Too Many PhDs

clown professorThis article was first published under the title “The Costs and Philosophy of Credentialism” in the Education Supplement of The Australian on November 25, 1998.  People in the know tell the author that the problem hasn’t changed much since then.  Other, that is, than to get enormously worse.

Last year (1997) this country produced something over 4,000* Australians with research higher degrees – people with ‘research masters’ or (mostly) PhD degrees.  It doesn’t sound too many when said quickly in the context of the need to create a clever country.  On the other hand it starts to make one think a bit when the annual direct cost to the federal purse of delivering these degrees is rather more than half-a-billion dollars, and that the annual direct cost to the community as a whole is easily more than the full billion dollars.  It also starts to make one think a bit when the wastage on the way to the degrees is getting on for 50 percent.  There were about seven or eight thousand research higher degree (RHD) commencements corresponding to last year’s four thousand completions. (editor’s note: This figure, as of 2014, now stands at roughly 7000)

It used to be the case that the training of a PhD was regarded primarily as a means of producing a person capable of doing independent research – a person who, in the main and with a few caveats, could be left to define their own research directions within the general area of whatever was important to their employer.  Presumably the economic rationalists still go along with something like that definition.  Presumably also they would want to know how many jobs there are in Australia which actually require a fully-fledged training in independent research.

Provided one sticks to economic rationalism and is not diverted to other philosophies, the number of jobs in Australia that actually require a research PhD is not all that large.  There are about 1,400 in CSIRO, somewhere between 500 and 600 in the Defence Science and Technology Organisation, perhaps a few hundred in the medical research establishments, and perhaps (being generous and guessing a bit) a further 500 or thereabouts in other state and federal departments.  The Cooperative Research Centres program has provided a new set of maybe 500 or 600 research slots, although there must be a question as to whether they will ultimately translate into long-term research jobs within the commercial operations that the program is designed to serve.  Australian industry itself is not exactly famous for its in-house research capability, and commercial establishments with a critical mass of research personnel are very thin on the ground.  Let us say (being extremely generous and remembering that our definition at this stage is concerned only with an absolute requirement for PhD training) that there are about 500 research jobs floating around industry.

Portrait of a PhD candidate

Then there are the universities themselves.  The picture here is confused by the fact that the requirement for PhD-holding academics derives in some considerable part from the need to train more PhDs, and one quickly gets into a circular and incestuous argument.  However, let us assume there is a continuing requirement to service a number equal to the current crop of RHD candidates. On the face of it the universities need something of the order of 10,000 PhDs on their academic staff.

Adding up all these figures suggests there are about 14,000 ‘PhD-requiring’ jobs in the Australian community.  Assuming for the sake of argument some sort of national steady state, and assuming a full thirty-year career for the average researcher, about four hundred or five hundred new PhDs per year are required to replace natural attrition.  The actual production is now far in excesss of ten times that number.   Further, while it might be argued that the need for high-level research jobs is growing year by year, the production of RHDs is itself currently increasing at the rate of about four or five hundred (that is, about 10 percent) per year.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there is considerable support within the academic community for the concept that obtaining a PhD has a much wider significance than simply training for a job.  The argument runs that PhD training is of value in many walks of life outside the limited market for the professional researcher.  In any event, more and better education must surely be a good thing?  Perhaps we should regard the PhD in much the same light as the undergraduate arts and humanities degrees of earlier times – a sort of necessary background for the truly educated person, and in turn a sort of quantitative measure of the wealth and enlightenment of the society.  Surely, the argument continues, if there are indeed people out there who wish to take out PhDs and are capable of it, the society should provide and pay for their further education?

Universities are paid twice as much for training a PhD candidate as for training an undergraduate.  This extra payment has been, and remains, a great incentive for universities to build the number of their higher degree candidates to the maximum possible extent.  It also ensures that the universities are not inclined to question either the underlying philosophy or the likely ultimate outcome.

There are indeed some legitimate doubts about both philosophy and outcome.   First, it is stretching things a bit to assume there is much educational breadth to be obtained by spending three or four (and sometimes five or six) years pounding away at some esoteric research problem which, while it may indeed be interesting and even important, is of necessity highly specialized and is scarcely the stuff of general conversation.

Second, while it is probably true that most of the PhDs will find jobs on the basis of their paper qualification, this will be at the expense of those with fewer or lesser degrees.  The over-abundance of PhDs is starting a chain of over-qualification which, quite apart from being wasteful in the economically rational sense, will ensure the existence of a fair number of people unhappy with their lot.

Third, there is already emerging a large class of people who are struggling to pursue a research career via an endless treadmill of one-to-three year ‘soft money’ grants.  Quite apart from the fact that the process in the long run is scarcely conducive to good research, the treadmill is not in fact endless.  It probably finishes abruptly at the very awkward age of the early forties.

Ultimately, all the doubts and issues boil down to the following:  Is the spending of a billion-or-so dollars per annum on the creation of research higher degrees, nine-tenths of which will never be formally required, an optimum way of improving either the research capability or the wellbeing of the nation?  More to the short-term point, would the universities be willing, or able, to reverse the trend if it is indeed found that the situation is becoming untenable?

If, either by design or default, the present situation is allowed to continue and the PhD becomes a sort of basic qualification for many of the jobs now requiring a simple(?) tertiary education, then the universities should at least take a leaf out of the US book.   They should make sure the training involves a fair amount of multi-disciplinary course work designed so that the graduates are both broadly educated and broadly useful.  They might of course be a little old as well, but one can’t have everything.

Probably the present situation will not continue indefinitely and the ultimate outcome will be determined by the market.  This might be no bad thing in principle, but the trick in practice will be to ensure that the reaction time of the degree-generating process is short enough not to have wild mismatch between the number of jobs and the number of job seekers.  In which case the overall system of DEETYA and the universities will need to do its sums with regard to the future job market with unprecedented zeal and accountability.  It will need to be highly interventionist in its dispersion of RHD funding.  It will need, one suspects, to return to the elitism of an earlier era.

Garth Paltridge is an emeritus professor at the University of Tasmania and a fellow of the Australian Academy of Science. He is the author of The Climate Caper: Facts and Fallacies of Global Warming. He was a chief research scientist with the CSIRO Division of Atmospheric Research.

  • wstarck

    This is a significant problem. Training large numbers of people at great expense for jobs which don’t exist does neither them nor the nation any good. A better approach might be to limit the number of government funded students to a reasonable estimate of jobs such as Garth has made here. These should then be allocated to the top scores in a competitive exam with the winners permitted to choose the institution where they will study.

    This would assure a much better quality of students, training programs and degrees. It wouldn’t be perfect but it surely must be much better than the approach we now take.

    • Peter OBrien

      This article strikes a chord with me. Witness the PhD scholarship awarded to Margot Kingston to develop a thesis essentially about herself. Commensurate with this is the extraordinary number of Professors (of various grade) that seem to infest our public debate.

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