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Friday, April 22, 2011

Are PhDs Irrelevant in Developed Economies?

The world is producing more PhDs today than at any time in history. Is it time to re-examine the place of PhDs ?

Many years ago, scientist who obtained a PhD belonged to an exclusive, privileged province of a small priesthood. But this is no longer the case. Between 1998 and 2008 the number of science PhDs earned in the OECD countries grew by 40%. The growth is showing no signs of abating because a majority of countries, especially the emerging economies like China and India see a highly educated workforce as being inextricable linked with economic growth. However, in OECD countries science PhD graduates may never get a chance to deploy the full extent of their specialized training.

In the US, the proportion of scientists with PhDs who get tenured positions in universities is dropping dramatically. Industry is not picking up the surplus PhDs. The PhD labor market in Japan is equally dismal. The demand for academic positions at PhD level is on the decline because enrollment in Japanese universities is dropping. Japanese industry has no place for PhDs because traditionally, they prefer fresh undergraduates who can be trained on the job. In 2009 the tried to sell off young postdocs to industry at $47,000 without much success.

The plight of PhDs in China is remarkably different from that in the US or Japan. China’s booming economy and capacity gaps in higher education guarantees that PhD holders will find a job. It is not surprising therefore that the number of PhD holders in China is going right through the roof. But with proliferation comes the problem of quality. China’s problem is the low quality of many PhD graduates. Mediocrity begets mediocrity. Many China’s educators at the PhD level are not well qualified to supervise PhD students.

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