Re: Academics fear PhD quality is slipping–>Standardization?

 brings up a very interesting point about concerns of academic quality slipping and how that impacts standards for a PhD degree.  I recently came across an article (afraid I can’t find the link now) but it was an interview with an undergrad who couldn’t find a job.  According to the article, 1 out of 2 graduates this year will be either unemployed or under-employed.  The student being interviewed explained since he hadn’t been able to find a job, he was probably just going to go to grad school.

Hearing that statement always makes me a little queasy.  It certainly speaks volumes about the student’s perception of their field’s graduate programs.  The particular student being interviewed was in creative writing, but I’ve heard the same statement from students in biomedical science fields.  “I don’t know what I want to do, so I think I’ll just go to grad school and figure it out”.  How is it that graduate programs have become the back-up for so called “real world” jobs?  Is this just a reflection of students’ opinions of PhD programs?  Is it actually a reflection of slipping PhD quality?  Or maybe this is just economics – a solid application can still get you into grad school even if it won’t get you into a career.  If minimum wage is $7.25/hr, then the avg NIH stipend is a decent bit better, and generally comes with benefits.

In the sciences, graduate students are cheaper to employ than a technician, who is often entitled to full state employee benefits (even when they are employed off of grant money).  Technician’s also get overtime benefits, whereas grad students are basically expected to work “overtime”.  So it’s no wonder that there would be great appeal to PIs to fill their labs with graduate students rather than techs or worse yet, expensive post-docs.  Yes, students come with pesky mentoring responsibilities, but it’s a small price to pay as a PI for all that productivity.  And if those students can at least manage their experiments, who cares about developing independent thinking or writing skills or teaching experience?  There’s no motivation for a PI to develop the grad student beyond being efficiently data producing.

It’s easy to see how the current system could be abused to the point of “watering down” the academic rigor of the PhD program.  So a student isn’t quite up to snuff for the degree?  Well, then just keep her/him working in the lab for another year…and the PI gets another year of data.


About Cat Cowan

2nd year DVM/PhD student at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine. Studying immunology, vet medicine and aiming to stay in academia.
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