Friday, June 30, 2006

What's a PhD Worth?

Hello dear readers,

I have an interesting philosophical question for you.

I have a new friend with a problem.

This person doesn't have a PhD, but has approximately the experience equivalent to one.

The job essentially entails maintaining a huge collection of highly specialized equipment, as well as training/helping anyone who walks through the door so that they can use any or all of it. This person has gone beyond that mundane description to establish industry contacts that provide state-of-the-art improvements to all the equipment.

Unfortunately because of administrative mumbo-jumbo I don't understand, this person is not getting paid their worth - nor given the authority they really need to do a great job- because they aren't appointed in the appropiate title, due to the status of being PhD null.

My question is, would it be so bad for the administration to change the rule requiring a PhD for this particular type of position?

I'm a little bit torn about this. Obviously there are situations where lab managers or technicians can attend classes, write a thesis and obtain a PhD while continuing their current jobs. It's been done before.

I'm just not sure I believe in perpetuating this system where everybody has to jump through these arbitrary hoops.

I think the most valuable things I learned in grad school I would have learned anyway if I had continued to work in a lab and seek out situations that allowed for advancement. The classes were largely a waste of time, and the 'program' didn't provide much in the way of, well, anything.

But the one nice thing about the PhD is, even if I left my postdoc position now, nobody can take away my degree. It's proof, so to speak, of my training.

And it's too bad there's nothing equivalent to validate time as a postdoc, although you couldn't pay me enough money to agree to do a 'training program', anyway.

So my question is, should I encourage this person to find a way to get a PhD, while at the same time trying to convince the appropriate Powers That Be to find a way to reward this person for what they contribute to the University? The last thing I want to do to anyone is encourage them to go to grad school!

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At 4:58 PM, Blogger dlamming said...

Having worked before going to grad school, I can honestly say that I believe the PhD experience is very different from that of a normal job. The hoops seemed arbitrary to me before - but now, I think I've come to appreciate them greatly. I don't think simply working (even going beyond one's job description) can provide the same training.

That said - in this type of situation, their value is determined by how much of an uproar it would cause if they left. If they are valuable enough (and competent techs are almost always in high demand) they should simply inform the department that they will have to put up more money/authority, or he/she will walk. If he/she is willing to walk, of course.

At 11:34 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

I agree that threatening to leave might be the best, although riskiest and probably last resort. This person is not really a tech by any definition, which is why it's kind of galling that they're insisting on this bullshit about job title.

I guess my point is, I'm not convinced a PhD is required for this particular job.

Grants and papers do not have to be written, although I can see how perhaps having someone who would be able to do that would be nice... but if that were the case, then it should be a PI position, which is quite a bit different from just requiring a PhD. I'm not sure I see how having a PhD would even matter for, say, supervising someone.

I guess I just think this person is excellent and should get all the resources that would be given to someone in the same job position who just happened to have a PhD. I also think it's probably not a job a PhD would actually want, so there's the paradox: no PhD would take the job, but I guess the implication is that the administrators (who are clueless) must think they might eventually get one? In which case this person is out of a job anyway.

At 10:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree that the PhD experience is different, but I don't think it's any more relevant than work experience. As someone else who worked for a while before going to grad school, I think that my work experience is more relevant to my academic position. And if you're not pursuing an academic position, how many PhDs actually use those 'other' skills to their fullest?

What appears to matter most is the bottom line. If the division/department/school is running in the black, then other issues can be addressed - like keeping people happy. And like I've commented before - the value of anything is what was negotiated between a willing purchaser and a willing provider. If the person is happy, then why does it matter? If the person is unhappy, then it's time to renegotiate. But always renegotiate from a position of relative strength - get all the information you can about what people with comparable job descriptions are making and the scope of their responsibilities. There may be unintended consequences to getting that raise/promotion -- things that take time away from the parts of the job your friend likes (like service on committees or something).

At 1:38 PM, Anonymous Christian, Cornell U. said...

Your concerns are certainly not new ones. You will be interested to read William James' "The Ph.D. Octopus" from 1903:

At 1:43 PM, Anonymous biosparite said...

Around 20 years ago the ATLANTIC ran a cover story headed "Credentialism: Bad for Business." things have not changed much.

At 8:19 PM, Anonymous Abel Pharmboy said...

This sounds like another sorry case where HR "professionals" have gone too far. We all know PhDs who are worthless and BS/MS folks who are golden. My most formative training experience in pharma was with two women, a MS and BS, who ran the lab for a decent PhD. These women could do anything and I owe my success today to their expertise and thoughtful mentoring.

Yes, one should have a PhD for asst prof positions, but one needn't have a PhD for the position you describe. Competence is what matters and, frankly, there are some positions of responsibility where you wouldn't want to have a PhD. The issue here sounds as though administration needs to make an allowance for this person to be rewarded commensurate with their value. Recall that Gertrude Elion, one of my all-time chemo/drug discovery heroes, won a Nobel prize with a BS and a guy named Alberts developed the first statin with Roy Vagelos at Merck, also with a BS or MS.

If the person is already doing the job well, get letters from satisfied colleagues sent to admin folks stating the value of this person, the need to retain them, and the need to compensate them accordingly regardless of degree. I am certain that there are BA business people in your university/health system who make way more than this highly valued member of the dept./center/institute.

At 11:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Academia has basically done away with quality master's degrees from top insitutions because of the need for the cheap labor of graduate students, and that degree plus a few years experience is really all that is needed for most of these types of jobs. And PhD's seem to have a problem with making less than a very valuable M.S. person because they feel it is their "right" to make more than these people. After all, they have 3 more years of schooling! Yes, the culture is a bit disfunctional.

At 1:16 PM, Blogger etbnc said...

It seems to me, dollars are a lousy way to measure human value.

We live in a culture that tries to use dollars as the only measure of value for anything and everything--despite repeated examples of how poorly that works for us. Is a calculation of the net present value of a Ph.D. really what you and your friend seek?

It seems to me you've touched upon the tip of an iceberg. Examining our values and figuring out how to obtain what we value are both important tasks. There's more to it than Ph.D. yes/no, don't you think?

It's difficult for me to be complete and coherent in a comment. It's easier to offer other questions and ideas that seem related and that might be helpful.

Such as, does your friend perceive this to be a problem?

Does your friend view her worth the same way you do? The same way your organization's bean counters do?

For more insight, I suggest both you and your friend would benefit from the book, The Fifth Discipline, by Peter Senge. You can get a lot of insight from just the first couple of chapters, so don't be put off by the size of the book. If you understand The Beer Game at the beginning of it, you'll have everything you need to understand every organization you'll ever meet.

Enough for now. Go forth and read some Senge. :) Cheers

At 3:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The field and the particular job make a huge difference. In my field, computers, a Ph.D. is pretty much a requirement to teach at the University level regardless of how much experience you might have. But writing software is something that comes from a experience and a Ph.D., until the recent programmer glut, was of very little value in industry.
The biomedical field is different particularly where they intersect with computers - bioinformatics. A Ph.D. in bio-something is highly desired but programming is something anyone can pick up and experience is of little value.

At 10:34 AM, Anonymous Carla said...

Just my opinion, but if it has not occured to this person, independent of you, to attempt to complete a PhD before now, then you suggesting or encouraging it may not be the right way to go. If they are already considering going this route, or have considered it in the past, your encouragement could be a positive push in the right direction. Based on my own graduate school experience, most of the people there probably should not have been there in the first place, for a variety of reasons. The ones that made it to the very end were a special breed - with lots of fortitude, determination, and above all perseverance. Therefore I believe the motivation MUST come from within. If this person has as much experience as you say they do, it may be more lucrative for them to find another position where they will be rewarded for their experience and hard work, instead of an arbitrary degree. (And I am certainly NOT suggesting that a PhD is an arbitrary degree by any means! But it just might be arbitrary for this particular person).

At 2:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The first thing that struck me: Why would this job description require a Ph.D.? Experience, yes; specialized skills and a high level of expertise, absolutely. But, it doesn't seem to require that the person be an independent primary investigator on research projects. In most of the workplaces I've seen, someone who has a B.S. or maybe an M.S. in a pertinent field plus the necessary technical experience would be a perfect match.

At 10:54 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Thanks for all the great comments! The William James thing was interesting- as much for the language the endless references to manliness as for the content and the irony as such.

Will check out the Senge book.

re: salary +/- PhD, that's another issue altogether and not really the point here. The main problem in this case is resources that are available from the vantage point of a certain type of job title vs. another.

re: encouraging someone to go to grad school, I've posted on this topic many times. This particular person wanted to go and I don't know the details of what happened there, I'll have to ask but I think there was an issue with not being admitted to the school of top choice, or something.

I absolutely agree that the motivation has to come from within and that people who graduate have to be stronger and more determined than people who don't.

I do think in some cases a PhD can be an abitrary degree- both when it is given and when it is not.

I hadn't considered whether an MS might be a happy compromise with the bureaucrats, that is another possibility worth looking into.

At 9:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It depends on the industry.
In general Ph.D. is worth very little.
It definitely does not worth the time spent in it.

At 7:34 AM, Blogger evansad said...

A phd is not worth doing because it makes people overqualified and therefore less employable. Phd students provide cheap labour to the university and the degree is worth less nowadays than it was perhaps a generation or two ago. In my department all the phd students are just rich kids who are work shy. I know many phd graduates who have been unable to find work after finishing because they are over qualified.


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