It's our job to make doing PhDs a better idea: 10 suggestions & a brief paean to academia

Doing a  PhD is already a perfectly fine idea.  You can tell this, because people with PhDs make more money on average than without, so contrary to popular rumour there is probably not a significant oversupply of PhDs (at least not in any economic sense), although of course it's always possible that the people who get into PhD programmes would have made more money than average either way.  But a serious economic oversupply would reduce value, and that doesn't seem to be happening.

However, there is no denying that some people suffer a lot of emotional distress in postgraduate degrees and in the pursuit of academic positions.  Personally, I had already worked for over five years in "industry" (as a programmer) before I did my postgraduate degrees, and I continued to get job offers from friends throughout my postgraduate experience, so I could always put the drama of the academic striving for status in perspective, and know that for me it was better than the boredom of a job in finance, or even the malaise of working in entertainment.  For me, being around smart people trying to figure out how the world works is interesting, and worth the time.

And what about for society, is too much money being spent on training academics?  Again, we can look at the numbers.   Countries and regions that invest money from taxpayers, student tuition, and philanthropy into great universities tend to have strong economies. Of course, correlation doesn't prove causation, but here is a simple theory of (and brief paean to) the role of universities in an economy:  they absorb risk.  Universities absorb the risk in new ideas and new people.  Industries (including the creative industries) can then take those people and ideas, pre-vetted, and make money off of them the conventional way.  And it's not all about money.  Entertainment has become an economic staple – we're that rich that we can spend money on things like computer games and movies even during recessions.  And we do, because distracting our minds matters a lot to us.  But academia is more than entertainment.  It's an intellectual exercise and examination of our selves and our world – an examination that people love and dedicate their time and resources to.  Not just academics, all kinds of readers, listeners and viewers do this.

If academia is such a great idea, then why is working in it looking increasingly like working for a drug gang, with long hours and unstable lives?  I was talking to Peter Turchin and some of his collaborators about this last night. Peter is of the opinion that oscillations of decay pervade complex systems like societies (as you will know if you've read his books), and takes the decay of the American academic system in the last 30 years as an example.  But surely those of us who understand social and evolutionary dynamics should be able to get on top of these dynamics, and nudge the system into another phase?

Let's assume we know that academia and universities are a good idea, and that PhDs appear likely to be useful on average to their holders' careers. Starting from here, then what can individual academics, academic departments and universities do to make doing a PhD a better idea?  Some simple ideas:
  1. When we interview prospective PhD students, we can make certain they understand that they only have about a 1 in 20 chance of staying in academia, and that writing their dissertations will probably take longer than their funding will last. We can make sure they understand they are setting aside a bunch of years of their promising lives to explore exciting but therefore high-risk ideas.  We can promise they will almost certainly publish (make permanent contributions to human knowledge) and travel to conferences, and we can take them into our labs and introduce them to the kinds of colleagues they'll get to spend time working with.  We can show them the good and the bad, and say "tell me now, is this really OK with you?"  
  2. We can ask them again every year or so what they are thinking concerning their careers, their living arrangements with their long-term partners and (if they have them) children.  We can try to keep their expectations reasonable.
  3. We can  throughout their time with us keep our eyes out for departments and other career options that  seem like a good idea for each particular student, and make sure they notice and network and keep their eyes out for openings.
  4. We can make sure our students and the rest of our research groups know each others' research and career goals, and that they too keep their eyes out for possibilities.  This is worth their effort –– everyone is benefited by having successful friends and colleagues.
  5. We can view our students (and encourage them to view themselves) as assistant researchers – that's what they should put on their CV.  We can try to make every year count, not being sure which year will be the last or whether a finished dissertation will be the final outcome.
  6. We can encourage our students to make career decisions that work for them.  We can point out the extra prestige, respect, and even pay or venture capital they may get if they finish their PhD.  But we should recognise and allow them to recognise that other things may matter more.
  7. We can support policies that let students complete dissertations while working part time, or even full time.  We should be very honest about the costs and consequences of not completing, and how employment or other changes of culture may alter the odds of this happening.  But we should be flexible.
  8. Wherever possible, we should support completion, even if it requires flexibility.  We should create resources and on-line communities for those trying to complete off campus.
  9. We should resist long-term adjunct positions in our departments.  Letting students get a term or two of teaching experience while covering for sabbatical or paternity leave is not only acceptable but good practice for the few who might consider becoming permanent academics.  But we need to push back and insist on the hiring of assistant professors (UK lecturers) when there is a real long-term need for teaching, even where that need might be fixed-term but longer than a year.
  10. We should take colleagues seriously when they spend time in non-academic positions.  We should review without prejudice articles and conference submissions without academic affiliations.  We should not evaluate job applicants on biased criteria like "publications per year since PhD", but rather look at "publications per year in research institutions, excluding the first year of new lecturing positions since we all know what those are like."
Additional suggestions (including links to people who had these ideas before me, sorry if I missed some) welcome. 
Edit: I wrote another, longer article on the paragraph here about the role of universities a couple years after this one.