Is doing a PhD a waste of time?

There are almost 9,000 PhD students in Irish third-level institutions

Studying for a PhD can involve seven-day weeks, long days, low pay and uncertain prospects. Photograph: iStock

Studying for a PhD can involve seven-day weeks, long days, low pay and uncertain prospects. Photograph: iStock

 

What use is a PhD nowadays? After almost two decades in education, is it really worth committing another three, four or even more years to a doctorate? Will it help you in your career, or are PhDs a frivolous extravagance for the rich?

Once upon a time, the path for PhD students was clear: graduate and become an academic.

Now it’s harder than ever to secure a permanent job in academia - and, unlike in the past, today’s applicants won’t even be considered without a doctorate.

Seven-day weeks, long days, low pay and uncertain prospects are widespread among those toiling away for their doctorates.

For all that, almost 9,000 PhD students in Irish third-level institutions have chosen this path. Numbers rose sharply at the start of the economic crash and have broadly remained at this level since.

There are almost 9,000 PhD students in Irish third-level institutions. Numbers rose sharply at the start of the economic crash. Photograph: iStock
There are almost 9,000 PhD students in Irish third-level institutions. Numbers rose sharply at the start of the economic crash. Photograph: iStock

Graham Love, chief executive of the Higher Education Authority, says doctorates can still be hugely beneficial in career terms.

He graduated with a PhD in vascular cell biology from UCD in 1997 and then joined Anderson Consulting.

“Back then, the classical path was to go on to academia, although the tide was beginning to turn. People asked me: if you spent so long studying, why did you go into a consulting firm?

“It did turn a few heads - including my father’s. I don’t use the direct domain knowledge but I did learn about inquiry, setting out and testing an idea. You learn to face a problem, reduce it to its constituent parts and set out a plan.

“With a PhD, you spend a lot of time getting negative results and this builds resilience. It can be testing at times. And at the end, you stand in front of people and need to explain, in plain English, what you are trying to do.”

Academia is now a minority destination for PhD graduates. In 2015, an analysis carried out by Trinity College and LinkedIn found that, between 2000 and 2010, there had been a doubling of the number of PhD graduates working in industry.

The same study found that 58 per cent of PhD graduates took up their first role in academia but, by their fifth job, 63 per cent were working in industry.

However, the study found that it took 2.7 years for a PhD graduate to move from academia to research, highlighting how postdoctoral research is now effectively an essential part of the graduate’s career path.

For Ireland’s higher education institutions, meanwhile, PhDs don’t just help to advance scholarship: they are a vital - and growing - source of income.

The bulk of this income comes from taught postgraduates but PhDs are still a source of money - albeit a relatively small amount - for cash-strapped universities .

But Mike Jennings, general secretary of the Irish Federation of University Teachers, says that PhD candidates are not getting a fair deal for their money.

He points out that doctoral graduates are increasingly not seen as a qualification, but instead merely part of a long apprenticeship, and says graduates have been raising concerns about this.

“A person with a PhD has a minimum of three years for a degree, one or two years for a postgraduate and then at least three years for a PhD. After this, they may face 12 years of further traineeship which is not, by definition, a career.”

Love says that it is a mistake to think of a PhD as a direct route to academia, and that only about 20-30 per cent of graduates are needed to work as academics. “If you want to be an academic and are clear and driven, go for it, but the people who are getting those jobs are top of their game and it is tough,” he says.

“Be aware you may have to travel or have to break out and try something else. The majority go to work in private companies or the public service.”

While much of the public policy focus has been on science, technology, engineering and maths PhDs, particularly in the life sciences and ICT, Love says humanities PhDs are valued for their critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

“I used to think these were buzzwords but now I see they are vital skills and will be even more so in the next 10-20 years. We are educating students for jobs that don’t yet exist,” Love says.

“We have a lot of people trained to understand how things work - such as the cervical cancer vaccine or obesity - but humanities PhDs can take that evidence, use it, and communicate the information people need to understand it.”

PhDs are expensive, both in terms of fees and also the cost of not working for several years.

Supports for PhD students were cut off during the austerity drive, although some of these have been restored in recent years, and eligible postgrads can now get up to €2,000 towards their cost, or, in some cases, a grant of up to €6,270 plus maintenance payments. In addition, the Irish Research Council support about 200 researchers per year with an annual stipend of €16,000 and a contribution to fees, up to a maximum of €5,750 per year.

Love says that students who choose a PhD are accepting that they will, in the short-term, be less materially well-off.

“You are making an investment for the long-term, but in the short term will be living off a stipend.”

So, is it all worth it? That depends on why you are doing it. Dr Theresa O’Keeffe of UCC’s sociology department has written extensively about precarious employment in academia.

“I would never recommend someone do a PhD for their career,” she says. “The guiding and only motivation should be that you love the subject. There is no promise of anything at the end of it. We have a responsibility to be upfront about this.”

‘I did sometimes struggle... It has benefitted me a lot, helping me to stand out from the crowd’

Lena Golubovska is a graduate of Maynooth University’s economics programme.

After she secured a first class honours in her MA in finance, she was offered funding to do a PhD.

“I didn’t have a job after my masters and I accepted it; now I think it was one of the greatest things that has happened in my life.

Lena Golubovska completed a PhD following her MA in finance. ‘I didn’t have a job after my masters and I accepted it; now I think it was one of the greatest things that has happened in my life,’ she says.
Lena Golubovska completed a PhD following her MA in finance. ‘I didn’t have a job after my masters and I accepted it; now I think it was one of the greatest things that has happened in my life,’ she says.

“I enjoyed creating and developing my own ideas, self-learning, attending conferences and teaching. I did sometimes struggle to progress my research idea but had great support from my supervisor. It has benefitted me a lot, helping me to stand out from the crowd.

“I am progressing in my career as a senior risk analyst with Bank of Ireland. Employers love independent learners and this comes with a doctorate.”

Lena’s experience is positive - though many others have much more mixed feelings.

PhDs are a big commitment - and not just financially.

Spending three or four years focused on one topic can be intense, frustrating and lonely.

There’s no guarantee of a job in academia afterwards and those who do stay in the higher education system often have to work as postdoctoral researchers for many years and build up a good publication record before they will have even a distant hope of securing a job.

PhD graduates themselves have mixed feelings on the value of their qualification.

The Irish Times spoke to one man who had considered a PhD and spent months working on a research proposal, only for the academic he would have been working with to withdraw a week before the deadline.

When he considered that he would have to spend several years earning no more than €16,000, he decided not to proceed.

Two other young academics said that, with PhD numbers higher than ever before, competition is fierce. Outside of academia, however, graduates can have much better opportunities.

PhDs: in numbers

8,826 - Number of PhD candidates in 2015 - 25 per cent

Proportion of PhDs in natural sciences, maths and statistics, the most popular category of study

€10.3 million

- How much Trinity took in the highest PhD income in 2014. It takes in the highest

- 90 per cent

Proportion of PhDs in universities - the remainder are in colleges or institutes of technology