Defending doctoral education as a viable career choice

The Nation’s William Deresiewicz has a stinging indictment of doctoral education as a career choice here.

His key point, as I see it, is that the opportunities for newly minted PhD’s are limited in the US by both the lack of mandatory retirement for tenured professors and the use of adjuncts to replace any retirements that do happen to take place.

I would say indeed he is correct factually about the above, however, the distinction between the humanities and hard sciences is somewhat blurred in his analysis, and to some extent this biases his argument.

Far more important, from my standpoint are the following:

First, there are many non-academic careers for which a PhD is not the albatross (think NY city taxi driver who reveals that he has a doctorate in political science–urban legend?) many folks would have us believe. This is especially true for all sorts of policy positions in government and NGO’s, but also very much the case for entire sectors of the global economy such has high-technology, energy and biomedical sciences that lie outside of academia.

Second, I would argue, at least in the sciences, the very best will always thrive in academia on the basis of their intellectual productivity, and for many doctoral students (as with many high performance athletes) the opportunity to make it to the elite levels is the motivational driver, immaterial of the chances for eventual success.

What I detect most in Deresiewicz’s piece is a passionate call for economic justice (perfect for a magazine like The Nation). This is admirable, but at some level irrelevant. The desire of creative human beings to create, whether in the humanities, social sciences or in the hard science disciplines, is something orthogonal to compensation levels.