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The Value of a PhD: Waste of Time or Way of Life

Aravind Iyer at graduation

A correspondent of The Economist wrote an article in 2010, entitled ”The Disposable Academic: Why doing a PhD is often a waste of time”. I myself came across it recently when it was republished a couple of months ago at Medium and garnered renewed interest in social media and discussions with friends. Perhaps you should read it, in case you haven’t done so before. It is thought-provoking and raises questions about the role of a PhD in society, lack of employment opportunities in the academic domain, the difficulty that PhDs face in crossing over to the industry, and the lack of a significant salary premium over a lower degree. As a PhD myself, the cynical tone of the article did not sit well with me. Naturally, I am tempted to respond.

It was Oscar Wilde who defined a cynic as one “who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing”. Taking cue from him, it has also been proposed that a romantic is one “who knows the value of everything but the price of nothing”, a person of fine taste and perhaps much self-importance who trusts his own sense of judgement over and above any monetary valuation.

An academic, if I may take the liberty, is one who is some where between a cynic and a romantic, as skeptical in her rigour to analyse and test, as she is open-minded in proposing a new idea. While academics are certainly not immune to existential questions about their tribe, I doubt if many academics worry too much about being “disposable”, in the manner argued by the Economist correspondent.

Sure, it must be acknowledged that academics or those with a PhD degree constitute a minority in the working population. In fact, for every PhD awarded, about 10 Masters and 25 Bachelors degrees are awarded each year in the US. Being part of a minority brings with it the associated problems. If so few are PhDs, then it can be understandably difficult for the majority to understand what a PhD is and what kind of skills and values they bring to the table. This perhaps reflects in employment opportunities for PhDs being relatively specialised and therefore scarce. Again, the data on earnings seems to suggest that in proportion to the extra time spent for getting a higher degree, a Masters degree may be more worthwhile than a PhD.

But that is only half the story. Being an academic is not merely a career choice where you earn a PhD and then are restricted to working in a university or a government laboratory, or in the industry, if you successfully cross over. Being an academic is a way of life, a perspective through which you choose to look at the world. Getting a PhD is the most common way to learn to be an academic, but it is possible to cultivate the academic mindset without one.

Here is a list of values which I think constitute an academic mindset:

Teach yourself anything.

It is almost a job requirement for an academic to be an auto-didact. Pardon the grandiose term, but it has been argued that most learning is self-directed, and a teacher merely plays the role of a shepherd who suggests possible directions to study further. An academic earns her PhD in precisely this environment. She is therefore comfortable with space and time, and does not need to be provided constant instructions whenever she encounters a stumbling block or a lot of unstructured free time. She is not daunted by anything whether it is math or code or a vast body of existing knowledge or a vacuum where precious little is known. She can teach herself anything.

Propose as a romantic. Dispose as a cynic.

An academic is one who can wear different hats as the situation demands, switching from being sympathetic to being a skeptic. The contrast is best understood in how an academic approaches a research paper, the currency of academic endeavour. While reviewing one, an academic has to be a cynic and make every logical attempt possible at rejecting the paper. But while writing one, an academic has to have a certain belief and enthusiasm in her work so that she can articulate her new findings in the best way possible. She can propose as a romantic and dispose as a cynic.

Value money, but don’t be its slave.

Academics are just like everyone else in wanting a comfortable life with a good standard of living. So naturally they value money and many of them have a pretty literate financial perspective. But the aspirations of an academic are not determined by the number of zeros at the end of their net worth. Rather they are more interested in advancing the frontier of knowledge and technology. Building their wealth is not their primary pursuit, but one which enables them in furthering what society knows and can do. Academics value money, but tend not to be its slave.

Wield power through ideas and not position.

What does it mean to be ambitious? Some say that being ambitious means striving for advancement even at the cost of discomfort. But what is the advancement in aid of? I think anyone who is ambitious aspires to a greater ability to influence and impact people around them. Some may feel that a higher position in society or in a company would place them on that pedestal of influence. But academics ultimately believe in the power of ideas. They aspire to influence by virtue of them being right rather than simply being in the right place. They wield power through ideas and not position.

All right, maybe these values are aspirational and difficult to translate into practice, even for the best of academics. Neither is it the exclusive domain of academics to aspire to and practise these values. But when you pursue self-directed research for years in the quest of earning a PhD, while peers may gain wealth and position with perhaps less rigour and learning, I think the academic has already shown plenty of faith in these values.

Yes, the cynics are often right. As with so many things, the PhD degree may well come to be disposable with better methods and standards of education and training taking its place, ones which might even confer a higher incremental salary on its recipients. But the academic mindset is invaluable for society, and it’s not going away any time soon.