The Millennial researchers are coming of age and we are arriving in big numbers. After all, we are looking at a generation where the Bachelor degree is the new high school diploma, and in some countries, the Master degree is the equivalent. This brings us to the fundamental question, what is the purpose of education, or more specifically in this case, what is the purpose of the PhD?
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The pragmatic purpose of education is to learn to work, which serves the individual economic goal of clothing, feeding and obtaining shelter, and the society’s larger economic goal of productivity. While a PhD is rarely necessary for such purpose, the product of this intensive and prolonged learning, should be a well-developed and creative person with sustained capability to engage as citizen.
Another way to look at the purpose of PhD, is to ask, what values do PhD graduates bring to societies and the workplace?
With the increasing number of PhDs and the associated costs of training these PhDs, there are concerns about the lack of research on the doctoral student experience and what use individuals and society make of a PhD while they are studying and once they have a PhD.
We derive social, economic and cultural benefits directly from the research outcomes. Even if we were to narrowly view the value of PhD in economic terms, we benefit from innovative ideas, solid technical expertise, ability to solve complex problems, and the sharing of these skills and knowledge within the workplace.
With these purposes and values of PhD in mind, it would make sense that we should set about measuring what we value, and what societies could benefit from this expensive education which they fund in part, if not all.
But in reality, we measure what is easy, which are publications and citations. With nine out of ten PhD eventually entering careers outside of academia, the current evaluation system is clearly not ideal. It is publish and perish for many of the PhD graduates.
But even for those remaining in academia, this metric is terribly flawed. Aristotle had said, ‘Give me a child until he is 7 and I will show you the man’. I would say, “Give me the apprentice until year 4 and I will show you the master’. What this meant to me is, if you hammer into the apprentice that publications and citations are the most important product of research, then what you get will be a master of publications and citations. Publications are outputs, not outcomes. But until we have a more robust evaluation system, the choice is often between occupational survival and idealism. Such a system often also entrenches the ideology that research in the academia is the only reasonable path forward for the apprentice.
The publish-or-perish cookie cutter scheme neglects the diversity of brilliance and interests that exist. The mistake that people often make is to confuse one ability for another. For all the years I spent in academia in Malaysia, Europe and Australia, I have met a mixed bag of people. There is the engaging teacher, the philosopher, the communicator, the inspiring leader, and the organised administrator, amongst them. A person may be an excellent researcher and a terrible teacher. Albert Einstein’s biographer Walter Isaacson wrote, “Einstein was never an inspired teacher, and his lectures tended to be regarded as disorganized.”
Finally, the world is changing rapidly, and so is the role of the academia. Millennial researchers will wear many hats post-PhD, regardless of intent. Some are destined to change the fundamental way we view life, some are destined to change the way we live, while others may be destined to mould the next generation of leaders. With that in mind, we need a nurturing system that cultivates this diversity early on to benefit the healthy functioning of the 21stC academia and society. Instead, the current system that is focused purely on publish or perish is unwieldly old-fashioned and has definitely passed its use-by date.