Monday, September 3, 2012

A Science PhD is Not a Waste of Time -- A Doctorate Lasts a Lifetime

You may have seen some of the articles on recipients of science PhDs who may not be gainfully employed, which, may simply mean that they could not get a tenure-track job in academia.

You may even have read or heard that "Getting a PhD in science is a waste of time" because of the years involved in taking courses, doing the research, and writing and defending the dissertation, at a salary or stipend that does not compare to a well-paying job.

Reading such articles, including a recent one in The Washington Post, frankly, I felt as though there was some sort of anti-science conspiracy in the US, when, ironically, so many students from abroad are flocking to US institutions of higher education for degrees in science, engineering, and related professions.

At the same time, various scientific organizations, as well as companies, are arguing for enhanced education and more students in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields,with a recent OpEd piece in The New York Times, by Thomas L. Friedman, "I Made the Robot Do it," discussing how a soon to be released programmable robot and associated technology may not only help to create good jobs but also eliminate bad ones.

Friedman begins his OpEd with an infamous quote by a congressman and member of the House Science Committee, which makes Friedman wonder some days how the US became thr richest, most powerful country, and, more important, how we are going to stay there.  He thanks God that there are still innovators and entrepreneurs who are not interested in politics but who go out and invent stuff and fix stuff and collaborate on stuff. Sounds to me exactly what a science PhD is about.

Friedman attended a design workshop at Rethink Robotics near Logan Airport in Boston and the company's founder, Richard Brooks, who has a PhD, is also behind the Roomba vacuum cleaner. A few days ago, while dropping off my daughter at college, I met one of the Board of Directors of this company, whose daughter is my daughter's dorm-mate, and I had one of the most intellectually stimulating conversations on technology, cloud computing, and ideas for the future with him.

Now, there is another voice of reason.

Daniel Lametti, an advanced  doctoral student, in an article in Slate,  "Is a Science Ph.D. a Waste of Tine?" writes that: focusing on the hypothetical financial loss ignores why many graduate students pursue a Ph.D. in the first place: intellectual curiosity. The biggest perk of graduate school in science is getting paid to learn. Many of the people I spoke to missed the intellectual and logistical freedom of graduate school--being able to set their own hours and pursue a wide range of academic activities. Nobody expressed regret about working towards a science Ph.D.; graduate school, most said, was a lot of fun. I'd have to agree.

In addition, Lametti notes that: the product of a doctoral education has been a dissertation--a body of research that, in a small way, moves a field forward. There's nothing wrong with contributing to science and then moving on. The work won't disappear. 

And my favorite line from Lametti: Dissertations are published and doctorates last a lifetime.

In the article, he also highlighted cases of how methodologies learned while a doctoral student, such as statistics and computer programming (although I hope that some of these tools would have been learned as an undergraduate student), can be applied in many different sectors. We all have friends who have left academia to go into the private sector, including Wall Street, precisely because of such marketable skills.

In such fields as operations research and management science, the latter is the track that my doctoral students concentrate in at the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst, there are numerous opportunities in academia and industry after getting the PhD and some even move between the two. Of course, statistics, computer programming, plus modeling and optimization and algorithms, are essential tools for scientific research in operations research / management science.

In honor of science, technology, invention, and getting a PhD, below I have posted a photo of my Roomba, which I had mentioned in an earlier post, was a present given to me by a doctoral student, whose dissertation I had chaired. He is now a professor educating others.