A recent competition from NatureJobs invited budding science writers to answer the above question. My (unsucessful and somewhat ranty) entry follows...
No, there are not too many PhDs. It’s that simple.
Can you imagine if everybody in the world studied for a PhD? The progress that would be made. The innovations in science and technology. The health benefits and developments in society would be beyond imagination. Everyone should be encouraged to do a PhD. The more PhDs there are, the better I would say.
In the current economic climate, the throng of PhDs fresh out of university are a beacon of hope for the future. More PhDs means, of course, more research. More research means greater advances and a push to really make a difference in the world. This can only be a good thing for society and for the individuals themselves. So let’s make everyone do a PhD.
But is this really practical? Sure, the advancement of knowledge and all that, it sounds fantastic. But can it be done, and then more importantly, how could it be done?
The reality of a PhD
If spending four years of your life obsessing over a tiny area of science until you are the world’s expert sounds fun to you, then go for it. But realistically, studying for a PhD is not everybody’s cup of tea. I’m sure there are many out there who would recoil at the thought. Some people are not cut out for the research life and many more simply have no wish to go down that road, so should I be so quick to encourage a worldwide research blitz? Probably not.
The number of PhD students has taken a sharp rise over the last 10-20 years. But what has the rise in numbers done for the current set that are studying? Having a PhD on your CV used to mean a more financially prosperous and successful career. It was the benchmark for a committed scientist and a firm footing for your future. However, this situation can only continue if, along with the rise in PhD numbers, there is an equal rise in the number of opportunities presented to these fresh PhDs. This is where the problem lies.
Keep the experts in science
The problem for a recently qualified PhD is where to go next. What options in science do these PhDs have after completing their research? The answer to that question is not very many. There is currently not the same level of investment in post-PhD options as there is in getting these students into the research faculties in the first place. This discrepancy leads to larger numbers of talented scientists leaving the area quickly after their hard fought efforts to perfect their research skills. Not everyone who completes a PhD wants to be a Nobel Prize winner but for those that do, the next steps are tricky. There are currently not enough jobs in science, not enough funding for further research and not enough support from governments.
The government has been promoting university more and more in recent years. If they want to encourage higher education and more people to study a PhD, or even keep the current set happy, there needs to be more of an investment in science. Everyone should be encouraged to learn and reach the best of their abilities. But more needs to be done to keep these young experts in science by putting a greater focus on funding further research. More needs to be done so that society can truly benefit from all these curious minds. Therefore, the answer to the question is simple. No, there are not too many PhDs, but we do need to do more to hold on to them.