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Why doing a PhD is often a waste of time : A report from The Economist

Following report is from The Economist. Thanks to Nanopolitan for the pointer:

ON THE evening before All Saints’ Day in 1517, Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg. In those days a thesis was simply a position one wanted to argue. Luther, an Augustinian friar, asserted that Christians could not buy their way to heaven. Today a doctoral thesis is both an idea and an account of a period of original research. Writing one is the aim of the hundreds of thousands of students who embark on a doctorate of philosophy (PhD) every year.

In most countries a PhD is a basic requirement for a career in academia. It is an introduction to the world of independent research—a kind of intellectual masterpiece, created by an apprentice in close collaboration with a supervisor. The requirements to complete one vary enormously between countries, universities and even subjects. Some students will first have to spend two years working on a master’s degree or diploma. Some will receive a stipend; others will pay their own way. Some PhDs involve only research, some require classes and examinations and some require the student to teach undergraduates. A thesis can be dozens of pages in mathematics, or many hundreds in history. As a result, newly minted PhDs can be as young as their early 20s or world-weary forty-somethings.

One thing many PhD students have in common is dissatisfaction. Some describe their work as “slave labour”. Seven-day weeks, ten-hour days, low pay and uncertain prospects are widespread. You know you are a graduate student, goes one quip, when your office is better decorated than your home and you have a favourite flavour of instant noodle. “It isn’t graduate school itself that is discouraging,” says one student, who confesses to rather enjoying the hunt for free pizza. “What’s discouraging is realising the end point has been yanked out of reach.”

Whining PhD students are nothing new, but there seem to be genuine problems with the system that produces research doctorates (the practical “professional doctorates” in fields such as law, business and medicine have a more obvious value). There is an oversupply of PhDs. Although a doctorate is designed as training for a job in academia, the number of PhD positions is unrelated to the number of job openings. Meanwhile, business leaders complain about shortages of high-level skills, suggesting PhDs are not teaching the right things. The fiercest critics compare research doctorates to Ponzi or pyramid schemes.

Rich pickings

For most of history even a first degree at a university was the privilege of a rich few, and many academic staff did not hold doctorates. But as higher education expanded after the second world war, so did the expectation that lecturers would hold advanced degrees. American universities geared up first: by 1970 America was producing just under a third of the world’s university students and half of its science and technology PhDs (at that time it had only 6% of the global population). Since then America’s annual output of PhDs has doubled, to 64,000.

Other countries are catching up. Between 1998 and 2006 the number of doctorates handed out in all OECD countries grew by 40%, compared with 22% for America. PhD production sped up most dramatically in Mexico, Portugal, Italy and Slovakia. Even Japan, where the number of young people is shrinking, churned out about 46% more PhDs. Part of that growth reflects the expansion of university education outside America. Richard Freeman, a labour economist at Harvard University, says that by 2006 America was enrolling just 12% of the world’s students.

But universities have discovered that PhD students are cheap, highly motivated and disposable labour. With more PhD students they can do more research, and in some countries more teaching, with less money. A graduate assistant at Yale might earn $20,000 a year for nine months of teaching. The average pay of full professors in America was $109,000 in 2009—higher than the average for judges and magistrates.

Indeed, the production of PhDs has far outstripped demand for university lecturers. In a recent book, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, an academic and a journalist, report that America produced more than 100,000 doctoral degrees between 2005 and 2009. In the same period there were just 16,000 new professorships. Using PhD students to do much of the undergraduate teaching cuts the number of full-time jobs. Even in Canada, where the output of PhD graduates has grown relatively modestly, universities conferred 4,800 doctorate degrees in 2007 but hired just 2,616 new full-time professors. Only a few fast-developing countries, such as Brazil and China, now seem short of PhDs.

A short course in supply and demand

In research the story is similar. PhD students and contract staff known as “postdocs”, described by one student as “the ugly underbelly of academia”, do much of the research these days. There is a glut of postdocs too. Dr Freeman concluded from pre-2000 data that if American faculty jobs in the life sciences were increasing at 5% a year, just 20% of students would land one. In Canada 80% of postdocs earn $38,600 or less per year before tax—the average salary of a construction worker. The rise of the postdoc has created another obstacle on the way to an academic post. In some areas five years as a postdoc is now a prerequisite for landing a secure full-time job.

These armies of low-paid PhD researchers and postdocs boost universities’, and therefore countries’, research capacity. Yet that is not always a good thing. Brilliant, well-trained minds can go to waste when fashions change. The post-Sputnik era drove the rapid growth in PhD physicists that came to an abrupt halt as the Vietnam war drained the science budget. Brian Schwartz, a professor of physics at the City University of New York, says that in the 1970s as many as 5,000 physicists had to find jobs in other areas.

In America the rise of PhD teachers’ unions reflects the breakdown of an implicit contract between universities and PhD students: crummy pay now for a good academic job later. Student teachers in public universities such as the University of Wisconsin-Madison formed unions as early as the 1960s, but the pace of unionisation has increased recently. Unions are now spreading to private universities; though Yale and Cornell, where university administrators and some faculty argue that PhD students who teach are not workers but apprentices, have resisted union drives. In 2002 New York University was the first private university to recognise a PhD teachers’ union, but stopped negotiating with it three years later.

In some countries, such as Britain and America, poor pay and job prospects are reflected in the number of foreign-born PhD students. Dr Freeman estimates that in 1966 only 23% of science and engineering PhDs in America were awarded to students born outside the country. By 2006 that proportion had increased to 48%. Foreign students tend to tolerate poorer working conditions, and the supply of cheap, brilliant, foreign labour also keeps wages down.

Proponents of the PhD argue that it is worthwhile even if it does not lead to permanent academic employment. Not every student embarks on a PhD wanting a university career and many move successfully into private-sector jobs in, for instance, industrial research. That is true; but drop-out rates suggest that many students become dispirited. In America only 57% of doctoral students will have a PhD ten years after their first date of enrolment. In the humanities, where most students pay for their own PhDs, the figure is 49%. Worse still, whereas in other subject areas students tend to jump ship in the early years, in the humanities they cling like limpets before eventually falling off. And these students started out as the academic cream of the nation. Research at one American university found that those who finish are no cleverer than those who do not. Poor supervision, bad job prospects or lack of money cause them to run out of steam.

Even graduates who find work outside universities may not fare all that well. PhD courses are so specialised that university careers offices struggle to assist graduates looking for jobs, and supervisors tend to have little interest in students who are leaving academia. One OECD study shows that five years after receiving their degrees, more than 60% of PhDs in Slovakia and more than 45% in Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany and Spain were still on temporary contracts. Many were postdocs. About one-third of Austria’s PhD graduates take jobs unrelated to their degrees. In Germany 13% of all PhD graduates end up in lowly occupations. In the Netherlands the proportion is 21%.

A very slim premium

PhD graduates do at least earn more than those with a bachelor’s degree. A study in the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management by Bernard Casey shows that British men with a bachelor’s degree earn 14% more than those who could have gone to university but chose not to. The earnings premium for a PhD is 26%. But the premium for a master’s degree, which can be accomplished in as little as one year, is almost as high, at 23%. In some subjects the premium for a PhD vanishes entirely. PhDs in maths and computing, social sciences and languages earn no more than those with master’s degrees. The premium for a PhD is actually smaller than for a master’s degree in engineering and technology, architecture and education. Only in medicine, other sciences, and business and financial studies is it high enough to be worthwhile. Over all subjects, a PhD commands only a 3% premium over a master’s degree.

Dr Schwartz, the New York physicist, says the skills learned in the course of a PhD can be readily acquired through much shorter courses. Thirty years ago, he says, Wall Street firms realised that some physicists could work out differential equations and recruited them to become “quants”, analysts and traders. Today several short courses offer the advanced maths useful for finance. “A PhD physicist with one course on differential equations is not competitive,” says Dr Schwartz.

Many students say they are pursuing their subject out of love, and that education is an end in itself. Some give little thought to where the qualification might lead. In one study of British PhD graduates, about a third admitted that they were doing their doctorate partly to go on being a student, or put off job hunting. Nearly half of engineering students admitted to this. Scientists can easily get stipends, and therefore drift into doing a PhD. But there are penalties, as well as benefits, to staying at university. Workers with “surplus schooling”—more education than a job requires—are likely to be less satisfied, less productive and more likely to say they are going to leave their jobs.

Academics tend to regard asking whether a PhD is worthwhile as analogous to wondering whether there is too much art or culture in the world. They believe that knowledge spills from universities into society, making it more productive and healthier. That may well be true; but doing a PhD may still be a bad choice for an individual.

The interests of academics and universities on the one hand and PhD students on the other are not well aligned. The more bright students stay at universities, the better it is for academics. Postgraduate students bring in grants and beef up their supervisors’ publication records. Academics pick bright undergraduate students and groom them as potential graduate students. It isn’t in their interests to turn the smart kids away, at least at the beginning. One female student spoke of being told of glowing opportunities at the outset, but after seven years of hard slog she was fobbed off with a joke about finding a rich husband.

Monica Harris, a professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky, is a rare exception. She believes that too many PhDs are being produced, and has stopped admitting them. But such unilateral academic birth control is rare. One Ivy-League president, asked recently about PhD oversupply, said that if the top universities cut back others will step in to offer them instead. 

January 4, 2011 at 1:27 pm Leave a comment

Has the HRD ministry announced 10 more new IITs for India?

Following are some recent reports:

BU wants IIT tag for UVCE, plans proposal: TOI

Bangalore: The Bangalore University will submit a memorandum to the Union law minister on January 2 to upgrade University Visvesvaraya College of Engineering (UVCE) into an IIT.

The HRD ministry has announced 10 more IITs for the country. UVCE has the necessary infrastructure, expertise, faculty and students. This can be converted into an IIT with a campus at Mudenahalli,” vice-chancellor N Prabhu Dev, told reporters on Friday.

The memorandum will be submitted at the mega reunion event of UVCE alumni from January 1 to 3 on the occasion of Sir Visvesvaraya’s 150th anniversary.

“UVCE might remain a constituent college of BU. Even if we have to let go of the administration of UVCE when upgraded, we will not mind,” he added.

The UVCE will have placement cell for companies from different countries. The alumni who have their own companies will absorb students from the college. An investment of Rs 100 crore is mooted for the college in the coming 10 years. A national skill development centre, new buildings, smart classrooms, hostels of international standard and more is being planned.

Around 1,500 people have already registered for the meet. The function will begin with a candlelight march on Saturday evening. The alumni meet that will be held at Gayathri Vihar and UVCE campus will feature keynote address by eminent people, panel discussions and entertainment.

It’s time again to campaign for an IIT within Karnataka: DNA

A delegation headed by MR Doreswamy, member of the legislative council, is all set to meet Union law minister M Veerappa Moily to submit a memorandum seeking that an Indian Institute of Technology be set up in the state.

“We are meeting Veerappa Moily on January 2 to submit the memorandum,” Doreswamy said.

As the eleventh five-year plan period ends in 2012, there is a buzz that the Union government would set up an IIT in the state in the 12th five year plan.

Sources from the ministry of human resource development said that under the 12th plan, the Centre would announce 10 more IITs. Academics from the state are keen that one of these be located in Karnataka.

Talking to DNA, Doreswamy said that the location of the institute should not become a matter of contention. “We don’t mind where the institute comes up, so long as there is one in Karnataka. We are putting pressure on the Centre for many years now. Karnataka is eligible to get an IIT, but the demand has not been heeded, on the pretext that the state already has the Indian Institute of Science, an Indian Institute of Management, and a central university. This time, we will not let them pay no heed to our demand,” said Doreswamy.

Former chairman of the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), Dr Ramegowda, said, “Last time, we met Moily and we hoped that an IIT would come up in Karnataka in the 11th plan period. This time, we have to make a very serious and sincere effort. Bangalore is the capital of information technology, and it fully deserves an IIT.”

Since 1996, the state has attempted to get the Centre to sanction an IIT here. In 2009, the human resources development ministry had agreed in principle to the IIT in Karnataka under the 11th plan. Later, however, officials from the department claimed that there was no proposal for an IIT in Karnataka.

In the past two years, many delegations have met the Union minister for human resources development, seeking that an IIT be set up in the state. 137 MLAs from North Karnataka submitted a memorandum in this connection earlier. Doreswamy too has earlier met Union human resource development minister Kapil Sibal, and submitted a memorandum, but to no avail.

Karnataka had once before missed the IIT bus because of a controversy over its location. While the then Congress government recommended that the IIT be set up in North Karnataka, JD(S) MLA HD Revanna had opposed that plan, seeking that the IIT be located in Hassan district.

Seven years ago, a committee set up by the then prime minister to seek recommendations for setting up IITs, headed by scientist UR Rao, had recommended that an IIT come up in Karnataka, at Hubli-Dharwad.

January 2, 2011 at 11:15 am Leave a comment

HRD minister announces additional 200,000 engineering seats

Following is a report from the http://economictimes.indiatimes.com:

NEW DELHI: In a pleasant surprise for students, Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal Thursday announced an increase of almost 200,000 seats in engineering courses in India.

As part of reforms in All India Council for Technical Education ( AICTE )) norms, the minister also announced additional 80,000 seats in management and 2,200 seats in architecture courses.

The norms for land requirement for engineering colleges were also liberalised, with Sibal saying that lesser space will be needed for establishing technical institutes.

While an engineering college in rural India will need 10 acres of land, just 2.5 acres of land will be needed in urban areas.

December 30, 2010 at 2:03 pm Leave a comment

State universities need more funds: Vice President of India

Following is a report by IANS taken from MSN:

Kolkata, Dec 20 (IANS) Vice President Mohammad Hamid Ansari Monday said that higher education cannot improve in India unless state universities are able to obtain more funds, create new infrastructure and enrich their existing academic programmes.

‘Higher education cannot improve in India unless state universities, which are the backbone and represent the bulk of enrolment, are able to obtain greater funds, create new infrastructure and enrich their existing academic programmes,’ Ansari said at the Foundation Day Lecture 2010 of the University of Calcutta.

Even though we have been able to achieve an economic growth rate of 9 percent of the GDP despite low enrolment in higher education, it would not be possible for us to sustain such an economic growth, maintain our competitiveness and enhance our productivity without at least doubling our higher education enrolment, he said.

‘We must create avenues for vocational education so that entering universities does not become a default choice for the sake of employment,’ said Ansari.

December 21, 2010 at 9:05 am 1 comment

Orissa govt. asks Centre to set up a medical college in Koraput district

Following is a report by PTI published in http://in.news.yahoo.com:

New Delhi, Nov 1 (PTI) Orissa today asked the Centre to consider the recommendation of the Central University in the state”s Koraput district for setting up a medical college in the region. “The HRD Ministry should favourably consider the recommendation of the Executive Committee of Central University, Koraput, for setting up a medical college,” Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik told reporters here after a meeting with HRD Minister Kapil Sibal.

The Ministry, however, turned down the proposal citing resource constraint, sources said. Patnaik said he also requested Sibal to sanction and release 1/3rd of their share towards capital cost for enabling the state to establish model degree colleges in 18 low gross enrolment ratio districts.

According to the sources, Sibal told Patnaik that for strengthening vocational education, his Ministry was in the process of seeking approval of the Expenditure Finance Committee (EFC). Sibal said a meeting of the state Education Ministers has been scheduled in December this year to discuss vocational training.

Sibal assured Patnaik that the proposal of the state for setting up new vocational colleges and strengthening of the existing ones would be considered favourably during next academic year. For availing central assistance towards 1/3rd share for capital cost for setting up degree colleges in 18 Low gross enrolment ratio districts, Sibal said Orissa should sign the required MoU at the earliest for getting the required central share.

November 2, 2010 at 4:17 pm Leave a comment

Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) allowed to open campuses abroad

Following is a report by IANS published in http://www.thaindian.com:

New Delhi, Oct 13 (IANS) The prestigious Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) have been allowed to open campuses abroad, a human resource development (HRD) ministry official said Wednesday.

In a decision taken at a meeting between HRD Minister Kapil Sibal and the directors and chairpersons of the IIMs, full powers have been given to the boards of the institutions to open new centres in India and abroad.

“The other powers given to the boards include freedom to create posts within the approved norms, freedom to amend rules of the IIMs within the framework of memorandum of association and rules, power to acquire and dispose property not fully or partially funded by the ministry, powers to approve their own budget and also to manage the funds generated by the IIMs on their own,” the official said.

However, the number of members on IIMs’ boards has been reduced to 14.

The official hinted that an overhaul may be on the cards as the issue of representing the IIM society, the government, the faculty and the alumni on the boards was also discussed.

“It was also decided, in principle, that directors of IIMs will now be appointed through a process wherein the board of governors of the IIMs would suggest three names to the government from which it will choose one,” the official said.

It was also decided that the IIMs will be free to raise the salaries of their directors and faculty from the funds generated in-house.

“The minister has also directed that old and new IIMs sit together to streamline the use of technology for class scheduling, attendance and marks compilation,” the official said.

The minister pointed out the board should take steps to prepare annual action plans and key performance indicators at each level and be fully accountable and transparent.

October 16, 2010 at 8:04 am Leave a comment

Plagiarism in the Indian Institutes of Technology: The Telegraph

Following is a report from the Telegraph:

New Delhi, Oct 10: Scientific misconduct has surfaced in five Indian Institutes of Technology in independent cases that reflect unethical practices in the pursuit of research touching even the nation’s elite institutions.

Scientists familiar with these cases have said they involve plagiarism and poor supervision of young researchers, and show how senior faculty turned into coauthors of scientific papers even while oblivious to their detailed contents.

Authorities at the IIT, Kharagpur, have removed the head of its physics department who was accused of not granting a colleague credit due in a research paper — a charge upheld by an internal institutional inquiry, but denied by the professor.

Two international journals have retracted research papers coauthored by senior faculty at IIT, New Delhi, and IIT, Kanpur, on grounds of plagiarism — one paper copied text from Wikipedia. And the Society for Scientific Values, a 24-year old non-government ethics watchdog for scientists, is investigating complaints of scientific misconduct in two other IITs.

The journal, Nuclear Instruments and Methods in Physics Research, has retracted a 2009 paper coauthored by Anup Ghosh, a professor of polymer science at the IIT, New Delhi, Devesh Avasthi and Pawan Kulriya at the Inter University Accelerator Centre, Sharif Ahmad from the Jamia Milia Islamia University, and Shashi Chawla from the Amity School of Engineering.

The journal said the authors had “plagiarised parts of a paper that had already appeared” in another journal and described the work as a “severe abuse of the scientific publishing system.”

Another journal, Biotechnology Advances , has retracted two review papers coauthored by Ashok Kumar and his students at the department of biological sciences at IIT, Kanpur, for plagiarism. The journal said one paper had plagiarised text from several previously published papers, and the other had extracted text from Wikipedia without citations.

Neither Kumar nor Ghosh were available for comments. But Avasthi, a scientist at the IUAC claimed that a research scholar had plagiarised text and assigned coauthorships to senior faculty.

But scientists tracking ethics say this is no excuse.

“Many young people are unaware that plagiarism is a serious offense. But supervisors should own responsibility for content of papers — and not merely accept authorships to add to the number of papers in their resumes,” said Kasturi Lal Chopra, a former director of the IIT, Kharagpur, and president of the SSV.

An inquiry by Chopra on request from the IIT Kharagpur has observed that the head of its physics department professor R.N.P Choudhary had denied legitimate credit to a colleague A.K.Thakur in a research paper.

Choudhary has denied wrongdoing. He claimed that a student, who was the first author of the paper, had without his knowledge made him the corresponding author. He also said that he has had 29 joint papers with his accuser —Thakur — in the past, and that Thakur had not contributed to this paper.

“We need to teach ethics as part of the curriculum in MSc or at least at PhD level courses,” said Ravinder Kotnala, a physicist at the National Physical Laboratory, New Delhi, and SSV secretary.

The SSV typically gets about 10 to 12 complaints of scientific misconduct each month, most often from within the academic institutions. Many are frivolous, but we take up the serious ones for independent investigation, Kotnala said.

He requested that the identities of the two other IITs not be revealed because the investigations into the complaints are still incomplete. One complaint claims researchers fabricated data, while the other claims that the same experimental data was used unjustifiably to generate multiple research papers.

“Ideally, even school students need to be sensitised to ethics,” Kotnala said. “I’ve seen plenty of school science projects entirely based on material copied from the Internet.”

The SSV has long urged India’s scientific departments to introduce ethics training in academic institutions and create an agency with legal teeth to monitor ethics in scientific affairs.

The SSV has itself conducted workshops on ethics, but its members have limited time for such activities. “It’s also a dirty job — no one likes to police scientists,” one member of the SSV executive committee said.

October 13, 2010 at 6:04 pm 1 comment

Prioritizing the criteria for location of Innovation University and IIT across India

Following article is from Current Science:

September 24, 2010 at 7:11 pm Leave a comment

Jharsuguda will be the highest electrical power producing town of India

Following report is from The Samaj:

August 7, 2010 at 10:34 am 1 comment

MP demands setting up of IIM at Sambalpur: The Pioneer

Following report is from The Pioneer:

Sambalpur MP Amarnath Pradhan has demanded the setting up of an Indian Institute of Management (IIM) at Sambalpur.

He said that Sambalpur is the nerve centre of western Odisha and it has the entire infrastructure to facilitate an IIM. Pradhan said that the Union Government should create more opportunities for students in the State by opening at least one IIM in Odisha.

Recently, the standing committee on HRD in its report had asked the Centre to increase the number of seats in the existing IIMs. Pradhan said that as the State is witnessing rapid industrialisation, the necessity for setting up an IIM is increasingly felt. He said majority of the mega projects are coming up in western Odisha and to meet the requirements of these industries, an IIM is very much needed, said the MP.

It may be pointed out that Odisha has all along demanded an IIM and the Ministry of Human Resources Development (MHRD) has never been kind to the State since the days of Arjun Singh. Though Union HRD Minister Kapil Sibal is not having such negative feeling, he has not been generous to the State, said a senior official.

August 5, 2010 at 7:22 pm Leave a comment

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