THE BLOG

The Value of a PhD

20/01/2014 16:11 GMT | Updated 22/03/2014 09:59 GMT

What is a PhD worth?

This is an important question, and not just for the person considering undertaking doctoral studies. What is a PhD worth to our society?

An article by Audrey Williams June last week in the Chronicle of Higher Education explored the huge debts that people are taking on in order to get PhDs, even when they are aware that they might not get tenure-track jobs after they've completed their studies and might not even earn enough to be able to pay off their debts.

One can ask why individuals are willing to taking on hundreds of thousands of dollars (or pounds) in debt in order to spend an additional three to eight (or sometimes more) years studying. But that's not a terribly difficult question to answer, really. For many people, the joy of studying and learning, the joy of contributing to a field and to the larger pool of knowledge, the joy of having a few years solely for reading, writing, researching, and thinking is worth almost any sum of money. Of course some people do it because they're desperate to have the "Dr." title, or because they think it will help them eventually get a job, or because they don't know what else to do with their lives. But even those students with slightly more pragmatic, or cynical, reasons still thirst for knowledge.

The question that June's article leaves me with is why people should have to take on such debt. Why don't we, as a society, make a habit out of supporting PhD students with grants to cover their fees and their living expenses?

In order to make a case for that, we have to consider this: What do people with PhDs contribute to our society?

To start with, they are the people who teach the next generation at university (and, obviously, sometimes at primary or secondary school as well). They are the one who help shape minds, careers, and lives. They are frequently huge influences on young people.

People with PhDs also do much of the research that leads to advances in all sorts of fields. They study genes and cells and try to find cures or treatments for diseases. They explore the environment and explain climate change, they predict the explosion of volcanoes or devastation of hurricanes, and they analyse air quality. They explain how literature works, how books get translated, how artists produced their masterpieces, how people make financial decisions, why certain industries are collapsing, and what various rituals mean in different societies.

They write popular and academic articles and books in order to advance and spread knowledge. They comment on current events, give lectures, appear on radio and TV. They invent new technologies. They solve problems. They critique existing works or ideas, and offer new ones. In short, it is often people with PhDs who contribute much of the theoretical, and sometimes the practical, material to our society.

Sure, I've heard all the jokes. I can't tell you the number of times that someone laughed at me for getting a PhD and said, "Hey, you know what PhD stands for? 'Pile the bullshit higher and deeper.'" Others have said, "A 'phudnik' is just a 'nudnik' with a PhD." In other words, they think people with PhDs are bores who don't contribute to society. They think people with PhDs do nothing of value, and maybe are nothing of value.

But would our world develop at the same pace and in some of the same directions without these so-called "phudniks"?

No, clearly it would not. We need knowledge, and we need people to be the keepers of this knowledge, and the advancers of this knowledge. Hence we need to encourage young people to get PhDs.

But should they go into debt in order to do this?

No, they definitely should not.

Since people with PhDs often contribute to society, society in turn might want to help support them. It shouldn't cost so much to go on to advanced study. Perhaps PhD programmes should be free, supported by tax-payers, and those who are working towards PhDs should receive bursaries to cover their living expenses. In exchange, they can agree to work in a certain field or for a particular university or company or organisation for a specified number of years after completion. Those who don't complete can be required to pay back the bursaries they received.

It isn't reasonable for smart, motivated people to go into debt in order to become highly educated citizens who contribute to society. There is a lot of value in PhDs, and it's time that we show just how much we value them.