Is a science PhD worth it, part II

Let me expand on the closing sentence of my last post, which got some attention in the comments (emphasis added):

The upshot of this is that national data-sets can miss a lot of nuance in this issue. And regardless of the final outcome, we can do a lot to make a PhD “more worth it” for grad students. Even if we all get a job in the end, it doesn’t have to be so stressful.

From my casual observations (and a whimsical Google search), it appears that most college students roughly follow this path:

  1. End up in a major where employers value the skills you will gain: finance, marketing, engineering, journalism, education, etc.
  2. Because, the recession notwithstanding, many jobs require your newly acquired skill-set, apply for and start working in something you’re trained to do.

Keeping in mind that individual experiences vary, that generalizations have limited value, and that perhaps I’m biased because I studied space physics rather than bioengineering or chip design…it seems that many science PhD students who don’t end up in academia roughly do this:

  1. End up studying something obscure and irrelevant to almost everyone, and gain expertise that isn’t widely applicable.
  2. Because there aren’t many jobs that value your skill-set, and because grad school generally doesn’t afford you the chance to develop non-research skills, stumble around and stress mightily until you get a job.

Now if all you do is reference aggregate statistics, and ignore the stress and worry that accompany many PhD job searches, point number 2 is no cause for concern. But that’s the notion I was explicitly rejecting in my last post. The process matters, and matters a lot. That’s where the PhD experience can be improved. Back when all PhDs became academics, it have been fine to ignore this issue. But that’s not the world we now live in.

This is not a particularly profound or deep observation. The disconnect between PhD training and career trajectories is fairly well-studied. As far back as 1995, the National Academies noted the need to rethink PhD education, and there’s a veritable cottage industry around helping PhDs take command of their careers. This industry wouldn’t exist if there weren’t demand, and is proof enough that something can be done to make the PhD job search less stressful.

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