Ongoing debate about the utilty of a science PhD

Because those of us working toward (or recently attaining) a PhD are far too optimistic and carefree, there’s an interesting conversation going on about whether it’s all worth it (the first it referring to seeking and obtaining a PhD in “science”).

It all started out with a story in the Washington Post came out in July. It points out the contradiction in the much-touted scientist shortage and the apparent difficulty scientists are having in actually finding jobs. It seems that fewer people in life and other sciences are ending up heading labs in traditional academic posts. Instead, the article bemoans the many years spent in post-doc positions, which defer compensation for yet another half-decade or so. It also points out how many people end up doing something that is only tangentially related to what they spent 7+ years studying.

Of course, there wouldn’t be so many science PhDs (and graduate students) if there weren’t some upside, so an article in Slate came out on Friday arguing that getting a science PhD isn’t as bad as it’s made to seem. While not arguing that we won’t all get to be tenured professors at major research universities, the author points out the very low unemployment rate (1.7%) among science PhDs. Part of this he attributes to the broader range of synergistic skills one acquires during the graduate school process, most of which are desirable traits in an employee. Just this morning, the Science careers blog got in on the action, trashing in true scientific fashion the Slate article’s limited use of data.

So the next time you’re looking at a pile of raw data or hunting for a missing sample and wondering whether this is all worth it, at least you can take comfort in knowing it’s the type of complex open question that grad students get to work on.