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Recruiting PhD students

by Michael Nielsen on October 6, 2003

How ethical/sensible is it to take on large numbers of PhD students?

The question has been on my mind, as my last week was spent helping organize a “Postgraduate information and recruitment day”, with the event itself held last Friday.

We brought eight potential PhD students from outside UQ into the Department of Physics, and gave them lots of chances to mix with the various research groups.

It was a fun day for all, and hopefully we’ll end up with some great new PhD students as a result.

It also returned to the forefront of my mind some ethical questions about taking on PhD students.

Traditionally, PhD degrees in many of the Arts and Sciences have focused almost entirely on preparation for a career in academic research or teaching.

(Incidentally, much of what I say below does not apply to professional postgraduate degrees, such as are found in many Engineering and Business Departments, which often have a substantial focus on the so-called real world.)

The stereotypical “ultimate success” story in such degrees is of the PhD student who writes lots of papers and becomes a bigshot Professor, with many students of their own.

Conversely, there is a slight stigma associated with people who don�t get postdoctoral positions (or, similarly, postdocs who don�t get tenure-track positions, and so on up the chain), who leave to go into industry, or who leave their field altogether. A not unusual presumption is that a person who does this has �failed�. People speak of it with regret, with pity, or, surprisingly often, with disapproval or even scorn.

Of course, the bigshot Professors typically have many PhD students, sometimes as many as dozens over a career. As a result, either the number of academic positions needs to expand at an incredible rate � which it did for several decades after World War II (perhaps the reason for our current culture), but is not doing any longer – or a heck of a lot of students are going to �fail� according to now-current criteria.

This, in my opinion, is an appalling situation. What can be done about it?

As I see it, there are two broad options. The first option is to change the culture so that �success� for a PhD student is redefined in an expanded way. The second option is to greatly reduce the number of PhD students.

I�ll talk briefly about how each of these options might be taken, before making a comparison. The pictures I paint are perhaps somewhat unrealistic, partially because of the brevity, and partially because of my incomplete knowledge. Nonetheless, I think the pictures I sketch here might serve as a useful basis for improving the PhD experience.

How might we expand the definition of success for PhD students?

Imagine that each semester PhD students are given the option of working, one day per week, as consultants on a variety of real-world projects, for real companies.

A student who spends perhaps two or three semesters so engaged might work on five or six such projects, and might make 20-30 contacts at a dozen or more companies.

Such students would get a good sense for how their skills may be applied in the real world, and for much they�d enjoy doing such work, as compared with research. They�d gain confidence that they can succeed in such an environment. Perhaps most important, they�d gain a sense that they can go out and get themselves jobs � and they�d have a starting list of contacts to help them get jobs.

I believe such a consulting scheme would have the further benefit of greatly reducing the stigma associated with not going on with a career in basic research. The people doing postdocs and searching for faculty posts would be doing so fully informed of the alternatives available to them. In short they�d be making a conscious choice to take the academic route. This would both reduce the number of people searching for academic positions, and improve the quality of life for all involved.

A variety of objections may be raised to such a consulting scheme.

Could such a consulting scheme be operated across all disciplines?

In some disciplines, such a consulting scheme could almost certainly be operated. I�ve never consulted, but am reliably informed that a lot of consulting work is available for physicists, if one knows who to talk too.

What about other disciplines? Certainly, in many disciplines it is easy to see such schemes being practical. Mathematics, chemistry, biology and economics, for example, should all offer ample opportunities.

Other disciplines might be more difficult. It is not so obvious what consulting opportunities would be available to PhD students studying mediaeval history, or the romance languages. Nonetheless, such students often have fine writing, communication and analytic skills � skills that are in high demand. It is possible � though I don�t know � that consulting opportunities could be organized for such students. If not, then I have few suggestions to make, other than to reduce the number of PhD students in such programs. This option is described in more detail below.

Won�t such a consulting scheme distract the students?

Most Universities currently allow their students to work 1-2 days per week as tutors or teaching assistants. If they gave them the option of working as tutors / teaching assistants or doing consulting, but not both, this ought to alleviate any difficulties with distraction.

Won�t this leave too few tutors or teaching assistants to teach into Departmental courses?

This might be a problem, but could easily be alleviated, perhaps by restricting the pool of students allowed to engage in the consulting work � perhaps only second year PhD students would be allowed to do it.

Won�t it be much more financially attractive for students to consult than to tutor?

It might. On the other hand, a portion of the consulting fee might be used to increase rates for tutors, in order to achieve pay parity.

Who would organize the consulting?

If the Department takes a small percentage of the total consulting fees paid, then they ought to be able to pay somebody, at least part time, to co-ordinate the consulting program.

Might a Department end up exploiting their PhD students to make lots of money?

This would be something to guard against. You could imagine a horror situation where the primary role of grad students in some exploitative Departments is to engage in consulting jobs to fund faculty research. A way of preventing this would be to put severe restrictions on how income raised from consulting could be spent. It might be restricted to spending, for example, on improving student conditions, such as offices, travel, and access to computer equipment.

The other option for improving the PhD experience identified earlier is to reduce the number of PhD students. How might this be achieved?

This is a more difficult option to act on directly, because it is bound up with high-level institutional issues. (Unless, of course, one has a lot of influence at the highest levels! I�m taking the perspective of an individual faculty member here.)

Many Universities, certainly in Australia, but also around the world, provide significant incentives � both carrot and stick � to increase the number of PhD students. For example, Department, School, Faculty and University-wide funding is often directly linked to the number of PhD students. This leads to considerable pressure on individual academics to take large numbers of PhD students.

Combined with these institutional incentives, of course, is the natural desire that many academics have to create large and vibrant groups of their own.

For these reasons, my inclination is to work the other end, concentrating on changing the culture so that PhD students are given the opportunity to voluntarily engage in a small amount of non-academic work.

This leaves a final challenge, which is what to do in those fields where there is little demand for the services of PhD candidates, outside of an academic context. In that case I think the difficulties are far more formidable, and will require difficult long-term transformations, in both faculty and institutional attitudes and funding models, so that large research groups are not seen as an unalloyed good, but rather where the decision to take PhD students is made extremely carefully and cautiously.

From → General

  1. I am intrigued about your statement about PhD graduates that leave academia as having “failed”.

    I have never felt that leaving the university environment would constitute a failure on anyone’s behalf. In fact, I thought that many people would consider this to be a wise option – “those idiots! They think they are so clever and yet they stick with an overworked, underpaid career!”
    I personally considered several options at the end of my PhD, and had several job interviews with firms keen to employ me.

    Where does this stigma come from? Because I think it is very sad, and far from reality.

    I do agree with your ideas. In fact, I strongly believe that there are many people that simply take on a postdoctoral position because they have no better idea about what to do with their lives. It is simply the next step on from a PhD.

    Having said that, I would still strongly encourage people to study for a PhD in physics if they have even a moderate amount of interest, and even if they don’t think a career in academia is for them. My own experience suggests that you learn a lot from it that can be very valuable in the outside world.

    Oxford University ran a scheme where they arranged week long placements in local businesses in order to give them an idea of what life in the outside world was like. Unfortunately the firm that I was set up with simply wanted me to do some programming from home, so I refused the placement! But others had positive experiences – and ended up doing some consulting work for the same firms at later dates. I think something along these lines would be very valuable for graduate students.

  2. Matt: “I am intrigued about your statement about PhD graduates that leave academia as having “failed”.”

    I certainly hope my essay doesn’t read as if I think that way. Quite the opposite!

    I’m pleased to hear Oxford had such a great program going, and that your experience was rather different than the picture I paint.

    Nonetheless, I do think that, to a substanial extent, the prevailing culture in physics PhD programs is that “success” means getting further jobs in academia.

    (Some related points are made in a striking way by the normally mild-mannered Berkeley economist Brad DeLong at More general comments in this vein may be found at

    My own experience is that this point of view is manifest, rather subtly, in the way some people will talk about people who’ve left physics. Rarely are any overtly disapproving remarks made, but the general tone is often (though certainly not always!) slightly disapproving or regretful.

    Less subtly, a lot of students nearing the end of their PhD will say odd things like “I’m off to sell my soul”, as though getting a job outside of academia is somehow a lesser pursuit!

    Interestingly, in the CS and EE Departments I’ve spent time in, I’ve heard far less of this type of comment. Yeah, some of the students want to continue in academic careers. But those PhD students going off to the “real world” generally seem far less embarassed about it than do many physics students.

  3. Matthew Davis permalink

    Oops, I should have read that before hitting the post button. I didn’t mean to attribute that opinion to you, but just the fact that you mentioned it in your writing! My apologies!

  4. OK, I’ll take a bit of an elitest stand (even if I don’t agree with the stand). You say “The second option is to greatly reduce the number of PhD students.” Of course, the justification for the large number of PhD students, from an academic point of view, is that a large pool is needed because it is not clear from a pre-PhD career whether the candidate will be an good professor. Thus having a large pool is really a necessity for the existence of an elitest academic system. That being said, I do not know whether this system is functioning in an any sort of efficient manner. Perhaps studies of the times when the supply-demmand curve floped (post WWII) would give some insight on the optimal number of PhD students (side question related to the elitist hypothesis: did the post WWII glut lead to a degradation in the quality of work?)

    Anyway while I really like both of your solutions, I think the second one will be harder to break due to the elitist pressures. Adding to this, are the pressures you mentioned of funding based on PhD program size, APS celebrating any increase in the number of PhD’s, etc.

  5. Sara permalink

    Well, there’s a certain “academia” outcome associated with doing a PhD in some way or other. So _not_ doing that after a PhD might imply that something has gone wrong. Hence the disapproval. Or whatever Michael called it.

    I’ve just left academia. And I feel great with that decision.

    Wrt the responsibility of an institution about taking on PhD students: People at that stage are old enough to be responsible for what they’re doing. They should be able to do their own industry internships or whatever it takes. And normally there’s a fair number of former colleagues out there who can give hints and share experiences on “changing careers” and the so-called “real world”, too. Somehow it seems wrong that institutions should offer all the alternatives. Maybe universities should just be honest about what a PhD does for the prospective students, and what it won’t do. In a way, that would be putting the PhD and university in its place as being one of many options of things to do after some sort of other degree. And then after the PhD there is a whole new set of options again: Postdoc, “real world”, teaching, whatever.

    On a practical note: One day a week seems a bit an odd way of doing it. Something like a three months placement would probably be a better idea, as it would allow the company to actually get someone to work on a reasonable project.

  6. Andrew Doherty permalink

    I was really interested (for not entirely selfless reasons) by your comments on the ethics of taking on Ph.D students.

    I agree that it would be great for students to be able to take a broader view of their opportunities after a Ph.D. It seems to me that there are cultural issues both inside and outside academia that lead to this perception that leaving academia after a Ph.D is at least a second choice if not a failure. It is not just academic snobbery that is at issue but also the ‘real world”s view of Ph.Ds.
    I also suspect that there may be some variation from country to country in the pervading notion of the usefulness or otherwise of a Ph.D outside academia.

    One issue you touched on is the existence of specific demand for Ph.Ds in particular fields. Could it be that the situation in CS is driven by the large numbers of research jobs in industry that essentially require Ph.D’s in that field? As you say this is far from always the case across disciplines. More relevant is the existence of opportunities where the broader skills developed in Ph.D research are sought. My impression of graduating Ph.Ds here at Caltech is that the ones that want to investigate careers in government or consulting for example do not find it hard to get started. In fact there are many programs designed to get science Ph.Ds involved in policy for example. And as Matt attests I have similar impressions of places like Oxford in the UK. On the other hand all the advice I had in New Zealand was that if I wanted to get out of academia I should get out at the end of a four year degree since anything else would be considered overspecialised. So that period of generalized graduate recruiting seems to be shorter in the Antipodes (I have no evidence that is true of course, although it is consistent with my other impressions, and no idea how true this is in Australia).

    In public life in the US it is very common to see people moving in and out of academia (there is at least one prominent example in the current administration for example). This is not confined to the sciences either (dare I say it Newt Gingrich is a historian). It would be great to see similar things happening in Australia and New Zealand. But I think that would take people both inside and outside academia beginning to regard Ph.Ds as useful preparation for more than just academic research and more than just industrial research in the areas of study. Maybe your idea of encouraging students to get involved in some ‘real world’ work would help broaden the perspective of both sides.

    Another thing that occurs to me is that jobs in academia often rely on the contacts of the supervisor. Finding challenging work outside academia for Ph.D students during or after their degrees is unlikely to be different and would probably be greatly facilitated if academics maintained more ties to government and industry. Certainly in the US academics often have those contacts with people out in the ‘real world’ so that they are in a position to promote the careers of their students looking to leave academia. Perhaps a related fact is that academics in the US are often encouraged to take on a variety of consulting roles as a supplement to their 9 month salary. (Although this is of course in no way an endorsement of the concept of the 9 month salary moving to academic systems outside the US!:)

  7. I think you ask an important question. The line that separates academia and the “real world” is constantly reinforced in the academic culture but I believe it’s easier to cross than it appears from within. More Ph.D. students should get prepared to cross it. I’ve pointed to a text by Alex Pang on that topic here:

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