Review of “The disposable academic”

The disposable academic: why doing a PhD is often a waste of time

I reign in my own negativity about getting a PhD. This article from the Economist (Dec 16, 2010) is even more negative. The bulk of the article is the usual, pointing out the supply-and-demand problem, points the finger of blame at universities and professors who benefit from cheap grad student & postdoc labor, and acknowledges (but doesn’t blame) the graduate students who admit that they decided to get a PhD because they didn’t know what else to do.

I find it comforting that others feel more negatively about PhD programs than I do. The author comes across as discouraging anyone from getting a PhD. I get the feeling that the word “often” was inserted into the title by an editor and against the wishes of the author. I almost, but not quite, agree. There is one good reason to get a PhD, and that is because you know of a specific job that you want to have, and you need a PhD to get that job. Preferably, the employer has already hired you & is sending you to grad school to get your PhD so you can do that job! (I know someone who did that.)

From the article: “Academics tend to regard asking whether a PhD is worthwhile as analogous to wondering whether there is too much art or culture in the world.” The author goes on to say this might be true but doesn’t mean the PhD is good for the individual (distinguishing the good of the many from the good of the few). I will go out on a limb and disagree with the premise that it is not possible to have too much knowledge, art or culture in the world.

It’s often said that if all the musicians were killed, that there would still be music, because the silent or inferior musicians would suddenly be the most talented musicians, and those without any musical ability would discover they have average musical ability. I agree with this, my husband has no musical ability at all but still gets requests for the lullaby he sang to our daughter when she was young. When I first heard him sing it, I couldn’t tell what the melody was supposed to be. Yet I love to hear him sing it now. So, I could agree with the statement that it is not possible to have too little music in the world. Not because I don’t love music, but because it simply isn’t possible. You can keep taking away the music and we will keep producing it, we have an endless supply.

Let’s assume that to be true of art, culture and knowledge, at least under the condition that the internet exists.

But too much? Is it possible to have too much music, art, culture and knowledge? I argue YES. Art & culture become commonplace won’t be valued. As far as knowledge, we’ve already achieved too much. That is not to say that we have discovered all that is worth discovering, we have learned all that is there to learn, of course we haven’t and there is much more to be learned and to discover. And yet we have achieved too much knowledge, in that too many people know too much.

“Workers with “surplus schooling”—more education than a job requires—are likely to be less satisfied, less productive and more likely to say they are going to leave their jobs.” Although this statement isn’t referenced, let’s assume that the author really did read a study somewhere and intended to cite it. We need workers to do jobs that don’t require a lot of education. If the workforce is full of overeducated workers, then we have too much knowledge. Those workers resent the time they wasted acquiring knowledge that they don’t use or share. They’re not doing their job as well as they would if they hadn’t acquired that knowledge.

Every time someone regrets their PhD is an instance of too much knowledge in the world. I don’t want knowledge to become an ivory tower for the elite few, inaccessible to the common man. I want knowledge to be freely available for the taking. The difference is, people enter into an arduous PhD program on a whim, and regret it, while we don’t generally regret the time spent browsing a topic or researching a specific question.

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