About this Author
DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

Chemistry and Drug Data: Drugbank
Chempedia Lab
Synthetic Pages
Organic Chemistry Portal
Not Voodoo

Chemistry and Pharma Blogs:
Org Prep Daily
The Haystack
A New Merck, Reviewed
Liberal Arts Chemistry
Electron Pusher
All Things Metathesis
C&E News Blogs
Chemiotics II
Chemical Space
Noel O'Blog
In Vivo Blog
Terra Sigilatta
BBSRC/Douglas Kell
Realizations in Biostatistics
ChemSpider Blog
Organic Chem - Education & Industry
Pharma Strategy Blog
No Name No Slogan
Practical Fragments
The Curious Wavefunction
Natural Product Man
Fragment Literature
Chemistry World Blog
Synthetic Nature
Chemistry Blog
Synthesizing Ideas
Eye on FDA
Chemical Forums
Symyx Blog
Sceptical Chymist
Lamentations on Chemistry
Computational Organic Chemistry
Mining Drugs
Henry Rzepa

Science Blogs and News:
Bad Science
The Loom
Uncertain Principles
Fierce Biotech
Blogs for Industry
Omics! Omics!
Young Female Scientist
Notional Slurry
Nobel Intent
SciTech Daily
Science Blog
Gene Expression (I)
Gene Expression (II)
Adventures in Ethics and Science
Transterrestrial Musings
Slashdot Science
Cosmic Variance
Biology News Net

Medical Blogs
DB's Medical Rants
Science-Based Medicine
Respectful Insolence
Diabetes Mine

Economics and Business
Marginal Revolution
The Volokh Conspiracy
Knowledge Problem

Politics / Current Events
Virginia Postrel
Belmont Club
Mickey Kaus

Belles Lettres
Uncouth Reflections
Arts and Letters Daily
In the Pipeline: Don't miss Derek Lowe's excellent commentary on drug discovery and the pharma industry in general at In the Pipeline

In the Pipeline

« Off To the Publishers | Main | Binding Assays, Inside the Actual Cells »

April 1, 2014

Freeman Dyson on the PhD Degree

Email This Entry

Posted by Derek

From this interview:

"Oh, yes. I’m very proud of not having a Ph.D. I think the Ph.D. system is an abomination. It was invented as a system for educating German professors in the 19th century, and it works well under those conditions. It’s good for a very small number of people who are going to spend their lives being professors. But it has become now a kind of union card that you have to have in order to have a job, whether it’s being a professor or other things, and it’s quite inappropriate for that. It forces people to waste years and years of their lives sort of pretending to do research for which they’re not at all well-suited. In the end, they have this piece of paper which says they’re qualified, but it really doesn’t mean anything. The Ph.D. takes far too long and discourages women from becoming scientists, which I consider a great tragedy. So I have opposed it all my life without any success at all. . ."

Comments (68) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: General Scientific News


1. Anonymous on April 1, 2014 1:35 PM writes...

Yes. I've seen alot of students treat graduate school like it's college 2.0

Permalink to Comment

2. emjeff on April 1, 2014 1:39 PM writes...

I could not agree more. The problem with it is that the "end' is so subjective that it invites all sorts of abuse by major professors. In addition to a Ph.D., I have a professional degree, and I think that is the way the sciences need to go. Construct a clear path of courses, followed by rotations in labs, and publish 3 papers. Done.

Permalink to Comment

3. johnnyboy on April 1, 2014 1:57 PM writes...

Brilliant. The sad reality is that with the current glut of scientists in many fields, universities and companies treat the PhD as a required qualification for employment, without which you are simply not even considered. Doesn`t matter if you have 20 years relevant experience, doesn't matter if other candidates' PhD.s were done 20 years ago using techniques now completely obsolete, on subjects completely irrelevant to the position - you just gotta have that rubber stamp for them to even look at you.

Permalink to Comment

4. road on April 1, 2014 2:02 PM writes...

My graduate school experience was profoundly formative. It taught me how to perform rigorous experiments, critically evaluate the literature, and how to present and defend my work. I learned a ton and the result was far, far more than just a piece of paper. Graduate school is far from an anachronism.

Perhaps some scientists come out of the womb knowing how to design good experiments, but I had to learn from years of hard-won experience and I can't really imagine a replacement for that system...

Permalink to Comment

5. Anonymous on April 1, 2014 2:16 PM writes...

Anon - Can you elaborate? I am curious what exactly you mean by college 2.0

Permalink to Comment

6. Anonymous on April 1, 2014 2:19 PM writes...

Though I agree that the current model of graduate education in the United States leaves a LOT to be desired, I disagree with the premise that a PhD is a waste of time.
I believe that more often than not, those who have successfully navigated the scientific, social, and political trials of such an intense and difficult program are better off for it.

Permalink to Comment

7. bhip on April 1, 2014 2:27 PM writes...

I tend to agree with #4 -I learned a lot about how (not) to do science although it was a fairly unpleasant process. I think the degree would mean more if they actually failed the Ph.D. candidates when it was called for. The process of granting a Ph.D. tends to be more of a reward for perseverance than for aptitude. Minimum publishing standards to reach your degree would help.

Permalink to Comment

8. PJ on April 1, 2014 2:34 PM writes...


"And publish 3 papers"

Do you really want publishing papers a set number of papers to be a requirement for obtaining a Ph.D.?

Permalink to Comment

9. Anonymous on April 1, 2014 2:36 PM writes...

For 5: I think that there are many students that are in college that shouldn't be there. They go to college because that's what is next in line after high school. I see so much carelessness and poor effort from most college students. Anyone who's ever had to grade college students' work can see this. I see the same thing from graduate students. They go to graduate school because that's what's after college. They are just going through the motions and coasting through the program, doing the bare minimum to get by. They aren't learning or thinking on their own, they're just "there". I don't see the effort or initiative from most students to disprove this. They aren't in graduate school because they want to be trained in a science and become an expert in the subject. It's a placeholder in life until they're forced to do what's next, which involves finding a job which requires a degree that they don't have the knowledge or skills to back up.

Permalink to Comment

10. e on April 1, 2014 3:24 PM writes...

From my time on the academic side of the world, I came to the conclusion that there are two primary ways to get a PhD: Brilliance and Tenacity, heavily weighted to the latter. That covers maybe 90% or more of those I worked with. (exposure: Rutgers and Mass General hosp in several research departments) There was maybe 10% of candidates that really grew during their time. That 10% are the ones that went on to do really good work. I saw very few leave. The unsuited ones stuck it out mostly because, after putting in all of that time, they felt that they had no choice but finish, somehow. Many of the faculty were well aware of how many candidates were not really cut out to be successful, but the response rarely seemed to be encouraging a student to leave.

I didn't have the grades for the programs I wanted when I got out of undergrad (where I feel I really could have grown), and have neither the brilliance nor the tenacity to get a PhD through those methods, so I cut the cord at a masters.

I have no great opinion about the value of most programs, but I have known and worked with a number of people from both ends of the spectrum: Really good researchers that love the idea of finding knowledge, and those whose biggest concern seems to be being addressed as "doctor", often sharing lab space at the same institution. I have little respect for the latter.

Permalink to Comment

11. Puff the Mutant Dragon on April 1, 2014 3:34 PM writes...

Hear hear! he's absolutely right. The PhD was originally intended as a program for training professors and is very ill-suited to the task of training students for anything else. There are WAAAY too many students who go on and do a PhD after their undergrad basically because they didn't know what else to do. It takes way too long and ultimately rewards persistence in place of results.

Granted, I'm not objective on this because I don't have a PhD either, although that's never held me back, frankly, because I work and have worked at small companies where not having a PhD hasn't been a problem. But I chose not to go for a PhD for reasons similar to those outlined by Dyson, and nothing I've seen since that time has changed my mind. I've talked to far too many grad students (and dated a couple) who had gone on to grad school because it seemed like the logical next step after undergrad and they had next to no idea what to do with that PhD after they graduate. "Uhh...I guess I've always really wanted to teach...I like teaching."

Permalink to Comment

12. blasphemer on April 1, 2014 4:12 PM writes...

Sure, grad students there just because they don't know what else to do are unlikely to blow the world away once they get a PhD. But, then, if they don't know what else to do, are they likely to fluorish without a PhD?

As said above, there is a lot wanting in our current scheme. However, the fact that the rest of the world is using a PhD as an improper proxy isn't really the fault or problem of academia. Same goes for a BS or BA. Many, many jobs that require those degrees could be done without the degrees. That is the fault of the employer, not the folks awarding degrees.

I learned a ton about science and chemistry in grad school. I also enjoyed it. I made a lot of lifelong friends. I liked my advisor/boss. I grew as a person. What I would say is that in addition to it being nice if schools started being more selective and rigorous, it would also be nice if bright people stopped taking a lot of crap. If your grad school experience is miserable and you aren't learning anything...leave. Learn about sunk costs.

If you're willing to sit there for 7 years taking it, when you can freely walk out the door, you have no one to blame but yourself.

Permalink to Comment

13. Hap on April 1, 2014 4:52 PM writes...

1) Why should it take seven years? Is there a particular reason for it to do so (other than "So professors can get tenure, publications, and awards")?

At seven years (without counting endless postdocs), the length of the PhD probably highlights the problem with how Ph.Ds are made - their existence is for someone's else's benefit and not theirs (Safety? We don't need no stinkin' safety rules! Teaching? Get in the lab, you slacker!). It may a sign of weakness in students to have not left earlier, but that doesn't make the process fit for purpose.

Students need to be more aware of what grad school is, what they do there, and what their roles are, but the sunk costs that many students should be eating aren't only paid by them, but by society. Why society is paying them, or why they should be paid at all, seems like a reasonable question.

2) A significant part of the problem with employment is that employers want trained workers in most cases without having to train them themselves. They also do not want people in the long term, which means that the flexibility and general skill set that a PhD is supposed to impart is a complete misfit for what they want. Of course, even a professional degree won't work out well if it gets you the ability to stay employed for five years at a time. I don't think any system redesign is going to fix that.

Of course, employers used the supply of PhDs because they were there, and because they got something extra that they could use, and then adapted to need (or claim to need) it - a symbiotic relationship. Producing lots of graduates for jobs that don't exist is a not primarily a flaw of individuals, but the system; particularly when producing lots of people irrelevant of the need for them is a requirement for the system to function.

It's hard for me to fit my experience (which was okay in detail - I met lots of good people, science was neat, and my advisor was good - but poor in both overall process and in my competence) and the experiences of lots of people before me (Matthew Platz talking about signing up for grad school as the best deal he ever made and the fun lots of people and I had at finding things out) with what seems to be its systemic lack of regard for students.

Permalink to Comment

14. Anonymous on April 1, 2014 4:59 PM writes...

Why do science graduate students get paid a stipend and have their tuition covered, but medical students don't get paid and also have to pay their tuition? Where did that come from and when did it start?
Do humanities graduate students get paid stipends?

Permalink to Comment

15. Curious Wavefunction on April 1, 2014 5:52 PM writes...

When I met Freeman last year he asked me what exactly I thought I got out of my PhD. The fact that I groped for an answer said everything (and this in spite of the fact that I had two wonderful advisors).

Permalink to Comment

16. synthon88 on April 1, 2014 6:12 PM writes...

"And publish 3 papers"

My advisor has taken this attitude, and has demanded that everyone publish 3 first authored papers to graduate. Unfortunately, due to funding issues, everyone has to TA the entire time, which eats time from research, and publishing 3 first authored papers in five or six years with TAing, qualifying exams, and coursework eating up a substantial portion of that time is not always realistic. It also incentives people to pick easy projects and not take risks, and sometimes people pick lower impact journals so that they can get a publication more easily.

I don't know that quantifying research always results in a better experience for students with more delineated expectations. Sometimes you need the wiggle room for research to take twists and turns and not work out; sometimes projects are collaborative and a second author is a lot of work; sometimes projects are on longer time scales.

Permalink to Comment

17. Jrd on April 1, 2014 6:19 PM writes...

The problem with the three publication rule is that advisors can simply hold on to your publications and block them:

Permalink to Comment

18. White Powder on April 1, 2014 7:00 PM writes...

"The Ph.D. takes far too long and discourages women from becoming scientists" Where is Anton when you need him? Derek is kinda of a hypocrite for removing comments in previous posts that highlight the issues of "women in science" then posting this. Shame on you DL

Permalink to Comment

19. watcher on April 1, 2014 8:19 PM writes...

This is a far too complicated conversation to have in such a place.....the time spent, justification for free tuition & stipend, breadth (eg experience, involvement, value, motivations etc) of differences between advisors, size & working(s) of the department, equipment available, social opportunities (or lack thereof), the need to publish...and more and more.

Permalink to Comment

20. Chemdiary on April 1, 2014 9:51 PM writes...

There are many combined BS/MS degree programs for 5 years. I don't really understand why a ph.d. takes 4+ years if you can get a BS/MS in 5 years.

Permalink to Comment

21. diverdude on April 2, 2014 1:04 AM writes...

PhDs in the UK take 3 years to complete. If you are not ready to publish your thesis at the end of that period you are toast. Concentrates the mind wonderfully.

Permalink to Comment

22. T on April 2, 2014 1:39 AM writes...

@14. They get payed stipends becasue they are not really students, they are workers. Technicians in labs get paid (much more per hour worked than a PhD stipend) for coming into the lab and running experiments. A science PhD does this and a load of other things like taking responsibility for planning the experiments (backed up by a good knowledge of the literature), writing papers, presenting at conferences etc. The bulk of the work contributing to what we know about cells, disease realted proteins etc is done by PhD students. The bulk of patient treatment is not done by med students (who have to work under the direct supervision of a qualified doctor/nurse).

Permalink to Comment

23. T on April 2, 2014 1:52 AM writes...

@14 Also not sure what tutition you thing science grad students should be paying for. They don't sit around in lectures/libraries, they work in the lab all day. They can ask more senior colleagues for advice on particular techniques/approaches (as is the case in any job) but otherwise "recieving tution" means going off on your own (during long incubationtimes etc) and reading the scientific literature, as well as participating in group meetings (in just the same way as postdocts, who don't have to pay for the priviledge).

Permalink to Comment

24. Anonymous on April 2, 2014 1:58 AM writes...

A PhD is great training for a career in research, and even peripheral careers that revolve around research (e.g., venture capital, business development & licensing, etc.), however the supply far outstrips demand, but the quality of most candidates is far below demand in these areas. Most candidates (and the world in general) would have been better off if they had gone straight into industry to get "real" experience in areas that are more in demand, such as sales & marketing. They also would have ended up higher in the organization with a better paid, more stable job, and saved up more for a house, etc.

Permalink to Comment

25. Anonymous on April 2, 2014 2:18 AM writes...

Unfortunately too many people stay on in education as a *consumer* of those education services, rather than going out into the real world to pick up more useful interpersonal and entrepreneurial skills, like sales and negotiation.

Permalink to Comment

26. Aqua on April 2, 2014 2:24 AM writes...

First year umbrella bio-sciences PhD student here. Perhaps it maybe my naivety but thus far I have developed my professional skills A LOT including critical thought, creativity, tenacity, etc.

Not sure if I could get the some of the same kinds of training working at a company but then again I have no experience with that.

Permalink to Comment

27. Gruntus Maximus on April 2, 2014 5:38 AM writes...

johnnyboy has hit the nail on the head.
The issue comes when those with a PhD treat this qualification on a CV as a necessity, regardless of the abilities of the individual.
Prejudice 1 - Diversity 0.

Permalink to Comment

28. NMH on April 2, 2014 7:12 AM writes...

I think the most important thing to understand about the PhD is that the degree does not guarantee an outcome. If you cannot abandon any ambition you may have to have enough money to support a family, you should NOT get a PhD. If more people understood this there would be fewer participating in programs.

Permalink to Comment

29. anonymous on April 2, 2014 7:25 AM writes...

@18: You mean TalibAnton?

Permalink to Comment

30. Anonymous on April 2, 2014 7:28 AM writes...

I can tell you with absolute certainty that a PhD is worth precisely Zero to most employers, unless you continue to work specifically in Research. In fact it often counts against you because it shows you may be too academic and theoretical vs practical, and may even be a know-it-all smart arse who will just piss others off in their company, as sadly turns out to be the case all too often.

MUCH more important to employers is mindset and attitude and the ability to get on with others. Period. So go out and develop and demonstrate those skills instead, because all this stuff about showing tenacity, analytical thinking, etc. with a PhD is total bollocks and it's not going to fool any potential employer. They know full well that you spent most of your PhD time playing computer games in the lab, and you would have got more useful skills doing the kind of job that they actually want to hire for.

Permalink to Comment

31. anonymous on April 2, 2014 7:34 AM writes...

I believe the quality of a PhD very much depends on the field in which it was granted. This is illustrated by the comment of #7. In my grad school 3/4 of the people who entered the program failed, and many many more just dropped out.

Permalink to Comment

32. jbosch on April 2, 2014 7:45 AM writes...

@7, yes failing PhD students does happen. However it varies by institution. I have seen 5 fail in 5 years out of maybe 100 students total. They don't pass their GBO and instead of getting a PhD they usually can write up a Masters thesis to get at least that degree out of their ~2year investment.
What I personally believe is wrong in the US system is that PhD students still have to go to class instead of doing research. In Germany for example you must have passed all your classes before applying for a PhD.
Just my 2 cents

Permalink to Comment

33. The Iron Chemist on April 2, 2014 8:18 AM writes...

I think that a lot of previous commentators have downplayed the value of persistence. Clearly, many weak students have gotten PhDs by simply sticking around for 5-7 years; I see it too often than I'd like at my current institution. However, there's another class of weak student that is savvy enough to grab low-lying fruit but doesn't have the drive that it takes to elevate the project beyond that. Sometimes these students are lucky enough to make it through; other times, they fold at the first sign of trouble. A successful scientist needs both brilliance and drive.

To bolster a point others have made, many graduate students don't seem to realize that not all PhDs are equal. I tell my own students that their degree is only is good as the quantity of quality work that goes into it. This work goes into knowledge and professional development. A PhD program can provide a structured environment for such growth, but both the advisor and the student have to buy into that philosophy. Regrettably, this is haphazardly done, with failures from both parties.

Permalink to Comment

34. Anonymous on April 2, 2014 9:28 AM writes...

@33. No, we did not "downplay the value of persistence". Persistence is a critical element of attitude and mindset, but one can just as easily learn and demonstrate it (in a more useful and relevant setting) in sales and negotiations with real people. Or run a marathon, treck 500 miles, or whatever.

To put it bluntly, PhD's don't have a monopoly on persistence.

Permalink to Comment

35. Anonymous on April 2, 2014 9:50 AM writes...

23: The tuition I'm talking about is what the student pays the university in order to attend. Typically they don't pay it, the advisor does. I didn't intend to imply that they should have to pay for it.

Permalink to Comment

36. Da Vinci on April 2, 2014 9:51 AM writes...

This of course mostly applied to the abysmal US PhD, rather than the much more sensible British and Continental PhDs.

Permalink to Comment

37. Anonymous on April 2, 2014 9:57 AM writes...

Larger companies love PhDs because they think they are the best and the brightest, and can afford their salaries. They are usually given more opportunities for advancement/responsibilities compared to their BS/MS level counterparts (even with many years experience) just because they have PhD next to their name. However, not every PhD is the same.

I don't have a PhD and I have to say some of my PhD colleagues are no better than a BS/MS level associate with a few years of experience, but there are a good amount that deserve the respect and position they hold. It goes back to a previous comment that the quality of the PhD experience and the type of person "earning" it drives the outcome.

I'm sad to see so many non-PhD scientist positions dissapear in favor of PhDs doing all the lab work or outsource the entire department. This mindset of PhD over BS/MS science majors will hurt industry in the longrun.

Permalink to Comment

38. Anonymous on April 2, 2014 10:04 AM writes...

@37: "They are usually given more opportunities for advancement/responsibilities compared to their BS/MS level counterparts (even with many years experience) just because they have PhD next to their name."

That's what the *schools* tell you when considering doing a PhD. But have you seen or asked what actually happens in practice?

Once you're hired, or old and experienced enough, employers don't care about your PhD. They only care that you 1. Can do the job; 2. Want the job; and 3. Get on with others. And they will make this judgement based only on how you have done since you joined, PhD or no PhD.

Permalink to Comment

39. Cellbio on April 2, 2014 10:08 AM writes...

Though I generally agree with the comments concerning unnecessary length to PhD, I do think there is great value in achieving a meaningful contribution to a field and do not believe the 3 year system affords that. I do think 4-6 years, 4 being a bit lucky and very good, 6 being the outside range to account for failed projects, is totally appropriate.

That is, appropriate if the PhD is then trained for a job, academic or industrial, that actually exists. For me, the training was awesome and I came out of grad school when labs were well funded, departments were growing and biotechs were hiring new PhDs. I have a wide variety of choices. That is not true today.

But what remains the same as ever despite market changes is the eco-system where Universities lop off half of the grant money as overhead, touting the societal gains of their research that will cure the world of its ills while closing the STEM shortage. Sincere? No, a sales pitch to keep the grant money flowing, to keep the life blood of the Universities and established professors alive.

So is the PhD anachronistic? Yes. Is the answer to shorten the training, make it easier? I don't think so as that would only allow more of the less talented to run through and the total number of PhDs would rise to meet the staffing needs required to support the grant system when the "workers" have shorter "careers" as PhD students. Either that or the post-doc length fills the gap.

However, to allow for longer PhD runs, longer post-docs to yield unemployed 35 year olds while participating in knowable lies about the STEM shortage all for institutional and personal gain of those within the current system is shameful.

Permalink to Comment

40. DCRogers on April 2, 2014 10:16 AM writes...

@10: "I came to the conclusion that there are two primary ways to get a PhD: Brilliance and Tenacity"

In our short-attention-span world, I wouldn't want to denigrate Proof of Tenacity.

@34: "To put it bluntly, PhD's don't have a monopoly on persistence."

No, just a credential that verifies it, for whatever you think that is worth.

@37: "Larger companies love PhDs because they think they are the best and the brightest, and can afford their salaries"

Recently, this has been cutting against PhDs - as employers 'red pencil' expensive employees, and imagine all scientists as replaceable cogs. Age and tenure are negatives now.

@38: "Once you're hired, or old and experienced enough, employers don't care about your PhD."

Depends on the wackiness settings of the HR Hiring Filter.

Permalink to Comment

41. p on April 2, 2014 10:47 AM writes...

@24: Good lord. The last the thing the world needs is more sales and marketing people. Maybe companies THINK they need this and maybe they even will use them.

Not good for society though if everyone is a salesman and no one knows any science (yes, I deal with S&M - they may know a little but not nearly as much as they think).

The world would be a better place if companies that deal in science employed a higher ratio of scientists to sales/marketing types.

Permalink to Comment

42. Red Fiona on April 2, 2014 10:57 AM writes...

Re: @25 - "rather than going out into the real world to pick up more useful interpersonal and entrepreneurial skills, like sales and negotiation."

I'm slightly confused. How are entrepreneurial skills going to help me? I know I'm not going to be an entrepreneur. I don't have the mindset or abilities for it and no amount of skills training is going to fix that.

Certainly in the UK there's a real push for scientists to become scientist-entrepreneurs but it would be marginally less realistic to imagine that I could become one than that I could become a ballerina (which I also thorough unsuited to but at least I know I could pick up those skills)

Permalink to Comment

43. The Iron Chemist on April 2, 2014 11:15 AM writes...

@34: With respect to the downplaying of persistence as a requisite for success, that was the impression that I had received from multiple comments. If this was inaccurate, so much the better. I'm glad to be wrong about it. There's no need to get snarky about it.

With respect to the monopolization of persistence, I never made that claim. Graduate students have a monopoly in neither persistence nor intellect. I think that we can all agree on that.

The core of my prior comment was that a PhD program COULD help a student develop, given that both parties are receptive. The degree, in an ideal world, would validate the qualities needed for success in that field. Could non-PhD holders likewise succeed? Of course. Dyson's pretty good evidence for that. Is the current system awarding degrees to candidates who are perhaps unqualified? I'd lean towards a "yes" there as well. Would you rather try out an untested PhD or an untested non-PhD? That is a trickier question, isn't it?

Permalink to Comment

44. sepisp on April 2, 2014 11:30 AM writes...

Funny. I thought this "I went to a construction site to shovel dirt and now I'm the general manager" type of boasting should have already gone the way of the dinosaurs. Sure, there are bad PhD programs that don't really prepare the student for anything. But, these "practical experience" types tend to consider themselves the one, only and best candidate for a job, a sort of cocksure petty narcissism.

I'd start believing this sort of bulsht when a large fraction of PhD's from an field or industry (that is not suffering from a current downturn) would think so. Instead, I've seen that a change of culture to the opposite is ongoing: positions that used to have shoveling skills as a requirement now actually do require MSc/DSc/PhD-level education for success.

It's completely correct that a doctoral program shouldn't be sheltered employment for the incompetent. But, the academic track already has high requirements and low rewards and incentives, so these should be improved. For instance, guaranteed 3-5 years employment conditional on meeting annual targets, with pay at least 60-70% of private sector pay, as regular pay with social benefits, less grants and teaching. The professor should be required to see that the student gets skills required for jobs. Finally, a doctor should have published 3-5 first-author papers, preferably 4. And #32 is right, PhD should become after a completed Master's and courses, not be an extended Master's.

Permalink to Comment

45. John Wayne on April 2, 2014 11:37 AM writes...

I'd like the suggest that the problem with current PhD programs is that they aren't that difficult to get through. I do not mean that people don't work hard enough, I mean that professors and institutions don't bounce people who are in the wrong place out the door. There is a tough balance between giving a student room to grow and awarding perseverance, but we're too nice these days.

*gets out soap box*

When I was a grad student lots of people didn't make it to year two. The class work was crushingly difficult, everybody had to take cumulative exams, candidacy exams were like being pushed through a sieve, and you had to teach at the same time. People failed or were told to go, and they were all better for it. The real world is hard too; nobody is going to teach you how to solve a problem before they ask you to solve it.

Permalink to Comment

46. Nekekami on April 2, 2014 11:56 AM writes...


Sales and negotiation skills are useful when you need to argue that your project is the one that deserves funding, for example. The skills are useful when it comes to recruiting people to your project. You are less vulnerable to salesmen and marketers coming to try and sucker you into a contract when you know the tricks.

Permalink to Comment

47. Anon on April 2, 2014 12:11 PM writes...

I think Freeman Dyson's thoughts are only applicable to the past 20 years. Prior to that there was a job market and companies/schools weren't lobbying to push for an overabundance of STEM trainees. Once that happened, wages dropped and the upcoming talent entered other careers like oil & gas or finance.

I'm sure I contribute to the problem as a "young" (30) PhD when I tell all of the undergrads/highschoolers to absolutely stay away from the biological sciences, unless they are entering the service sector (pharmacy, dentistry, physicians, optometry, etc) where wages are locked in.

Permalink to Comment

48. lt on April 2, 2014 12:36 PM writes...

One of the main reasons I went for a PhD was to avoid (or postpone entering) the "real world" of networking, self-marketing etc because I'm hopelessly addicted to the "real world" of the empirical and rational. Fortunately I'm financially independent so being such a naive a***ole won't have serious consequences for me.

Permalink to Comment

49. whodat on April 2, 2014 1:11 PM writes...

Can someone explain to me why a BS in Chemistry does not teach you enough to be employable/get paid over 35k while an engineering/CS degree starts out at at least 60k? Perhaps the US should change its education standards and teach chemists/biologists something during their BS degree in order to have a career in the sciences. Memorizing mechanisms in o chem and having little real world experience only leads to people being shuttled into grad school.

Permalink to Comment

50. lt on April 2, 2014 1:24 PM writes...


I'm guessing because people on average value shiny new status-symbol gadgets that they can buy right now far more than any drugs they might need in the (relatively) distant future - because if people really did care about their weight then obesity wouldn't be such an epidemic.

Permalink to Comment

51. Red Fiona on April 2, 2014 1:26 PM writes...

@46 I wouldn't call those entrepreneurial skills though, I'd call those general life skills, certainly the don't get sold a pig in a poke is.

Permalink to Comment

52. hombreverde on April 2, 2014 2:00 PM writes...


That's because too many professors are not concerned with producing quality graduate students. They are concerned with access to a pool of cheap, compliant labor. With the financial realities of the grant and tenure system, one may understand the logic behind this attitude.

I have often wondered if having some sort of standardized post-PhD certification exam might provide an objective outcome measure. Of course, the content and scope would be a matter of debate. At any rate, I would like to stop wasting my time explaining liquid-liquid extractions and correct TLC technique to supposed PhD's.

Permalink to Comment

53. Anonymous on April 2, 2014 2:00 PM writes...

"A PhD is great training for a career in research, and even peripheral careers that revolve around research (e.g., venture capital, business development & licensing, etc.), however the supply far outstrips demand, but the quality of most candidates is far below demand in these areas. Most candidates (and the world in general) would have been better off if they had gone straight into industry to get "real" experience in areas that are more in demand, such as sales & marketing. They also would have ended up higher in the organization with a better paid, more stable job, and saved up more for a house, etc."

The issue is that it is often hard to work in industry without career stagnation without a PhD. It can also be really difficult to break into alternative careers without the credibility of a PhD as well. I looked into a variety of other careers aside from research, including patent work (examiner, agent, technical specialist for a firm), consulting, and policy. None of these are jobs that someone with a bachelors degree theoretically couldn't do, and in the past a PhD was not needed. These days, you can't get hired without a doctorate in those fields. I'm in my 4th year, I have begun to hate benchwork, and I don't want to go into academia. But I'm slogging it out because employers like the credibility.

Permalink to Comment

54. dearieme on April 2, 2014 2:58 PM writes...

The best idea in my PhD dissertation was my supervisor's, not mine. My own best ideas have been reported in my research students' dissertations. I've always assumed this to be normal.

Permalink to Comment

55. Anonymous on April 2, 2014 3:57 PM writes...

Doesn't Dyson make bagless vacuum cleaners, so what does he know about PhDs?

PS. That was a joke, in case anyone felt compelled to respond.

Permalink to Comment

56. Jim on April 2, 2014 3:59 PM writes...

My experience in graduate school was one that I honestly don't believe I could have picked up in any other "real world" situation. I learned about personal accountability in design, execution, and analysis of experiments...I hit many bumps in the road but also had a good number of successes. Later experiences in my post-doc and then in pharma relied on me being able to duplicate the successes much more often than the bumps in the road. To me, the value of the PhD program was that it allowed ME to find out what my strengths were.

I have met plenty of people with Master's or Bachelor's degrees that are as good or better scientists and employees than many people with PhDs, no question. But I can also say that I (and many other people I know) are better scientists because of experiences obtained in graduate school. To say that the PhD process is antiquated and even useless is myopic to say the least.

Permalink to Comment

57. zDNA on April 2, 2014 4:00 PM writes...

Very simple. Just follow the money. Whatever you subsidize, you get more of, and usually at lesser quality. In the US at least, I blame the undue influence of $30 billion in NIH funding. The result is a glut of schlocky PhD-credentialed scientists.

Permalink to Comment

58. Anton on April 2, 2014 6:29 PM writes...

You want a PhD and only work part time in lab? Have a sex change and become a woman. You will get bonus points on your exams just for being female. You can graduate in 3-4 years and do 1/5 the work of the male graduate students. If you are confused, just ask the Professor. He will tell you the answer while your male counter parts have to think.

Permalink to Comment

59. jbosch on April 2, 2014 9:39 PM writes...

you must have been exposed to an aging environment as what you describe is so pre-1950.

Somebody brought the PhD experience up again and I wanted to add something else to it.
I see the PhD as a sheltered, protected experience, and at least in my lab I encourage my PhD students to develop own ideas early on, everybody is involved in grant writing to get their own PhD fellowship and go through this experience.
With sheltered I mean you can essentially do experiments and be guided, nobody will rip of your head if an experiment fails and if you are decently successful after some time (and publications) you will have earned a PhD. It's the one time when worries about funding are very low as in most universities (not all) the department will ensure that you will be able to graduate even if the PI runs out of money.
During the postdoc time, you won't have the time to have failed experiments and develop (if you did not do this during your PhD you will struggle). If you can't get the experiments to work you won't publish, which will make the next step even harder.

The tools and techniques you acquired and learned during your PhD will be your basic toolset for your future - don't waste the time - learn and grow, collaborate. Training towards a "marketable entity" in my eyes is a good thing to do. Look at job positions what people are seeking for and this is of course also true for BS/MS.

Permalink to Comment

60. captaingraphene on April 3, 2014 3:23 AM writes...

Based on my own experiences, there is a lot of truth in what @58 says. Affirmative action is rampant not only in college, but in graduate school as well. There were also special financial aids for women to graduate, but if you are a disadvantaged male (i.e. having some kind of physical disability), these same perks were not available. Anyone openly critizing the affirmative action madness that wreaks havoc in todays colleges and faculties is frown upon.

Permalink to Comment

61. 37Anon on April 3, 2014 7:44 AM writes...

@49: "Can someone explain to me why a BS in Chemistry does not teach you enough to be employable"

I had the opportunity to do some undergrad research starting my sophomore year. At that point I only had the 1st year chem courses completed and was currently taking Ochem. I learned the theory in class, but was able to apply it doing some basic research in polymer chemistry. To me then it was tough, but as I look back it was the best thing I could have done to prepare myself for industry in big Pharma. More collages should give opportunities to undergrad (if not already) to expose them to actual research and not just Ochem lab. I learned how to think and develop some fundemental skills. If you did the minimal requirements in order to get your BS in chemistry than I think you missed the point of collage.

Fast foward about 10 years and I have learned so much more on the job that you can not teach in school.

Permalink to Comment

62. SomeSchlockyPhD on April 3, 2014 8:16 AM writes...

@61 "I think you missed the point of collage."

I seriously hope that this is a joke.

Permalink to Comment

63. TT-Boy on April 3, 2014 9:45 AM writes...

My PhD taught me one thing: How to think. I am sure I could have gotten gotten the same level of skill in a job, but at the time, the market for BS level techs was terrible. And, since the PhD is valued (rightly or wrongly) by industry, having one is a good thing.

Permalink to Comment

64. captaingraphene on April 3, 2014 11:00 AM writes...


Freeman Dyson certainly didn't need a PhD to teach him how to think. On the other hand, Peter Higgs was almost dumped by his faculty for taking his time to think.

Permalink to Comment

65. whodat on April 3, 2014 11:55 AM writes...


I too did undergraduate research and worked in small biotech startups during my BS degree. I also got a job in the pharma industry for 2 years before realizing you cant grow with a BS in chemistry where as in engineering and CS you are not hampered in your aspirations by not having a PhD.

After receiving my PhD, I realized what a joke my chemistry classes were and I went to a top 20 "ranked" institution (whatever that means). We need to change how chemistry and other sciences are taught in order to make students understand and know more after obtaining their BS degree.

Permalink to Comment

66. e on April 3, 2014 2:43 PM writes...

@65: I think your final statement is more an observation the chemistry is a huge, complex, yet well studied, field, than a condemnation of undergraduate education. I would question how much more can be fit into 4 years (not that more could be, but how much) with the intensity of the subject and the ancillary requirements. What would you throw out to make more time? Writing? Math? Physics? A few electives that, while not related to the field directly, may make the student better at interacting with the non-chemists they will work, socialize, and live with and the background to shift fields? Tough question...

I also read your statement to indicate that maturity is a factor. If you had gone straight to grad school, would you have had the same realizations? or would you have seen continuity that led to a different final view?

I was trained as an EE, with math, spent a good bit of time in the academic Bio/Biochem world doing support, and practice as an ME now (pressure vessels), as well as teach, so I can't speak to the straight chem side, but in my world, though a PhD is often looked at as a strong seller, it is only an indicator of quality in a persons knowledge and work: definitely an indicator, but far from a guarantee. Same as with most credentials (PE, CPA, and on own the line) And, yes, I am associating a PhD with professional credentials, as are many others in this thread (though less explicitly)

Permalink to Comment

67. zDNA on April 3, 2014 9:07 PM writes...

If you think that a PhD education is necessary in order to be able to think... think again.

This is really a Fat Tony vs. Dr. John story.

Google an article titled "Thinking Like Fat Tony" to see what I mean.

Permalink to Comment

68. Design Monkey on April 9, 2014 12:45 PM writes...

There is an old joke in Russian. A certain nuances are different, but meaning is approximately this:

PhD thesis is just a worlds longest application for salary raise. (As with applications, it does not at all mean that what is asked will be granted.)

Permalink to Comment


Remember Me?


Email this entry to:

Your email address:

Message (optional):

Varieties of Scientific Deception
Absence Makes the Ideas Flow?
Alzheimer's Bonds
Where's the Widest Variety of Chemical Matter?
That's Just Too Colorful
Zafgen's Epoxide Pays Its Way
Taking Risks - You Have To, So Do It Right