.

ding ding ding we have a winner!

Yep, the reason so many smart people go into a doctoral program despite knowing that it will suck (seriously, we had talks once a semester on how bad a PhD program would be when I was getting my master’s) is that they have an ego, and a past record of success.

If you’ve never really failed, and you’ve been the smartest, most dedicated guy in your cohort for the first 22 years of your life, you’re not going to have the best handle on what to do when you are merely average among your cohort.

Much of this is true - when I was getting my master’s, many of the papers I would cite from 20 years ago had results like “after running my path-finding algorithm over these three maps” or “after five runs of twenty steps each, my learning algorithm is shown to …” and then being asking to run over 1000 randomly generated maps to prove that my implementation of A* was good or wanting 1000 runs of 100 steps each to show my learning algorithm wasn’t a fluke, it was disheartening.

I would also mention that something slowing candidates down is the rise of the MPU - the minimum publishable unit. Used to be, you had an interesting idea, you worked on it for a while, then published a paper showing all the little intricacies and nuances of that idea. Now, you have an idea, you pare it down to the smallest, least difficult novel idea, publish just that, and then spend the next 7 papers exploring the nuances and little intricacies of your idea. This way when you go up for tenure, you can point to 8 papers instead of one, even if the content of that one is equivalent to the content of those 8. But submitting 8 papers with minimum content takes a lot more time and effort than submitting 1 paper with a lot of content. The one paper might take six months to a year (unless you have some physical slowdown like growing mice), even with a rejection along the way. Each of those little papers might take 3-4 months, but doing 8 of them means you’re milking the same topic for 2-3 years. And then it’s a bit harder to get a thesis, because you have to come up with 200 pages on a topic you’ve already studied to death, instead of 200 pages of something novel that is your one paper.