Saturday, August 31, 2013

PhD: So What Does it Really Stand For?

English: TU Delft PhD Defense committee
TU Delft PhD Defense committee (Wikipedia)

If PhD students are the working class of academic research - and paid accordingly - what needs to change?

Recently, during some particularly thorough literature research, I stumbled on a list of alternative interpretations of the acronym PhD
Most were funny: protein has degraded, parents have doubts. But one froze my face in a bittersweet grimace: paid half of what I deserve.

When I was still a rookie PhD student, I read with outrage an Economist article entitled the disposable academic, which argued that doing a PhD is mostly needless.

Lately, I've come to think of the PhD as more of a heavily spicy meal. It doesn't matter how much you enjoy the process, once you're done, you still have half of the pain ahead.

The years of academic slog to work your way up to a full tenure slot (professorship? ha - dream on!) are not much different from the work of a PhD in terms of relentless benchwork (pipetting hand disease) and unceasing literature research (pound head on desk), served on a fixed menu with professional uncertainty (please hire: desperate). All of which result in, if not professorship, then potential heavy drinking.

PhD students and postdocs are the working class of academic research and paid accordingly. Although postgraduates are crucial to the generation, discussion and dissemination of knowledge, 50% pay (i.e half of what they deserve) is standard for PhDs in natural sciences and not even guaranteed in the arts and humanities.

It's depressing to think that the overall salary of a PhD candidate is less than the cost of much lab equipment. Lab devices are meant to last years - but, hell, what about the work of PhD students in a system where knowledge is incremental?

There could be several reasons for this discrepancy. Equipment and consumables are costly and have a substantial impact on future budget setting.

The number of PhDs, meanwhile, is inflated and international competition is fierce. PhD candidates are earning a degree, which shouldn't come for free, and demands motivation and not a little self-denial - including financially.

PhD candidates are at their infancy in science and being trained to do something different from their education to date - lessons in theory combined with practical labwork - as they move into more independent, innovative research.

And contributing to the advancement of knowledge requires a certain naive idealism, right? But does this mean it's okay to exploit highly educated individuals (probably heavily in debt)? No.

The possible solutions are simple. The most obvious is: raise the salary of PhD students. A remedy for the resulting scarcity of resources would be stricter selection so that only the best candidates started a PhD.

Realistically though, this is never going to happen. It's not because policymakers are greedy but because it would mean a reduction of PhDs and thus a slowdown of science.

A second option wouldn't hinder research, and might even enhance it: cut the salary of professors by half. If there are solid reasons for PhDs being paid half of what they deserve, then the same hold good for professors. They too are doing something different from their previous jobs.

After tenure, natural scientists move out of the lab and into an office from where they supervise the research of their team members. The knowledge acquired before (both theoretical and practical) still counts, but the job looks quite different.

Political and managerial skills are equally essential, and nurtured for the sake of tenure, not science.

Top-tier staff write proposals, manage funds and coordinate subaltern research units and are sometimes scarcely involved with the generation, presentation and discussion of results which is the core purpose of science.

Some department chairs merely take note of advancements generated from the institutes they preside over, but co-author papers nonetheless.

Wages of these academic administrators, then, don't deserve to sit even at 50%. And however grim this may sound to today's professors and those postdocs close to a permanent role, the benefits might appeal to future professors much more.

Reduction in salaries for tenured staff will create new professorial appointments and reduce the imbalance between the number of temporary researchers and professors, while smaller research units will favour better supervision of PhD candidates and reduce fixed costs.

Today's professors probably already earn too little, after so many years of being underpaid. As one reader wrote in response to that Economist article: "The PhD student is someone who forgoes current income in order to forgo future income."

But if some of the surplus resulting from a slash in professorial salaries flowed down to PhDs and postdocs, then entry level professors would be put in a better financial position.

In this light, cuts to science funding (like those we have seen recently in the US) could be an opportunity. Will they slow down scientific advancement? Most probably, yes.

But here is a chance for the elite to rethink the way science is done and stop placing merit only on the levels of grant money they gain, the papers they publish, and the prestige they acquire, but instead taking a closer look at the predicament of those who prop this community up.

Advocates of competition see it as a positive outcome of the current shortage of funding and resources. But to defend job insecurity as the main incentive to scientific advancement is offensive.

Science would benefit more from a harmonious coexistence of its members than by favouring ruthless competition.

Jorge Cham, creator of the wittily depressing PhD Comics series, revealed that a major motivation for his sketches was to give solace to fellow PhDs struggling as he did through their postgraduate years.

He interprets the acronym as piled higher and deeper. You might think of the paper bulk on your desk, but I believe he had something else in mind.

PhD actually stands for philosophiae doctor, or doctor of philosophy. As we say in my native Italian: prendila con filosofia (take it easy, take it as it comes). And waiting for a change in the current system, or for a global PhD manifesto to emerge, one cannot take it any other way.

This blog was written by a current PhD student in Italy
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