A Critique of the Nature article that says a PhD isn’t for Everyone

Oh lord. A Nature story is going viral on my twitter, “Teach undergraduates that doing a PhD will require them to embrace failure.” The piece is about how not all students are a good fit for a PhD. Agreed. But the tweet that Nature put out was this one sentence excerpt:

“The two most common causes of hardship in PhD students are an inability to accept failure and choosing this career path for the prestige, rather than out of any real interest in research.” ~Irini Topalidou, Nature (18 Oct 2018)

No wonder people are pissed. Graduate students face so many, much more prevalent challenges, and more universal problems, including mental health, having to pick a new topic, financial stress, hazing, imposter syndrome, no work-life balance, isolation, and the list goes on. The “inability to accept failure” and “choosing this career path” wrongly aren’t in the top 10. I doubt they’d even rank among the top 20.

But. When you look past the tweet, there is something in the article worth discussing.

What the Nature Article Gets Right

What Nature tweeted wasn’t the article’s premise. The article’s thrust is that there is a real need to provide more instructions about and require those considering graduate work to research career outcomes, challenges, and strongly consider whether a PhD really is right for them.

I agree. Every student – in every undergraduate major and grad program – needs more support and training in career options, how to research careers, and how to build a thriving career. No arguments there.

Some Things the Nature Article Gets Wrong

But there’s tons of other things the Nature article gets wrong. Here are my top 4.

Why People Choose the PhD

The author says that one of the reasons students choose a PhD path is for the prestige. I disagree. There are all kinds of reasons people choose to do a PhD. Some of them, maybe it is the prestige. But for most academics I work with it’s some mix of the following:

  • curiosity about the academic subject
  • wanting to learn more
  • being unsure of what to do, so doing grad school as a means of delaying career decisions
  • familial / cultural / social expectations that they *should* go to grad school or do a career that requires it
  • because they have looked at what jobs are out there and know they need at least a Master’s degree to stay competitive

And here’s the thing: none of those are bad or wrong reasons. Period.

That Career Instruction Will Reduce PhD Numbers

Even if schools pursued the article’s suggestion to train undergraduates in “the realities of doing a PhD,” it’s one thing to offer instruction in something and quite another to assume that students will take that information and opt out of a given path.

Some will. Some won’t.

While I support offering more career coaching and career planning instruction to all undergraduate and graduate students, even those who do that work, it often boils down to a very personal decision that lies at the intersection of risk tolerance, need, and desire. Take me, for instance. I KNEW already when I applied to grad programs in Museum Studies that my career prospects were not good. Competition is fierce. The market is supersaturated with qualified folks. The pay is terrible. Jobs are few and far between. And yet I STILL chose to accept those obstacles and pursue my path anyway.

That Career Instruction Would Stay Relevant / Current

Given that rate at which higher ed is evolving, there is no reason to expect that the instruction offered undergraduates in career outcomes for PhDs in their field will be current or applicable 3 to 11 years from then, the time it will take them to finish a PhD.

Especially as graduate programs are grappling with and adapting to calls for change. They can no longer skate by without offering more responsive and flexible curricula in the face of the alt-ac career realities that 80%+ of their graduate students will NOT end up as tenure-track faculty.

Any career instruction offered to undergraduates is likely to be stale by the time they are mid-way through any PhD program. Sure, it would still give them career planning and outcome research skills…which presumably they would continue to apply as they worry about their job prospects.

Some would choose to drop out at that point as they did research on job prospects. And some would fall prey to the sunk cost fallacy.

Who Owns This Responsibility

The final thing that the article gets wrong is who needs to take responsibility for developing solutions.

The author implies that undergrad programs need “to offer tutorials to raise awareness of the realities of doing a PhD.” That it is the duty of educators to “fully impart” the realities of doing a PhD. That Principal Investigators “should help them understand the demands and expectations of postgraduate research.” And that “students [themselves] should be encouraged to learn about the challenges of graduate school from their peers and professors.”

Okay, sure, all of those can be avenues to helping teach prospective graduate students of the realities and challenges they will face. But really? Nothing about graduate programs themselves? At a time when graduate school enrollment is up, in large part as undergraduates try to get a leg up on their competition by getting a higher degree to improve job prospects? When graduate schools are increasing program offerings to attract more students to offset the cuts to undergraduate funding? And when graduate students are carrying more and more debt? And when graduate students are increasingly vocal about the need for greater career outcome transparency and scholarly associations are advising that universities consider restricting admissions?

The onus is not on individual students (or even individual faculty) to solve the systemic problems of a jobs crisis and oversaturation of the labor market.