Why Do a PhD?

The news that the University of Queensland intends that no PhD student should leave with "just" a thesis (HES, January 17) prompted mixed feelings. As a PhD student in the early 1990s I recognised, as most do, that a good researcher doesn't necessarily make a good teacher, and thought that some formal teacher training could be a useful addition to the degree. One potential problem with this, though, was that it might exclude PhD degrees from the "research only" category and turn them into full-fee-paying coursework degrees, placing them out of reach of many potential students.

UQ hopes to avoid this by creating separate graduate certificates to instill not only better teaching skills but also such others as "project management", "report writing", and "science writing". Any PhD graduate could confirm that carrying out doctoral research implicitly requires and hones these skills. If you can't manage projects or write reports you cannot write a successful PhD thesis.

UQ's Professor Lawson says that this is an attempt to "certify to prospective employers that graduates actually have these skills". But how much certification does one need? Most PhD graduates already have the undergraduate and honours degrees to qualify them for most white-collar work.

The true problem lies elsewhere, as hinted at in your reporter's statement that "a growing number" of PhD graduates are "seeking work outside [research and academe] and are heading off into other professions". For a significant proportion of 90s graduates the implications of this phrasing are, I suspect, misleading. We didn't jump; we were pushed.

Until the 1990s, most students commencing the degree would have done so with the expectation of working in academe or a research institution on graduation, if they weren't already.

Then came the 90s, when Dawkins-era increases in undergraduate numbers flowed through to postgraduate numbers at the same time as staff numbers fell and academic openings dried up. Anyone who was a new PhD graduate looking for academic work in Australia in the mid-90s will remember when the HES shrank drastically in size from the reduction in job ads. The market has remained extremely tight ever since, and the chances for a new graduate who doesn't already work in academe of finding academic work here are slim.

Many have, naturally enough, "headed off into other professions", or headed off overseas where the prospects are better. You can't sit around waiting for a lectureship your whole life.

Despite this, I don't know any PhD graduates who would say that their study was a waste of time: it brings a sense of personal achievement, it contributes to knowledge in one's field, and it imbues valuable skills. But while most PhD graduates would be perfectly capable of working in non-academic and non-research professions, there are already other degrees better suited to those different roles. They're called coursework-masters degrees. Or honours degrees. Or bachelor degrees.

The problem for universities is that, as your accompanying story says, "research higher degree performance is now a significant funding index for large slices of federal funds". Australia now finds itself with a Government that encourages the production of researchers on the one hand while discouraging potential researchers by reducing academic employment opportunities on the other. Our universities are, after all, our country's major research institutions.

The University of Queensland's move to supplement the PhD with graduate certificates highlights this very contradiction—as would any attempt to turn the research PhD into a degree aimed at non-research professions—and raises the uncomfortable question: in a country whose Government seems to be paying only lip-service to research, why do a PhD?


Letter published in The Australian's Higher Education section (HES), 24 January 2001.
This page: 24 January 2001; last modified 5 July 2004.

©2001 Rory Ewins