chart, line chart

Source: Nature Biotechnology, “The Missing Piece to Changing the University Culture”

After completing his PhD in computer science at Stanford University and tackling the job market, Chand John felt like a Porsche. This was not a good thing. Writing in the Chronicle of HIgher Education, he reflected:

So we have today’s employment climate. At one end, companies hire whoever can get the job done, like consumers buying reliable, affordable sedans. At the other end, universities, including deeply industry-savvy ones like Stanford, pump out Ph.D.’s who, like luxury cars, are too specialized and expensive for most employers.

John eventually landed a job, but his experience taught him that a sizeable “PhD-industry” gap exists where employers fear that a PhD’s skill set is too academic and would rather hire someone with industry experience synonymous with the job. 

This is a problem because universities graduate far more PhDs every year than can be hired for faculty positions. As the above chart shows, the gap between the number of PhDs graduated and the number of available faculty positions has grown over the past 30 years.

The chart comes from an article highlighting a program preparing PhD students to make the leap into industry by connecting graduate students at Washington University in St. Louis with startups to work on business challenges.

But it faces recalcitrant obstacles to changing the culture of PhD programs. Article after article describing the challenges PhDs face in the private job market decry universities’ pure focus on preparing students for academic careers as well as professors’ assumption that their students’ skills will transfer into the private sector – or that students will make it as academics. After all, the professors did.

More insidiously, professors’ research depends on the assistance of a reliable army of poorly paid PhD students, who also teach undergraduates at rock bottom wages. Universities have little incentive to look too critically at the programs filling their laboratories with well qualified and inexpensive labor.

If universities want their PhD students to succeed, they need to stop treating them like poorly paid interns paying dues on their way to a career in academia and teach students how to leap over the PhD-industry gap. 

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