Monday, August 23, 2010

What is a degree worth?

There were a lot of interesting points in the comments of my last post from Dr. G, Hope, and GMP about the value of a PhD, and of higher education in general. I agree with the sentiments expressed by all three that in an ideal world, all PhD candidates would be trained to be scholars to the same standards, regardless of where they started from or plan to end up.

But reality is a lot messier than that. There are many pressures that support the admission of "unqualified" students to grad school, including state funding per student, the need for warm bodies as TAs or RAs, or the desire to grow a program. There are more spots (at least in my STEM field) than truly qualified applicants. Students with good recommendations, great grades, and research experience are admitted immediately, often without the whole admissions committee seeing the file. This doesn't fill up our whole program.

There are two kinds of "unqualified" that we will consider admitting--students with mediocre to poor grades, but great research experiences/recommendations and students with mediocre grades from well regarded programs (students with mediocre grades from unknown programs are just not admitted). The first group are often students who had to work a lot in school, students with learning issues (like diagnosed or undiagnosed dyslexia), or students who had to learn English while undergrads in an English language program.

The second group is full of students who got into a good undergrad program and then coasted and directionless students. Some of these students will be late bloomers, and be wonderful grad students--that is the case for one of my collaborators. In this case, the student had pretty poor grades from a pretty good undergrad program (which was used as an excuse for admission). The poor grades were clearly due to lack of effort, since this student discovered true passion for the field in their senior year as an undergrad, and excelled in research as a grad student. Alas, this is generally the exception and not the rule. The result is a department full of mediocre, poorly motivated, and difficult students with a few gems that are heavily sought after.

A huge additional problem for faculty members is the quality of the BS degree (which is no fault of the students, to be sure). As GMP said,

Another issue is the complete devaluation of the BS degree. It's become almost what a high-school degree used to be 30 years ago. Now you can't do almost anything without a BS; also, in order for everyone to get a BS, it has become watered down, with emphasis on breadth rather than depth, so basically all in depth technical training is now deferred to grad school.

When I was a grad student, I and my fellow US-educated students noticed how far ahead technically the European and Asian students were than we were. We had all received good grades, and did well in our programs, but the emphasis on liberal arts meant there was a lot less time for core instruction in the details of our field. This is a mixed blessing--several of my European colleagues are jealous that they never got to take classes in history, literature, or art (which I thoroughly enjoyed myself). On the other hand, I lacked a lot of depth in my field. This causes a few problems down the line. First, incoming students must be treated as if they have limited technical knowledge and skills at best, which means lots of training for people running labs. Second, lots of people don't really know/understand what the field is really like, which leads to a relatively high attrition rate of people abandoning their programs after a year or two.

This devaluation of the BS degree means that the MS and PhD have followed suit. Since the BS students are coming in with less knowledge, more of the PhD has to be spent on bringing them up to speed and less on more advanced training. We also don't want PhD training to last more than 5 years or so. Given that a fair fraction of the admitted students are less qualified, and that we want to maintain the value of degrees in our department, we end up tailoring expectations and experiences of the PhD to the students' end goals. Otherwise, too many would not make it through.

Personally, I will not grant a PhD to anyone not capable of doing PhD-level technical work, but I can already see that some of my students will be better than others at things like writing (papers and proposals), idea generation, working independently and other scientific skills. The department has a line in the sand to get a degree, but in practice, this is worked out by the PhD committee. What are the requirements of a PhD scientist? How can we make uniform standards for people with uneven skills? As a committee member, it is really, really hard to see someone working hard who will not make it. Sometimes, it isn't apparent until the student has been around for a while. I am a replacement committee member for someone on the bubble (who had been in our program for 3-4 years), and it is really difficult.

And what about my standards? Should I not allow a brilliant researcher who writes poorly in English to graduate? What about someone who is wonderful at scholarship in general, but is weak at generating new research ideas? These people would be valuable assets in the right position, but will never be successful faculty members because they are good scientists, but not necessarily good scholars. They have PhD level training and PhD level skills in some aspects of science. Do we restrict PhDs only to people who are capable of TT-like positions? I don't think there is an easy answer.


22 comments:

Dr.Girlfriend said...

What about someone who is brilliant at analyzing data, proposing experiments, and making connections with the literature, but has poor technical skills?

I believe a PhD should be much more than remembering facts, repeating protocols, and generating data. It should demonstrate the ability to connect and communicate and contribute novel ideas to the field.

Too many PhD students are handed projects and "instructed" by their PIs, rather than being mentored through the process of experimental design, trouble-shooting, and approach.

I feel that the ability to propose, evaluate, and communicate research is far more important than good technical skills in a PhD. I believe grad students and postdocs should be expected to write first draft of their first author papers - this defines the difference between a technician and a PhD.

I am not trying to undermine the value of a good technician, but a PhD should not be training people to DO experiments, but to THINK about experiments.

I think PhD degree should be restricted to individuals demonstrating the ability to lead research projects and contribute intellectually. The postdoc should simply lack experience, not be incapable of self-directing her own research programs.

10-20 years from now, the bench techniques I learnt in grad school will likely be obsolete and of no use to me. However, the kind of thinking expected of a PhD is what is truly transferable.

prodigal academic said...

Dr. G, see here's the thing. When I started just a year ago, I thought like you. That a PhD should be capable of thinking about science, leading projects, designing experiments, and analyzing data. That technical skills were of limited use in the future, and therefore less important. All of this is true for basic researchers. But then I ran up against the reality of who applies to grad school in my field, and where most of them go (industry).

For many of the types of industry positions (especially non-research ones) in development or quality control), it is the technical skills, teaching of technical skills, and rapid learning of new technical skills that is sought after.

In the olden days, companies hired people straight out of BS degrees for some of this. With the current devaluation of BS degrees, they look higher on the food chain.

Dr.Girlfriend said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dr.Girlfriend said...

"In the olden days, companies hired people straight out of BS degrees for some of this. With the current devaluation of BS degrees, they look higher on the food chain."

I still do not think the answer is to devalue the PhD.

The fact that a PhD is not required to perform a job should not be a reason to award PhDs to those who have have not earned them.

If you lower the bar for people who just want to be technicians, supervisors, and trainers, how do you select for group leaders? Will the postdoc morph into a formal qualification - a "super-PhD" for those wanting leadership positions in industry and academia?

A BS graduate might need to be taught a new technique, whereas a PhD should be proactive in their own training and able to modify exiting protocols or develop new ones. As it stands, a grad student can get away with thinking and working like a technician for 7-8 yrs and walk away with a PhD. Why not just give PhDs all technicians after 10 yrs post-BS service and be done with it?

GMP said...

Prodigal, great post! I think you summed up the relevant issues very nicely.

@Dr.G: This is no longer your (proverbial) grandfather's PhD: way less selective on the incoming end, way more focused on teaching skills vs teaching how to think (due to low incoming skill level), and way more necessary for employment outside academia in many fields.

The bright deep thinkers who can go on to advance science are highly sought after as grad students, but they are a rarity rather than the norm (except at top 5 schools).

Hope said...

There are more spots (at least in my STEM field) than truly qualified applicants.

Wow, I can’t imagine this being the case at any of the schools with which I’m intimately familiar. Did you know that was the situation in your dept. before you took the job?

I don’t think that the devaluation of the BS has anything to do with breadth requirements, or that it’s that hard to “make uniform standards for people with uneven skills.” Presumably, you do the latter every time you teach a course, no? The problem, as you yourself acknowledge, is that standards take a back seat to filling the uni coffers and generating data for PI’s.

I suppose that we all have to decide when to compromise our ethics and when to stand firm. That’s why I kind of admire Harris – she made a decision to stop participating in unethical behavior (according to her) and acted on it in a very public way. I wish more faculty would use the protection that tenure affords them and try to change the system when they can clearly see where it’s broken.

prodigal academic said...

Hope, I suspect it is the same at the schools you are familiar with, you just don't know the details. From talking to other faculty, the situation is the same even at Top-5 schools. There are people admitted to the PhD program who will never learn to run research projects, and they are granted PhDs. There is no way to know this from the undergrad record, unless the person has an unusual research track record for an undergrad.

We have good students in my program. The fraction of students capable of PhD-level work (designing experiments, running research and doing analysis) is high. It is just not 100%. And many of those who are technically capable, but not capable of running a research program will still get PhDs, and they will get good, well paying jobs in industry because of their PhDs.

prodigal academic said...

I should add that not all of the "unqualified" students going in are not capable of PhD-level work. Many of the students in the first category (mediocre grades because they worked a lot/learned English while taking classes in English/have learning disabilities) are good students and go on to do great work in research. It is just that they come in behind in advanced knowledge and technical skills, and have to spend correspondingly more of a percentage of their PhD time on those things.

Dr.Girlfriend said...

Unfortunately it is hard to find a good postdoc because a PhD does not mean a whole lot. Neither does a strong publication record.

All a PhD really says is "this person can do benchwork and generate data for a PI".

There seems to be more permanent non-leadership positions in industry, where a highly qualified PhD-level technician can find a niche. I believe the PhD should say "this person can write a research paper, technical paper, and a competitive research proposal".

Academic science is very competitive, but not getting tenure does not mean you are not worthy or your PhD - simply that there is not enough faculty positions and funding. In fact, if you do not like teaching, academia is not a good career choice.

The PhD is becoming a more vocational qualification, and that is not necessarily a bad thing except that it only emphasizes technical skills. Rather than just teaching a set syllabus, a PhD should be able to design and implement a course.

Why does industry not implement its on training programs where industry leaders, rather than academics, set the bar and requirements?

GMP said...

Why does industry not implement its on training programs where industry leaders, rather than academics, set the bar and requirements?

Well that is a very good question.
You have plenty of (moslty worhtless, mostly online) colleges where an attempt to do this is done – “we'll teach you all about what you need in the real world, none of that useless broader education stuff.” I would never send my kid to any of those, for any degree.

Citizen's abhorrence of taxes (that could help education for instance) and policies that align with low taxes have hurt many public facets, including public universities. Also, students expect to pay low tuition because they feel they are entitled to cheap education because they pay taxes (true, but money goes elsewhere). Corporatization of the US universities is a reality because it is a necessity. The funding climate is what it is. Expecting university faculty to somehow uphold idealistic standards, even if there is no money for the university basic operations without industry input, is cruel, hypocritical, and deluded.

Prodigal provided a very accurate description of the university funding milieu and PhD student quality in academia now. These constraints are systemic and cross-disciplinary. Faculty have very little power to change these matters; they can either try to implement the most reasonable standards for training students within these constraints (which Prodigal, myself, and most other faculty do), or to self-destruct as Harris did.

There is no point in arguing what a PhD degree should ideally be or was once upon a time. We all lament these standards, but they are not coming back; a PhD is what it is today.

Hope said...

@PA: From talking to other faculty, the situation is the same even at Top-5 schools.

I don’t think so – I have friends who are faculty at Top-5 schools, too. How many unqualified applicants do you think MIT admitted last year? Not to mention that admitting someone who you thought might be qualified but later turns out not to be is very different from having to consistently pad your entering class because you don’t have enough qualified applicants.

We have good students in my program. The fraction of students capable of PhD-level work (designing experiments, running research and doing analysis) is high. It is just not 100%.

So which is it, PA? Because earlier you claimed that if you held everyone to the same high standards, very few would make it. Now you seem to be implying that most students would be able to perform at that level, just not 100% of them. I don’t see how a small fraction of an entering class being forced to withdraw because they just don’t have the chops would be a significant problem for the university in terms of funding or for a PI.


@Dr. Girlfriend: Why does industry not implement its on training programs where industry leaders, rather than academics, set the bar and requirements?

They do, Dr. G, they do. Many of the big industrial players have extensive in-house training programs that allow hires with a BS/MS to be promoted into positions that require more specialized skills. The idea that a PhD is the only way to get a high-paying job in industry is a myth.

prodigal academic said...

I'd guess that about 1/3 of our PhDs would not be capable of running a research program when they are done. That leaves at least 2/3 who are, which is a high fraction. It takes a TON of work to get them there--much more than I was expecting from a highly-ranked school like mine.

I don't know your field, Hope, but in mine (which is a service department) we need enough TAs to run labs for thousands of undergrads, with 1 TA per 24 students, and each TA taking 2 classes of 24. Our departmental policy is to try to get every admitted student a PhD or MS degree. This is not the case at many Top-20 schools in my field. I would say that at top schools, typical attrition rates are over 50%. At my PhD U program at least 50% of my cohort left without a degree. At higher ranked schools, the attrition rate is even higher. I do not believe that the faculty does not know that so many students won't make it in advance.

Some departments are notorious for this--they admit 50-60% more students than they will graduate, and this is deliberate. They simply admit unqualified students, let them work for 1-2 years as a TA, and then fail them on oral qualifying exams. Is this fair? Ethical? It is a standard practice, though, because it "protects" the value of a PhD without dealing with the underlying economics of University employment needs, and of course, exploiting vulnerable students.

I would much rather my ethical compromise than that one, which I have seen in action. The faculty would not say they are doing that, but I could see it as a student in my department, and this type of attrition rate is typical of many of the other schools I considered.

Where would you draw the line? When would you give up on a student? Let them work for 3-4 years hoping they learn how to think and then cut them out with nothing?

GMP said...

I know for a fact that even faculty at MIT and Stanford complain that a significant portion of admitted students are not capable of being successful PI's at an R1 university. Some are techically brilliant, but hopeless at public speaking or writing -- should those people not get PhD's? Being a faculty, like any job, comes with a lot of required skills, not all of them technical; and it requires a fair bit of luck. Tying a PhD to the prospect of getting a faculty position means no faculty should produce more than 1 or 2 PhD in their lifetime, if they are all supposed to only get tenure track positions at comparable institutions. If that were true, I assure you that most of us with PhD's, blogging away, would not even be given a chance to do a PhD at all.

Hope said...

I think that knowingly admitting unqualified students is wrong – period. Is it better to hand the unqualified student a PhD after 5 yrs than to kick them out after 2 with nothing? Perhaps … it’s certainly better for that particular student, although it does diminish the value of the PhD for the rest in that dept. OTOH, if you admit 50% more students than you plan to graduate, you are giving 50% more applicants a shot at earning a PhD. I bet that sometimes, it’s surprising who ends up sticking around.

Where would you draw the line? When would you give up on a student? Let them work for 3-4 years hoping they learn how to think and then cut them out with nothing?

I think a vigilant PI can probably decide sometime during the second year. I don’t think that asking someone to leave in year 3 with an MS is such a bad thing, considering the alternatives. Someone in my program was asked to do just that last year – and he already had an MS, so I guess this will be a 2nd degree for him in a slightly different field.

GMP said...

I think a vigilant PI can probably decide sometime during the second year. I don’t think that asking someone to leave in year 3 with an MS is such a bad thing, considering the alternatives.

I agree with this. With proper attention, a PI has a pretty good idea by end of year 1, if not sooner, if the student should pursue a PhD in the PI's group (fields where rotations are mandatory for a year or two before joing any PI's group obviously can take longer overall). Getting an MS is certainly a good course of action in that case -- a degree to show for the time put in.

Although, I must say that it sometimes happen s the student has it in him/her to become a successful scientist, but needs different mentoring or different type of project. For instance, a brilliant theoretical physicist may have been disastrous in the lab, and true potential revealed only after he/she fortuitously switched advisors and subfields... So I never tell a student "There is no way in hell you will ever be worthy of a PhD" but rather that they are not a good match for the group, that I recommend an MS at this tume, and that they should think hard about whether they really want to continue for a PhD and, if so, what other topics (in other groups) they think they would find inspiring. I also try to lay the options available after an MS. Some students will leave after an MS, some will try another advisor -- of these, however, more than 50% eventually leave without a PhD.

GamesWithWords said...

It seems pretty clear that there are only 2 ways of having consistent PhD standards: lower standards to the lowest common denominator or eliminate most PhD programs. There is simply a wide range in ability -- *nothing* can be done about the fact that the best students are few and far between. It's a little like complaining there aren't enough baseball stars for every team to be staffed only with stars. Clearly that's only possible if you narrow down the league to a couple teams.

GamesWithWords said...

I want to chime in to support Hope in the thread above. I'm had this disagreement with PA before. I doubt, in my field, that many people are admitted to the top programs without hope that they'll pan out. I doubt this mostly because almost everyone goes on to get a TT job (the majority at R1 schools).

This could be a difference between fields. Or PA could just be wrong. Since my field (psychology) is a matter of public record, it's easy to look through websites and confirm that what I'm saying is the case. Since we don't know what kind of work PA does, it's impossible to check her facts.

prodigal academic said...

I realize this is field-specific, but it is a matter of simple math. My PhDU department needed 90 TAs per semester to run all of its classes. Most grad students only TA 1, maybe 2 years. The department had ~30ish professors. If PhDU U takes in 50-60 students per year to staff the TA slots, there is no room for them in research groups. Even at a top-10 school, funding is not so good such that 30 profs can support 300 grad students (assuming they are there for 5 years, which is the low end average for my field), especially considering that most established research groups have several postdocs.

These numbers are not a-typical for a large (25,000+ undergrads) school. That means either taking more students than you know will go on (and leads to attrition rates of 50% or higher), or staffing TA slots with higher paid non-students.

GWW, I believe you that Psychology is different from my field, but you surely have read all the blogging by postdocs in Physics, Biology, Chemistry, various Engineering disciplines, and other STEMs about how impossible it is to find a TT job? Furthermore, in my field, a postdoc is required for a TT position. Everything gets "reset" by a postdoc--a grad student from Eastern Nowhere U who postdocs at MIT has a much better shot at a TT position than a grad student from MIT who postdocs at a lower ranked school. If Prof X at Eastern Nowhere U is a big deal in the field, then postdocs in the Prof X lab have a better chance than postdocs even at Top-3 schools who are in less famous groups. Yes, it is often easier to get a postdoc at a top ranked school/with a top group if you have a famous PhD advisor, but networking and productivity trump almost all. At Prodigal U, we don't care so much about pedigree--we look at overall productivity. After all, they hired me, and I came from outside of academia altogether! It just so happens that Top School have more resources, and that often leads to higher productivity. I'd be way more impressed by a string of Nature papers from someone at Eastern Nowhere U than from someone at Harvard.

prodigal academic said...

I should also say thanks all for the comments and interesting discussion! I appreciate all the different perspectives, and have definitely been given lots of food for thought.

GamesWithWords said...

I guess we're expected to TA at the same time as we do research. Though the notion of taking a "position" in a "research group" is somewhat foreign to my experience. It's not atypical for graduate students in the more competitive psychology programs to essentially run their own research programs.

I do hear people in the blogosphere talk about the difficulty of getting tenure-track jobs. But without knowing what school they're at or -- often enough -- what field they're in, it's hard to evaluate. Part of the discussion about was whether that's true at top-tier programs, and so such blog posts aren't data one way or another.

There's also the issue of defining top-tier. I tend to define it in terms of where you see a natural break in terms of job prospects. The top tier then are the schools where graduates almost always go on to tenure-track jobs (usually after a post-doc, though not always). If a tenure-track job isn't the norm, then the program is in some lower tier. I'd guess there are 10 schools in that top tier (give or take 5), which seems about right. The numbers are similar for Law School (actually, there's a considerable drop from the top 3 schools -- Stanford, Yale & Harvard -- to the next few, but generally being in the top 10 is a strong predictor of job market success, with a steep drop-off after that).

GamesWithWords said...

I should be clear that I was speaking about top-tier psych programs just now. I've been trying to find a lab or department in another field that will give me a list of alumni so I can see what their success rate was.

I found students listed for James Huang in the linguistics department at Harvard. I looked up his first 5 students before I got bored. All appear to be in academia now:

Enrique Mallen, Professor, Sam Houston State university
Jane Tang, Academia Sinica (like being a professor)
Jeong-Me Yoon, Professor?, Myongji University
Yoshida Tomoyuki, Professor, International Christian University (Tokyo)
Yang Gu, Professor, Chinese University of Hong Kong

It's hard to evaluate the quality of these positions, since they're mostly international. In the process I found that Cornell's linguistics department maintains a list of alumni. Of the oldest 13 listed, there were academic affiliations given for 11 of them. One of them I happen to know is a professor. I didn't look up the other one.

Of course, that's linguistics. I did that because that's where I was able to get information. I'd love it if someone else did a similar survey for some other field.

prodigal academic said...

GWW, I think it would be great to actually have hard data. I think things are really different in fields where there is a large demand for PhDs outside academia, since many students (even top ones) are interested in that career track.

In my field, many PhDs go on to postdocs, and then the schools "lose track". People who are industry focussed usually go right into industry after their degrees, but sometimes not. Many people do a postdoc and then move into industry, government, or science policy stuff in my field as well, so tracking postdocs is not a viable way to determine how many PhDs want TT jobs.

In terms of attrition rates for grad students in my field, looking at the data collected by a relevant scientific society for full time first year PhD students in 2002, 2003, and 2004 and then comparing that to the number of PhDs granted in 2007, 2008, 2009 (which includes part time students, so is an overcount), the minimum average attrition rate is 40% for PhD students. At PhD U, it was 50% (and everyone seemed to think this was normal).

Approximately 2500 people graduate in my field with PhDs every year, and the unemployment rate for PhD holders in my field is usually ~2%, (now ~4% in the current downturn). I have no idea how many TT jobs there are in a year, but I'd guess it is maybe 10% of the number of grads?

Super Famous Prof at Super Famous U had 300 alumni listed on his group site (he has had a long career), of whom ~15% are in TT positions. Many, many more (I didn't count them) are in industry. I don't know what all of this means, but it is data out there for my field. Most faculty don't post this info in an easily accessible format, so this data is hard to get (as you state).