The number of PhDs has been exceeding the available academic positions since as early as the mid-1990s.
The number of Australian PhD graduates reached around 10,000 a year in 2019, twice as many as in 2005.
However, the number of PhDs has been exceeding the available academic positions since as early as the mid-1990s. In 2020, universities purged around 10% of their workforce due to the pandemic, and many university careers are still vulnerable.
Given these statistics, you might wonder if doing a PhD is still a good idea. Based on our discussions with PhD holders, there are still plenty of very good reasons, which is good news in 2021.
In June 2020 we interviewed 12 PhD holders from multiple disciplines for our podcast Career Sessions to investigate the question: why do a PhD?
Why do a PhD?
The PhD is a mechanism for developing high-level research skills, learning about rigours of science or the development of theory. It sets you up with project management, problem-solving and analytical skills that are meaningful within and beyond academia.
“It just taught me all those transferable skills, project management, and also now starting businesses. I'm amazed at how close starting a business is to doing a science project." – Dr Andy Stapleton
For our interviewees, the PhD is an opportunity to dive deeply into a topic they are passionate about. They also considered contributing new knowledge to be a privilege. The process taught them to be better thinkers, critical thinkers, and to view the world through new eyes.
“The mental fitness to work at a high level, to be able to think at a high level, to be able to write it […] The topic is less important." – Dr Gareth Furber
The PhD is a voyage of discovery to a better understanding of how things work. It gives them a credible platform from which their voice can be heard and respected, and they can contribute to change.
“I think it's definitely like a springboard or something. It launches you into a whole other place and it gives you […] more of a voice. It's a political act for me. It's about making change." – Dr Elizabeth Newnham
The PhD is a tough and sometimes painful journey, but ultimately rewarding. The extraordinary was tempered by frustration, and the experience shaped their lives, increasing self-confidence and leading to new self-awareness.
When asked whether they would they do it again, no-one hesitated in saying “yes".
“You will never stretch your brain in a way that a PhD forces you to." – Professor Kate Douglas.
The PhD is not necessarily a golden ticket to an academic career, but the experience and skills you develop will be meaningful for your future.
“What I'd done in my PhD gave me a lot broader sense than just my own personal experience. There were a lot of people that have heard me speak and a lot of that's been informed by the PhD. So it might not be direct, but it's informed who I am." – Dr Susan Close
Advice from our guests
Keep both your eyes and your mind open. Pick a topic you are passionate about. Speak to people both within and outside academia to find out where this could lead. Think about whether you actually need a PhD to get to where you want to be.
You'll have to make some judgement calls about how a PhD can fit into your life.
And find the right supervisor! They are the most important relationship you will have throughout your candidature, and they are a solid reference for what comes next. Finding the right supervisor will always enhance your PhD experience.
A PhD isn't right for everyone. Ask yourself, is it the right time for you and your research interests? Are you resilient? Mental health among PhD students is poor.
Our podcast guests have witnessed PhD students' struggles. The pathway of a PhD candidate is not linear. There are many ups and downs. You will meander in many unplanned directions and often take wrong turns.
When you have completed your PhD, the hard work is really just starting. It is a gateway, but there are a lot of PhDs out there. It is what comes next that really counts.
“It's a gateway. You're learning how to do research. But if you really want to be successful afterwards, you need to apply that, and be diligent about that as well, and have a good work ethic." – Dr Mark Krstic
A PhD in any field is an achievement. Even the most niche topics will contribute knowledge to a field that is important for many people. The reward is intrinsic and only you can identify how doing a PhD will contribute to your life. It gives you a great toolkit to identify the doors that are appropriate for you.
“The first paper was the most exciting thing. […] at that time I thought of papers as like a version of immortality. My name is on something that will last forever. I think this is my legacy." – Dr Cameron Shearer
Guests of Career Sessions podcast and what they are doing now. Author provided.
Tamara Agnew, Researcher, College of Nursing and Health Sciences, Flinders University and Stephanie Champion, Postdoctoral Research Associate, College of Nursing and Health Sciences, Flinders University
American universities used to be small centers of rote learning, but three big ideas turned them into intellectual powerhouses.
- American universities used to be small denominational schools with little research output.
- Competition between schools in the late 19th century drove many schools to innovate.
- Today, America has many top universities and the lion's share of Nobel Prize winners.
List after list confirms it. The United States, by far, has the best and most prestigious universities in the world.
But it wasn't always this way, and there was no guarantee that this outcome would happen. According to a new essay by W. Bentley MacLeod and Miguel Urquiola and published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a series of innovations at American universities combined with lots of funding accidentally created a system that valued research, promoted talent sorting, and provided lots of cash to fund bigger and better schools.
The three big ideas: Sorting, performance review, tenure
According to the authors, you would have hardly recognized any of the original colleges in the United States. Schools might have a hundred students and perhaps five poorly paid professors who taught several disparate classes at once. The curriculum was limited and excluded things like business or engineering. Most students, who could be as young as 14, learned by rote. Schools were set up by denomination, with most students selecting to go somewhere close to home that matched their particular stance on Christianity. Research efforts were minimal.
It wasn't until after the Civil War that things began to change. Professors were hired for their expertise, schools began to specialize, and students started to pay less attention to the denomination of the school they wanted to attend. The number of colleges exploded, and things that worked in one were often taken up elsewhere.
The authors propose that this turnaround was made possible by the accidental convergence of a few things that America enjoyed and Europe lacked. Low entry requirements meant new schools with new ideas popped up all the time, the large number of schools allowed for more experimentation in how schools operated, and the variety of choices students and staff had led to self-sorting towards institutions that excelled in particular fields.
Some of the more famous cases of experimentation, Johns Hopkins and Cornell, sought to emulate the specialization of European schools, while others, such as the University of Chicago, prioritized hiring the most qualified staff — even when they were already working at other universities.
Over time, schools placed less emphasis on religious affiliation and began to focus on specialization. Admissions standards began to rise at some schools, sorting high-achieving (or high status) students into programs with highly qualified staff.
The effort to find and maintain high-quality staff led to the creation of performance review standards in different fields. These systems, which often had accomplished professors reviewing their peers, encouraged more high-quality research output. Those who performed well often gained secure contracts to teach and conduct research — that is, tenure — which further encouraged high achievement.
All of this was made possible by large amounts of state and private funding, the latter often from proud alumni.
"What became challenging for all these universities once they started emphasizing research is how to incentivize that activity. One thing that agency theory shows is that one way to achieve this is to create somewhat lumpy rewards. That is to say, rewards that don't necessarily give you a little bit more for a little bit more output but rather create a big prize. Tenure has that flavor. It basically says if your research output is high enough you're going to get a lifetime contract at this university. Tenure has a couple of benefits that come out of agency theory. One is that these types of lumpy rewards can be particularly good when you make people compete against each other. The emergence of it in the US, in fact, helped place the US on good footing to compete at research with Europe, which does not have that institution as much."
Taken together, these factors created a virtuous cycle. The authors describe it as producing "resources to invest in research, which they could effectively incentivize; this helped attract strong students and funding, which could go into further reforms and enhancements."
By the 1920s, the US had overtaken Germany — the European country with the strongest universities in the early 20th century — in the share of Nobel Prize winners and never looked back.
The side effect: Inequality
All of this does produce one side effect well known to Americans: inequality. While the greatest American schools do well across the board, many other schools are comparatively middling. The authors point to one ranking list which illustrates this. According to the Shanghai Ranking, 41 of the top 100 universities globally are American, but while 83 percent of public universities in Spain make the top 1000, only about 23 percent of American ones do.
This is partly the result of the American system being as sorted as it is, so the best researchers and students tend to go to the same places. The European model, on the other hand, ensures equality of resources between different schools within a country.
Today, universities on both sides of the Atlantic share ideas, but retain their own character. For instance, tenure, which so benefited American schools, exists in an altered form in Europe.
Why isn't American K-12 education as good?
While this system has produced great universities, it's difficult to apply these tools elsewhere. For example, performance evaluation has been refined for researchers at the university level, but there is still tremendous debate over what counts as high performance at the K-12 level.
Additionally, it's possible for a country to dominate in university rankings with a handful of great schools. At the K-12 level, it would require thousands of schools performing at the peak of their abilities to get a similar result.
Until that happens, Americans can take pride that their universities — through a combination of competition, experimentation, and lots and lots of money — rose from small centers of rote learning to become the greatest research institutions in the history of the world.
Children with pre-existing mental health issues thrived during the early phase of the pandemic.
- While COVID-19 physically affects adults more than children, mental health distress has increased across all age groups.
- Children between 5 and 17 sought help for mental health issues at much higher rates in 2020.
- However, a new study found children with pre-existing mental health issues experienced reduced symptoms when lockdowns began.
While the physical effects of COVID-19 have dominated headlines for the last 13 months, mental health effects are considered a simultaneous pandemic that could outlast the virus. Children have generally been resilient against the novel coronavirus (though at least one variant is hitting that demographic harder). In terms of depression and anxiety, however, children are on par with adults.
Emergency hospital visits for mental health issues in the 12-to-17-year-old demographic have jumped 31 percent since the pandemic began. Younger children have fared only slightly better: a 24 percent increase for children ages 5 to 11. In Germany, one in three children has suffered anxiety or depression over the past year. On top of this, children are having trouble learning in remote education environments.
However, at least one demographic fared better than normal, at least during the early phase of lockdowns. According to a new study, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, middle school children from a predominantly Latinx community with higher-than-normal levels of mental distress experienced a reduction in symptoms.
Children with previous mental health problems saw reduced internalizing (behaviors including being withdrawn, nervous, lonely, unwanted, or sad), externalizing (behaviors including lying, acting irresponsibly, breaking the law, or displaying lack of remorse), and other problems.
Those without mental health issues benefited as well, at least in terms of internalizing and overall behavior; there was no change in attentional issues or externalizing.
The researchers began tracking 322 children (average age 12) in January 2020, before the pandemic took hold in America. They were studied until May 2020. While this only represents a sliver of time in lockdown, senior author Carla Sharp, a psychology professor at the University of Houston, says the results have important clinical implications.
"First, promoting family functioning during COVID-19 may have helped protect or improve youth mental health during the pandemic. Further, it is important to consider cultural factors, such as familism and collectivism in Latinx communities that may buffer the early effects of disasters on mental health to COVID-19 stress."
Seven-year-old Hamza Haqqani, a 2nd-grade student at Al-Huda Academy, uses a computer to participate in an E-learning class with his teacher and classmates while at his home on May 01, 2020 in Bartlett, Illinois.Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images
Many have decried what we've lost during this past year. Indeed, the issues are many and complex. Yet we've also seen reductions in environmental damage (including noise pollution) and increased savings. We also have a greater awareness of how factory farming helps viruses proliferate. And, despite the obvious challenges of earning a living with so many businesses and industries shuttered, this time has afforded some an opportunity to reconnect with their family.
Study co-author Jessica Hernandez Ortiz says this research could inspire new avenues of addressing mental health issues in children.
"Our findings underline the importance of the family environment and Latinx collectivist values of community connection for promoting child resilience and brings into stark focus the possibility that school environments may exacerbate mental health difficulties. Removal from that context into a less pressured environment immediately and positively impacts mental health."
Since the study ended shortly into the pandemic, the novelty of family togetherness could have diminished as families became economically strained and realized that spending all their time together was more taxing than initially imagined. That said, humans are social animals that require regular contact with family and peers. The latter group might not have been available, but at least for some children, their families filled in the gaps, especially for those that did not thrive in a traditional school environment.
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
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Flying that helicopter too low is counterproductive.
- A new study at Stanford finds that giving too much direction to children can be counterproductive.
- Children that are given too much advice display more difficulty regulating their behavior and emotions at other times.
- The researchers suggest a balance between being involved while allowing children to figure things out on their own.
In a scathing indictment of the growing influence of money in the private school educational system—and therefore on education, opportunity, and social mobility in America—The Atlantic's Caitlin Flanagan investigates the increasingly troublesome trend of parental involvement in their children's schooling. She points out an anecdotal instance when, as a private school teacher, she butted heads with the same parents twice after giving their child the unforgivable grade of an A-.
One of those irate phone calls came in less than 10 minutes after handing said student their creative writing paper. This meant they left the classroom and bolted straight to the school's pay phone to complain—this was the 1990s, after all. The parents immediately phoned the school. Back then, the school had her back; today, parents yield much more influence, often in the form of endowments.
Flanagan's article highlights two important questions beyond the unyielding influence of money on education: How involved should parents be in their children's education? And what is the emotional result of too much intervention on the child?A new study, published in the Journal of Family Psychology, attempts to answer both of those questions. Led by Stanford Graduate School of Education Associate Professor Jelena Obradović, the study finds that while it's important for parents to be involved, too much direction and influence can be counterproductive.
Why helicopter parenting backfires on kids | Heather Heying | Big Think
For this study, researchers watched videos of parental behavior around their kindergarten-age children. A total of 102 children, ages four to six, were brought into the Stanford lab by their primary caregivers. The children were tasked to clean up toys, learn new games, and discuss problems. The researchers timed the length of their interactions with caregivers, such as how much direction the parents gave them when trying to solve a novel puzzle.
The results were clear.
"The children of parents who more often stepped in to provide instructions, corrections or suggestions or to ask questions – despite the children being appropriately on task – displayed more difficulty regulating their behavior and emotions at other times. These children also performed worse on tasks that measured delayed gratification and other executive functions, skills associated with impulse control and the ability to shift between competing demands for their attention."
Given the laboratory conditions—parents knew they were being watched—Obradović and team noticed that parents did not yell or check their phones. How realistic this is for such a large cohort is difficult to gauge. The team was looking for "parental over-engagement," the tendency for parents to intervene too often and not allow their children to figure things out for themselves.
Credit: Monkey Business / Adobe Stock
Of course, helping children is important as well. The team notes that aiding a child while they work on a new puzzle helps with cognitive development and independence. Striking a balance between lending a hand and letting the child struggle is important. As Obradović states, "there is a lot of variability within those averages, and our goal was to discover more subtle differences among parents who are generally doing fine."
This research is especially pertinent during the pandemic as parents and children are interacting more than ever. The overall message: if you're going to fly a helicopter, only descend when necessary.
This advice is critical for an educational system that, as Flanagan points out, is skewed to favor children from wealthy families. One startling statistic: only half of the public-school students in California are at grade reading levels; the numbers for math are even worse. As she writes, "Shouldn't the schools that serve poor children be the very best schools we have?"
Extrapolating from that idea, we can ask the same of all parents: shouldn't we work toward supporting children in the very best manner possible? Be it through influence or attention, it seems that too much of anything is usually counterproductive. Kids need to learn on their own terms, too.
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."