Wednesday, October 19, 2011

What if you want a PhD but don't plan to do research after?

I was thinking the other day about the different reasons a person might want to get a PhD, and I wondered if those who weren't necessarily intending to be researchers when they were done would be valued as highly during their grad school years as those who did.

Academic 

I suppose the most common reason to get a PhD is because you want to do research, either as a professor in an academic setting or at a research lab (industry or otherwise).  After all, this is what the actual PhD work teaches you more than anything else: how to do research.  Sure, there are opportunities to improve and practice your teaching as well, but it's certainly not required.  Some people don't even want to be TA's because of the time it takes away from their main task.

But is it not also perfectly legitimate to get a PhD because you simply want to learn more about something? To have the opportunity for academic and other experiences that you'd never have otherwise? Or maybe you want to work on a particular problem not because you love the world of research in and of itself, but because that problem is something you are passionate about solving.

Perhaps you want to just teach when you are done.  Sure, you might not need more than a Masters to do that in a university setting, but the reasons above may be enough to take it that step further.  Or maybe you want to continue working on solving that problem you started working on as a business venture or within another company.  Maybe you see the solution as something that can make the world a better place.

Are students whose primary post-grad goals do not include research less valued during their PhD, assuming they have fairly good (but not top) research ability combined with other excellent qualities (such as leadership, etc)? Do they get less scholarships and recognition? Do they suffer more because of the Publish or Perish mantra?

I don't know the answers, but while I would like to think this wouldn't be the case I suspect that it could easily be.  Does it matter? What are your thoughts?

17 comments:

Kate said...

Gail, I totally think you can do a PhD for other reasons than doing research in an academic or industrial setting. Being passionate about a particular area or field or simply wanting to learn deeply about an area are two areas you raised that would appeal to me, for example. I think there's nothing wrong with that - those people will still add to the body of knowledge and expertise - but I think it's important for students to deeply consider their reasons for undertaking such a commitment and think carefully on how it fits with the rest of their career/life goals, so that they aren't sacrificing those for a PhD that won't necessarily directly or immediately contribute to them.

Gail Carmichael said...

Totally agree - especially the last part. Do you think this type of student is or should be as highly valued (in terms of financial aid, awards, and recognition) as the one whose sole focus is on research?

Ioana Burcea said...

I'm not sure I understand the relationship between job intention after graduation and the recognition during the degree. Recognition should be based on record (publications, involvement, leadership, etc). I don't recall any time when I had to justify why I wanted to pursue a PhD.

That being said, I strongly believe that you get more out of the PhD if you tailor your focus according to the type of job you want to pursue once you're done. You can develop different skills during your PhD (that's one of the major perks) and I think it's better if you develop relevant skills to what you're interested in doing once you're done.

Gail Carmichael said...

I guess where I'm coming from is the fact that the reason for doing to the PhD might lead you to take on other activities that mean you won't have quite as amazing a publication record (or maybe generally make you not as good a researcher as those who focus solely on research). This is likely to make you look not as good when applying for many (most?) scholarships. But does it matter? Would it make sense to reward those doing well in other ways? I'm not sure.

Eugenia said...

Hi Gail,

A fellow PhD student in my lab primarily plans to teach. A PhD student I met while doing undergrad also ended up as a teaching professor. Both gained a lot from their PhDs but just realized that they were most passionate about teaching and sharing knowledge. I think it's just important to realize what you love and tailor your PhD to that. It's a long commitment but can be very rewarding!

Gail Carmichael said...

Yes! Speaking of teaching professors, I wish we had more of those. We have instructors at our school, but they are paid less than professors and don't have tenure and promotion opportunities like professors do.

SudburyJay said...

I think with scholarships you need to look at the goal of those scholarships. The big ones in Ontario if computer scientists, NSERC and OGS, were established to help train the next generation of Canadian researchers. That is why they are so focused on research excellence rather than teaching since they are not aimed to train the next generation of teachers.

Gail Carmichael said...

Exactly. And I'd say most are aimed that way at this level, though I could be wrong. This may make sense, since the primary goal of the PhD is to learn how to research, but I wonder if there were more scholarships and such for the other paths if that would be a good thing too. For instance, maybe it would help attract and retain more women in fields like CS.

Gail Carmichael said...

(Actually, even with NSERC, it might make sense because they do have a lot of programs that are related to science outreach and education as well as for research...)

Alfred Thompson said...

I tend to think that research PhDs are over valued. Or rather the ones doing university research. I see the real value being in training PhDs to do research or development in industry. Of course I am biased as I work in industry and not in any sort of research. I see the second highest value in training good teachers. This is because I value the work of the university in turning out researchers rather than research itself. I understand this is not the view in the university of course. :-)

Kate said...

Hi Gail,

To respond to your comment, yes I do. I think that students who learn to use their training and apply their knowledge in ways outside of traditional research are more valuable in a sense that they are more well-rounded and can become useful to society outside of just one facet of it. Luckily I think there are many avenues of support for this - for example I was able to get an industrial scholarship from NSERC that paid just as much as their academic scholarships.

Kate said...

I should add that I was lucky to have a professor who saw value in different applications of research and was happy to work with his students to find the best path for them.

Gail Carmichael said...

I like the way you both think (Alfred and Kate). ;)

And I totally forgot about the industrial NSERC - really good point!

SudburyJay said...

Well I think a teaching-based scholarship, in theory, would be an interesting idea, I don't think the state of academia would support it.

Unfortunately, universities hire people based more on their research skill than their teaching skills. So if someone got a scholarship to become a good teacher they would likely focus their attendion more on teaching and would not have outstanding publication records. This would result in them never actually getting a teaching job and wasting the training provided by the scholarship.

SudburyJay said...

And to Alfred's comment, I think saying industrial research is more valuable than university research is a stretch. Perhaps in the short term there is more financial benefit to industrial research, since the company wants to make money, but in the long run I would think university research would be more valuable since it would be more widely distributed (not hoarded by the company).

Also, I think in order to teach research skills you need to be a good researcher. People who don't actively conduct research will have a hard time training the next generation of researcher. They would be better suited for teaching them specific scientific topics (courses).

Gail Carmichael said...

Especially in Canada, you can't get a professorship with just teaching. But I wish you could. When I heard about the positions in liberal arts colleges in the States, I really wished we had that here (and, specifically, in Ottawa since I don't want to move..hehe).

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

The PhD in engineering fields (like CS) has two values: for getting into a self-directed research position and for getting a job as a professor.

For almost any other purpose, the MS is the appropriate degree. In many programs the course work for the MS is essentially the same as for the PhD, so for learning existing material the two are nearly equivalent. The main addition for the PhD is doing original research. Of doing original research is not the goal, the PhD is pretty much a waste of time.

One does not, however, have to commit to doing original research for the rest of one's life. If the 3–8 years of a PhD sates your desire for research, then chalk it up to life experience and find some other way to use your talents.

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