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Is it time to abolish the PhD (as we know it)?

last modified Feb 24, 2020 03:35 PM
Let’s face it, the Ph.D. system is an abomination

by Alessandro Ceccarelli

The current model adopted by most western universities is the legacy of a German 19th century system, which is now causing more damage than good. 

Much of this can be put down to what Times Higher Education recently reported as the  ‘PhD mental health crisis’ - a report which referenced studies where more than  half of postgraduates surveyed experienced symptoms of psychological distress. 

You could say the  PhD programme mixes elements of the Olympics and episodes of “The Hunger Games” in order to get a sort of ‘academic union card’, which comes at a too high a price. To have a chance at getting a job in academia, students are given this shiny card which says they’re qualified - but in the cold reality of the job market, it really means very little. 

The list of issues with the PhD model is extensive. Touching on just a few, we see that graduate “students” are the main workhorses of modern research, struggling with casualised contracts (e.g. insecure, zero hours contracts), lack of security, and poor employment conditions. 

It is hard, relentless work - holidays, weekends and nights spent in the department or writing papers, being de facto brought into severe exploitative labour. Much also depends on the relationship with one person. If your supervisor is nice, then things will work out; if not, you are in trouble. Your supervisor can decide if/when a student can graduate, and will also provide letters of recommendation for any subsequent job. The supervisor holds a disproportionate amount of influence and power over your future. For those working in STEM fields, a thesis is almost worthless, and no one really agrees on the point of the PhD life. The job market for researchers has changed, the opportunities of getting a long-term career in academia are rare, but the number awarded PhDs has not decreased  alongside it. 

So what should be done about the PhD? How do we build a system which rewards hard work, while ensuring it genuinely enhances your career prospects, and doesn’t impact on your mental health?The first step is to make sure that PhD students are actually employed researchers - positions that recognise the expertise students bring, and the value they bring to supervisors and departments they serve. For years, they have amounted to cheap intellectual labour under the ‘student’ title, with few, and very blurred rights. 

It makes more sense to reinvent the way the PhD works. Far more attractive is to have a shorter step in your academic career. This could be, for instance, a one-year specialised course after you have completed an undergraduate programme - similar to the first year of an American PhD. This would cover advanced research topics and teach the skills needed for research - ranging from how to read and write papers, networking and how funding structures work. Students are currently expected to transition from life as a student to that of a ‘employed’ researcher seamlessly, with no preparation or support. This would help bridge the gap.

There also needs to be more flexibility in how PhDs are done and the paths chosen by those embarking on that journey. Why must every candidate submit the ‘traditional’ thesis - even if it’s not appropriate to that field? Candidates should be able to choose between this and, for example, submitting a journal-style paper, whether it’s published or not.

The current model for PhDs also places students on an incredibly restricted path, and for a significant chunk of their working life. The PhD path can represent a four-year trap - where candidates have the choice only of completing what they signed up to at the start, or ditch it altogether. There is no chance to change the path, even marginally. This doesn’t reflect real life - or the flexibility increasingly being adopted by companies across the world. Why should academia be any different?

It is time for the structure to be reimagined. Rather than presenting it as an immovable, unchangeable bloc, the PhD could be modernised to echo how non-academic careers are sold to people entering the world of work. Why can’t we have a system with milestones, where you can change path to reflect your circumstances, and what you’ve learned? There you could be a one-year ‘formation’ course to learn specialised skills, but which also represents a checkpoint for the candidate. Each year the student can be offered the chance to change course - to move into industry, or public-sector fields, or to continue to work as a properly-employed researcher in the world of academia. But the PhD can’t just represent ropes that bind you into one path, with one destination.

The PhD structure isn’t working - which is predictable for a system still operating like its 19th Century German inspiration. It doesn’t reflect the modern world, and contributes to the decline in mental health of many students. It’s time to think again.