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Do We Really Need this Many PhDs in Society?

By the traditional, limited definition of a PhD, it’s clear that we don’t. We have an oversupply of doctoral researchers, and 80% leave the academic track in the biomed fields, ending up with careers outside the faculty path. Postdocs also take a substantial pay cut and delayed progression on their future careers, thanks to the often outdated expectations that they are surrounded by in academia.

As a society, though? We could absolutely use more PhDs. We could use more in schools, in businesses, in government, in media. We need more people who have encountered repeated failures, thought through the logic behind facts, who understand how to take in new data which may conflict with existing understandings to create new truths, who understand the value of applying the scientific method in the intimate way that you do only after extended, at least partially self directed research like PhDs do.

We may not touch a pipette ever again outside of academia, but the time we spent in graduate school remains a permanent contribution to our field, and the knowledge, processes and self awareness we gain during our time doing research will be carried through to the future projects and careers we take on.

Could you gain this without doing a PhD? Perhaps, but hindsight is not available as a way to guide one’s life moving forward. I believe we do benefit as a society when we support scientists during and after their time in the lab, and that PhDs make important contributions to whatever aspects of society that they end up making a career in.

What we need to do is change the way PhD programs are designed and incentivized, which starts with how PhDs think about themselves. We must encourage more to get out into the world beyond academia in a way that is confident, self driven, focused and attractive to employers beyond basic research fields.

“Each generation must work to free their definition of their degree.  Freeing the PhD takes time, so every PhD or academic research scientist that decides to take their career in another direction is helping to change the status quo!” – Free the PhD

By Vay Cao, Ph.D.


Originally posted on Quora.


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