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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

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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

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

April 1, 2014

Freeman Dyson on the PhD Degree

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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

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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.

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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.

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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...

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.?

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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.

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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.

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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."

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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).

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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.

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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:

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

@18: You mean TalibAnton?

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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