The Economist has labelled it a ‘waste of time’, and the prestigious science journal Nature has come out saying not only that the PhD needs major reform, but that we also have too many of them. As a result of government cutbacks, many of the major research councils in this country are significantly reducing the numbers of funded PhDs.
This is all very worrying given that pursuing a PhD is a popular choice amongst Oxford graduates. Within six months of graduating, approximately 13% of leavers are studying for a higher degree by research, and a further 16% are taking a taught postgraduate degree or diploma. Many of these will be doing a PhD, or will later go on to do one. But why do a PhD at all? There are plenty of reasons given for staying on to do research, the most popular being simply interest in the subject (89%). Others include: pursuing an academic career (44%), wanting to carry on being a student (22%), and to postpone job hunting (9%).
The latter two I can certainly relate to. Being a student is great, these are the best years of your life, so why not remain in the bubble for as long as possible? After all, the real world is a scary place when viewed from the ivory tower. Not only that, the jobs market has been extremely tough. I finished my degree at the height of the recession and was effectively credit-crunched out of a job. Furthermore, PhDs get paid to be students, and there are no exams.
So, even though I despise doing experiments, I decided to apply to Oxford for a PhD. The scholarship I went for was competitive, 9 applicants per place, but this pales in comparison to the graduate job market, where there were 45 applications per job in 2010.
Most PhD students, myself included, start out with lofty ambitions of winning a Nobel Prize, or at the very least publishing their research in top journals like Science or Nature. However, the reality is often starkly different. Once you’ve consigned your ambitions to the past, you can at least console yourself that you are getting paid. Typically, the stipend for funded PhDs in the Sciences range from about £12,000 – £20,000 per year tax-free (researching cancer gets you more than insect mating rituals). It sounds appealing, but most PhD students have to work hard to achieve decent results: 60-hour weeks are common. When you work it out, it involves getting paid minimum wage for performing highly skilled, cutting-edge research.
I’ve also heard horror stories of PhD supervisors refusing to allow their students to graduate so they can effectively keep them on as unpaid or low-paid ‘slave-labour’, and of supervisors that are so incompetent that they allow bright students to fail. Certainly, the choice of research group and supervisor are crucial, and their quality is highly variable, even in a world-class institution like Oxford. Even if you get into a decent group, there’s no guarantee that all your effort will amount to anything. I recently overheard a post-doctoral researcher consoling a PhD student who was on the verge of dropping out because he had spent three years working day and night and had no publications or even any meaningful results to show for it.
A PhD doesn’t even add any value to your future salary if you already have a Masters. Both Masters and Doctoral graduates typically earn significantly more three and a half years into their careers than their undergraduate degree counterparts, but the difference between the two is negligible. Nor are people with PhDs any happier with their jobs six to ten years after graduating than those without. It is also incredibly difficult to make a successful career in academia, as the hierarchy is very narrow (it has been likened to a Ponzi, or ‘Profzi’, scheme).
Even though the pay is pitiful, the hours long, and the career prospects abysmal, a PhD can be incredibly rewarding. There is nothing more exciting than making a scientific discovery, finding out something that nobody in the world knew before you came along, a genuine ‘Eureka’ moment. I’ve also been fortunate to teach undergraduate tutorials, engaging with students who have a real interest in their subject (when not hungover from Park End). Overall I’ve loved every minute of my time at Oxford, and coming here to do a PhD was more than worth it.