For grad school, run away from the PhD

Originally published in the Stanford Daily as part of a column series known as Adventures in Academia that explored issues related to the Stanford University community.

The leaves are turning colors, and the rain has already begun to fall. It is autumn again at Stanford, and that means another admissions season is about to begin for seniors not quite ready to move on to the “working” world.

One of the degrees available is the doctor of philosophy, or PhD, commonly the highest degree attainable in a field. The degree uniquely forces its candidates to become world experts on a highly defined subject. There is also a darker side to this degree that few universities wish to discuss: the PhD is a disaster, and little evidence exists that the situation will improve in the near term.

Last week, I wrote a column deploring the trend of America’s best students leaving careers of invention and discovery for careers in consulting. An element underlining the problem is that strong candidates for PhD programs are choosing to pursue other options instead of more education. Knowingly or not, these students are making the right decision today.

After spending years in a doctorate program, graduates are offered few options on the academic job market. The doctorate is a research degree that prepares its candidates exclusively for research - a profession that takes place in few institutions outside of academia. Budget cuts have reduced the number of tenure-line positions, limiting potential positions to record lows.

The number of open positions for history doctorate holders, for example, is almost one for every five graduates, a trend seen across departments in the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. Even worse, once a graduate has failed at finding a position, search committees will often ignore that person for later openings, preferring newer graduates.

The PhD is lengthier than other degrees, and rightfully so. However, the time to degree has risen considerably, damaging the finances of students and increasing attrition rates.

I have talked to my peers about their expectations regarding the PhD. Most believed that a doctorate could be completed in four or five years. In reality, it is hard to find any program that can be completed in five years or less. According to a Council of Graduate Schools report, only 57% of doctoral candidates will graduate in ten years. The average length was eight years.

The time to degree is linked to the increasing workload of graduate students. Teaching more classes means less time for research and writing, delaying degree completion.

Some schools are changing. Princeton has prioritized lowering the PhD length, and Harvard has threatened to withhold admissions slots if too many of a department’s students are falling behind. Other institutions need similar reform.

Given the nature of academia, few graduates make fat salaries upon graduation. Loans being impractical, funding is an important consideration for graduate work. While Stanford and peer institutions offer generous packages to ensure the financial health of its students, most schools cannot. Financing a degree entails teaching multiple classes a quarter (extending the degree) or going into debt, a bad move. Too few students connect the financial dots of the doctorate.

Finally, the length of the degree coupled with a bleak employment market provides little encouragement to graduate. In fact, the attrition rate in doctoral programs is abysmal. In most fields, a fifth of students will leave by the fourth year, and that is only half way through the typical program.

If all of this sounds scary, it should. But with clarity and thoughtful questioning, the PhD does not have to be disastrous. Every field has schools that offer the support and administrative structure to ensure success. Finding these programs has to be a priority for any student considering a doctorate.

There are three questions to ask a potential program: the finishing rate, the time to degree, and the placement list. The finishing rate and time to degree indicates a department’s support for its graduate students. If more students are finishing and doing so faster, this likely means that they are better funded and have better advisers. It also avoids the trap of programs that specifically enroll more students only to cut them later on with comprehensive examinations.

The placement list may be the most important indication of the strength of a program. Considering the academic market, a program that places a high percentage of its graduates into tenure-track positions is an excellent sign of a strong program.

At this point, I want to particularly congratulate Duke for being among the most open universities regarding its doctorate programs. The school deserves special mention for publishing this information in a standardized format for all of its programs. Stanford should follow in their footsteps with similar transparency.

Choosing to pursue a doctorate is not a light decision considering that an entire decade may be used to complete it. While I cannot recommend a PhD for anyone, the right questions and mindset can do wonders in the search for the best program. Godspeed.