A PhD should be about improving society, not chasing academic kudos

When you look at the stats, it’s hard not to conclude that the current PhD system is fundamentally broken. Mental health issues are rife: approximately one-third of PhD students are at risk of having or developing a psychiatric disorder like depression. The high level of dropouts is similarly worrying – and possibly another symptom of the same problem. Research suggests that on average 50% of PhD students leave graduate school without finishing – with numbers higher at some institutions.

What’s more, aspiring scientists who manage to finish usually take much longer than originally planned. For instance, a PhD in Germany is supposed to take three years, according to university regulations, but most students need five years to complete one. In the US, meanwhile, the average completion time for a PhD in education sciences surpasses 13 years. The result is that in most countries, PhD students usually don’t graduate until they are well into their 30s.

Although 80% of science students start their PhD with the intention to pursue a career in science, theirenthusiasm typically wanes to the point that just 55% plan to continue in academia when nearing graduation. In any case, most are unlikely to be able to continue. One study found that for every 200 people who complete a PhD, only seven will get a permanent academic post and only one will become a professor.

Many academics enter science to change the world for the better. Yet it can often feel like contemporary academia is more about chasing citations. Most academic work is shared only with a particular scientific community, rather than policymakers or businesses, which makes it entirely disconnected from practice.

Take my example. I research how to mitigate the social impact of hydropower dams. My core paper on this topic has been cited three times so far. I read in the promotions guidelines at my university that if I want to be promoted from assistant to associate professor I need to accumulate significant citations. As a result, I have now published a paper in which I reviewed 114 definitions of a current academic buzzword, circular economy, to propose the 115th definition of this term.


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