The future of the PhD

Nature has a special feature on the future of the PhD. Mark Taylor, professor of religion at Columbia, has some especially strong words:

Universities face growing financial challenges. Most in the United States, for example, have not recovered from losses incurred on investments during the financial fiasco of 2008, and they probably never will. State and federal support is also collapsing, so institutions cannot afford to support as many programmes. There could be an upside to these unfortunate developments: growing competition for dwindling public and private resources might force universities to change their approach to PhD education, even if they do not want to.

There are two responsible courses of action: either radically reform doctoral programmes or shut them down.

Eh. I’m instinctively skeptical of suggestions that the only “responsible” action is radical change. The PhD isn’t going anywhere for a very long time, and any changes that do occur will surely be small and exploratory. Statements like that make me roll my eyes.

That said, graduate education does need to be reexamined. It’d be nice if we could get a group like the National Academies to write a report that will later be forgotten. I’m pretty sure no one remembers this one from 1995!


  1. I agree with you that this rhetoric seems overblown…or, at least, the conclusion doesn’t flow from the premises. I think the answer is already out there, and it’s not terribly radical. It’s:

    -add some professional science master’s programs
    -train PhD students a little more broadly…less about the research they do day-to-day and more about systematically bringing in more information about careers outside academia.

    1. Completely agree. The only thing is creating the infrastructure and actually pushing for your suggestions. Right now there’s no real interest in it other than occasional articles like the ones in Nature.

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