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Sunday, May 01, 2011

Motivation and the Ph.D.

Recently, a couple of my colleagues sent around the following three articles to the faculty mailing list:


These are all criticisms of the modern Ph.D. system. The authors make two key points in common:
  • Ph.D.'s take too long.
  • There are few jobs for Ph.D.'s that relate to their research training.

On the face of it, it is hard to disagree with these articles, but there's more to the Ph.D. than these points would suggest. I'll limit my thoughts to the Ph.D. in engineering, which is what I'm most familiar with. The situation is quite different from field to field. While the duration of the Ph.D. is very long in the humanities (routinely taking 10-12 years), it is much shorter in many domains of engineering (4-6 years is the norm).

Nearly all engineering Ph.D.'s do get a job after graduation, but the quality and research-orientation of those jobs shows high variance. I recognize that a good number of the students who did their Ph.D. under my guidance are now in jobs they were sufficiently qualified to do after their masters (perhaps even undergrad!) Not only is there a great paucity of tenure-track academic positions, there are also relatively few industrial research jobs these days, as many companies have laid off their internal groups doing basic "blue skies" research. In my own area of communication networks, aside from a few examples like Microsoft Research and Qualcomm, it's hard to find a large industrial research group in the U.S. (There are more opportunities in the rest of the world, though, for students willing to move to places like China or India). 

Nevertheless, I think there is something deeply valuable about the Ph.D. process, that is not accounted for in the discussion in these articles. It is (or, at least, should be) a far more autonomous learning process than the undergrad or masters degrees because of the focus on independent research. Students are challenged to develop their critical thinking abilities and gain confidence in their ability to reason from first principles. By going in depth, they reach the very boundaries of knowledge, and in many cases for the first time in their lives, help contribute something new to human knowledge. And some students even find a way to balance this depth with  breadth acquired by attending a wide range of talks and courses in fields outside their main focus area. Despite its length, I think a Ph.D. in a high quality engineering program is not a waste of time. 

With respect to jobs, I would like to think that even those of my students who are now in engineering jobs that didn't absolutely need a Ph.D., find that they are better equipped in some ways because of their Ph.D. experience. As for the paucity of academic and research positions, there is a different perspective on this: that the resulting competition may be a good thing. One of the comments posted online by Igor Litvinyuk (who I found to be a faculty member in Physics at Kansas State) on the Nature article "Reform the PhD system" is worth re-posting here in full, as it offers a sharp rebuttal (I should note, however, that I don't share this market-based view entirely): 

Fierce competition for academic positions is the only way to maintain excellence in academia. That's why academia needs more qualified Ph.D.-holding candidates than there are vacancies. Otherwise every Ph.D. graduate would be guaranteed a tenure-track position. It seems like that is what most of the authors and commentators here advocate. But society's interest in having its investments in research to be put into most efficient use by the most qualified people surely makes some extra spending to maintain competition and sustain excellence worthwhile. The populist goal of matching every Ph.D. candidate with a well-compensated satisfying permanent job in academia may seem humane and desirable, but it is not necessarily in the best interest of society as a whole. There is an obvious contradiction in most of the articles here: they claim that Ph.D. overproduction as an established fact, while at the same time stating that unemployment level among Ph.D. holders is lowest of all educational levels. 
So earning a Ph.D. clearly improves everyone's employment prospects. How does it square with the argument that many of those positions do not require a degree and resources are wasted on training people for them? Even if that argument had some merit, those extra costs have to be compared with advantages the society gains from having an excellent merit-based academic research system. Some measure of frustration and disappointment among the less successful contestants who chose to participate in this competitive system is unavoidable and is not unreasonable price to pay. Is it really all that different from other walks of life where competition is the norm, i.e. sports, literature or show business? After all nobody forces people to enter those Ph.D. programs, do they?
So if nobody forces people to enter Ph.D. programs, and many of them don't get research-oriented jobs, why do they enter them? And what influences where they end up after the Ph.D.? Over the years, having observed and interacted with many Ph.D. applicants and students in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at USC, I have made the following observations:

  • For many students from international universities (at USC, we get many applicants from Asian countries such as China, India, Iran, South Korea), doing a Ph.D. in the U.S. is primarily a ticket to the U.S. job market in high-tech areas. For most of these students, there is no motivation to stay in academia. They also see relatively little significance in the distinction between a creative research-oriented position, and a regular development/programming position in industry. They are often quite happy at the end of their Ph.D. to land a salaried industry job, regardless of its research content, because it pays well, is relatively stress-free, and guarantees a happy and stable  future in the U.S.

  • Many students who come straight from undergrad or an MS with little prior exposure to a non-academic setting, might be academically strong, but are still unmotivated and unclear about why they are doing a Ph.D. It's where the conveyor-belt of life has brought them, precisely because they were good at school: having been good at school, they specialized in science and mathematics in high school; having been good at high school, they went to engineering school; having been good at engineering school they applied to grad school, so here they are. All their life the schooling system has controlled their destiny and pointed them towards a Ph.D. They get here, and go through the Ph.D. trying to do their best at it. At the end of it though, feeling at least a little burned out by having faithfully followed the system all these years,  all they want to do is finally, finally, enter the "real world" in the form of any decent job that they can land (research-oriented or not).

  • Students who have had prior industry experience and then come for a Ph.D., particularly from within the U.S., are generally more motivated to seek research positions after the Ph.D., than students in the above category. They appreciate and value the intellectual autonomy afforded by a research position as compared to a non-research position.

  • The bar for academic positions is extremely high. Students need to demonstrate not only a rich publication record, but also should have worked on cutting edge topics, should be outspoken, and should have good networking skills to have interacted with faculty and researchers at other places who can refer/recommend them. For this reason, generally only those Ph.D. students that are extremely motivated to go after a tenure-track position from the very beginning figure out how to get them. (Paradoxically, though, given my previous two observations, a good number of those that go on to tenure track faculty positions have never been in industry.)

  • In engineering, another interesting, albeit relatively smaller, category of Ph.D. students are those that go on to found or work at small startup companies. Here again, with their focus on stability and their concerns about visa issues, I rarely see international students venture in this direction. In some cases, this category consists of students following their entrepreneurial faculty advisors; in many others, it's an expression of the great self-confidence and independence needed to be an entrepreneur. I would argue the Ph.D. is helpful for these students by exposing them to the possible opportunities for a high tech start-up.

My observations suggest that the kinds of jobs that Ph.D. students in engineering seek and find after their graduation (and to some extent, even the richness of their experience in graduate school) are very much a function of their individual motivation when they enter the Ph.D. program. This, in turn, depends on several factors, including (1) whether they have had prior exposure to an industry job before coming for the Ph.D., (2) whether they are international students, and (3) their risk-orientation. It would be nice to see these hypotheses investigated  more systematically through quantitative surveys. 

1 comment:

Sue Loh said...

Perhaps programs that encourage students to build industry experience - like to take a year or two between their bachelor's degree and higher degrees to get real-world work experience - would help trim out and/or motivate those students who are unsure why they need a PhD. Pairing with industry to build such a program (e.g. get a group like MSR to host some promising graduate degree candidates as interns for a year) would be mutually beneficial to the students, industry and ultimately the school as well.