Everything does pass, and we can endure and we can survive!! – Rahul Dravid
Recently I read an article titled ‘The Ph.D. factory – The world is producing more Ph.D.s than ever before. Is it time to stop?‘ The same issue of the journal had several other articles on the Ph.D. degree, how it no longer guarantees a ticket to an academic career, and needs some serious rethinking, on how the program needs to be reformed from the practice of the middle ages, and what the degree is really worth in the job market. Ah, but the list does not end there. These are probably practical aspects of having this degree, and how it can help you to earn a livelihood. But is that the only end that a student of science sees? I will not deny that one needs food to eat, clothes to wear, and a house to live in. And all of us study hard to land in a job that will enable us to live well. But to push this degree altogether into a category of ‘necessary skills’ to make a living or be part of a ‘labour market’ to contribute to economic growth is just criminal. The idea of doing science goes into the heart of evolution of the human brain, how it has a thirst for knowledge, and how it thrives on the sheer satisfaction of deciphering how the world works around him/her. I may be a romantic in stating this, but this is an aspect many seem to overlook in the rat race of making money, name and fame. If one is looking for any of these, science is not a business and not the arena in which to fight for! Interestingly enough, post-doctorates even though specialized in their area of research, are a set of people with a remarkable sense of adaptability and do well in several fields. Whether they are in a job of their choice, or forced to be in one to earn their living is a separate issue.
Before the Second World War, I believe, getting a Ph.D. degree was a privilege, and such a degree holder was held in the highest regard, and was looked upon as an intellectual thinker. The past two or three decades however, has seen an explosion in the number of people obtain a doctorate degree, and with it, a sort of dilution in the quality of their science. There is increasing competition to secure an academic position and to obtain funding for research projects. The selection criteria for people has evolved into one based on the number of journal paper publications, and not based on creativity, motivation, talent, or sincerity. This trend has fostered a ‘publish or perish’ attitude, where researchers want to churn out quick and dirty publications, merely to increase their number in their curriculum vitae. Several of these publications often lack in comprehensive analysis, sound arguments and make unfounded claims. The criteria for selecting candidates for a professor position are thus stereotyped for certain type of individuals.
The fact that the peer-review system in several journals is a broken one (by that I mean two-sided anonymity of journal article submissions are not followed) compounds the problem. The journals are clogged with meaningless papers and a researcher these days spends more time sifting through them to just keep up with the literature in their field and leaves little time to diversify or broaden their horizons by reading literature outside their expertise area. The other side of the coin is not a pleasant sight either. Even if one secures an academic position, applying and obtaining funds for research projects seem to be based on how much one’s research will impact society or ‘contribute to innovation’. Science should be driven by intellectual curiosity, not by policy makers. A scientist is no less than a romantic, because he starts with the thought that anything is possible, and then uses experiments and theories to weed out that which is not. Where would we be if scientists like Max Planck thought of the impact on society when he proposed that light is composed of ‘energy packets’? Not all hypotheses are correct, not all experiments work, but we (as in all people, not just scientists) have to have the perspective and tenacity to support exploratory, high-risk research rather than a goal-based problem solving approach. I do not think we (atleast I) have the clairvoyance to say what is worth and not worth doing. Science is not just about finding ways to cure disease, or discover ways to prolong one’s life. It is rare to find proposals (funded i.e.) where one is allowed to do ‘innocent’ research – a project that is more exploratory and one that has no policy relevance. To quote my own Ph.D. work, what policy relevance can be there by knowing how the atoms in a molecule dance (study of vibrations) when light is shown on them? Albert Einstein said, “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious – the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science.”
Addressing a more practical issue, what can a Ph.D. scientist do? Several things, encompassing both academics and industry. They can step into an academic career of a professor, a teacher, a policy maker, or academic administration; or in an industry environment, join ‘R & D’ labs, even join Wall Street jobs! The last possibility, I think has some interesting background to it. I have seen articles where they argue that brilliant scientists are drawn into such high-paying jobs because the competition for funding within academics, and also the fact that professors are typically not as well-paid as people in other careers. But there is good reason to it. Given that aspiring post-doctorates are looking for satisfying careers and do not want to channel their energy to scratch someone else’s back so as to publish papers, or get funding, can we blame them? I am not saying that the back-scratching happens all the time, but politics is inevitably present in academics too. Some become disillusioned because of this culture, others choose to go away from it all. That being said, my point here was to merely mention that Ph.D. as a degree is not limited to the life of a professor, and one finds science Ph.D. degree holders in all kinds of fields. In my case, I did not worry about where my Ph.D. would lead me, but allowed me to enjoy what I like and do most – research. Regardless of how some people label post-doctorates as ‘the ugly underbelly of academia’, I could not care less, because I think it is important to do what one likes most, so much so that it becomes an integral part of your life. Curiosity-driven research has an innocence, perseverance and purity to it, something that every science student should keep in mind. Whether I land up being a professor, or someone else, I will know when I cross the bridge!