The Economist on “The Disposable Academic”

Having devoted one of the very first PoliSciZurich blog entries to recruitment strategies and students’ incentives to pursue a PhD in political science, I enjoyed reading this article in the economist. The author criticizes higher education and claims that there is a large oversupply of PhDs. Here are the key points:

  • Pyramid scheme character of the academic system: Tenured and well-paid academics use armies of low-paid PhD researchers and postdocs to bring in grants and beef up their publication records.
  • A PhD does not pay off in monetary terms: In non-academic sectors the earnings premium for a PhD is 26%. 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 [According to this article in the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, there is no difference in the premium for an MA and a PhD in the social sciences for men. For Women, the difference is actually 4 percentage points].
  • Limited use for non-academic job market: Those who pay for research have realised that many PhDs find it tough to transfer their skills into the job market. Writing lab reports, giving academic presentations and conducting six-month literature reviews can be surprisingly unhelpful in a world where technical knowledge has to be assimilated quickly and presented simply to a wide audience.
  • Socially benefical, but bad individual choice: 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. But doing a PhD may still be a bad choice for an individual.

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