PhD-level education: a hamster wheel, mounted facing the wrong way

 

Nothing to change in Academia. Please move along.

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America is Pumping Out Too Many Ph.D.s, says an article whose subtitle is (emphasis mine):

“The U.S. probably doesn’t need more humanities doctorates, but the opposite is true for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) graduates. We just need to create the jobs to justify them.

Since much of that article applies to many other countries, let me provide some context and fundamental questions about it. Excerpts from the article are in italic, with emphasis mine. Non-italic paragraphs are my own comments, and invitation to reflection.

The situation

[In the US] Humanities and social science fields probably produce too many Ph.D.s and will need to cut back The overproduction of Ph.D.s has been an issue for years in the U.S., which has a higher rate of doctorate holders than almost any other rich country The academic jobs Ph.D. students are accustomed to pursuing have been drying up Many [Humanities] doctorates are simply not worth it in purely private-sector terms

“That’s a recipe for societal dysfunction…A handful of angry, downwardly mobile [Humanities] Ph.D.s aren’t by themselves enough to overthrow the institutions of society, but they can make hugely outsized contributions to unrest and discord if they are so inclined.”

Side exercise for the reader, before moving to the solutions: are those people already making such contributions? If yes, how?

The STEM solution: more of the same

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The article proposes two solutions to the “Ph.D. overproduction problem”:

“The first solution is to increase the demand for Ph.D.s. In the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, that’s actually pretty easy to do: Simply pour a lot more government money into research.”

“That’s something the U.S. badly needs to do anyway, in order to maintain technological leadership and push up economic growth rates.”

“U.S. [STEM] researchers help keep the country’s knowledge industries at the forefront of the global economy.”

As it is, and as it is most likely to be interpreted and implemented, this solution would hardly improve what most urgently needs improving, in the US or anywhere else. Never forget what Einstein never said:

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Or, as some hard-core maoist said, ten years ago, “if we want a society of broadly shared prosperity, education isn’t the answer”.

Pushing, and then leaving alone in the driver seats, “STEM” guys who never received from school any decent clue about ethics, or the main basic lessons that everybody should learn from history and philosophy, is a major cause of the current state of things, in the US and elsewhere.

If what you get by higher rate of doctorate holders than almost any other rich country is primates like these two and Capitol riots both started and solved privately… maybe it’s also because certain visions have some flaw, somewhere. Regardless of any purely physical walls they may crash against, in a planet already made obese” by human stuff.

The Humanities solution: grow up, already

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“For humanities and social science Ph.D.s, there’s no such quick fix. The government isn’t going to dole out billions a year boosting research in non-STEM areas. So the production of Ph.D.s in these fields simply needs to be reduced to a level in line with new economic realities”.

“This is going to be painful and frustrating for some young people who dream of studying those subjects for a living. But… As with so many other things, America is going to have to do the hard work of bringing its academic dreams down to earth.”

As it is, that whole article seems to me the opposite of what Mark Twain said: “Never Let Education interfere with Schooling [for some job]“. This, starting from the subtitle:

We just need to create the jobs to justify [more PhDs].

Even if the economy were the only thing that matters… I dare assume that any sane economy should never spend to create jobs just to justify spending for PhDs of whatever kind. I’d hope that such an economy, instead, would first spend to find what the real problems are, then spend to define the right solutions, and then spend to prepare the right mix of people and skills to implement them. In that order.

Maybe the first academic dream that must be really brought down to earth, among both students and decision makers, is that the main, or even just the first purpose of education is “employment in line with new economic realities”. As long as that dream persists, almost everybody in the system, STEM or Humanities doesn’t matter, will remain trapped in a hamster wheel that is not even facing the direction where things ought to go.

Final note, in case anybody wonders: this post, and this whole website, is written by a PhD-comparable graduate in electronics engineering, who later in life decided to try to set a few things straight.

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