Saturday, December 18, 2010

Your disposable correspondent

Red-eye-induced sleeplessness* having overcome my feeble stock of good sense I'm going to rant about The Economist's latest formulaic anti-PhD screed; or rather, I'm going to pick out some bits that I find particularly clueless or disingenuous or both.
business leaders complain about shortages of high-level skills, suggesting PhDs are not teaching the right things

Well maybe people don't want to do the things "business leaders" want them to do! Maybe if "business leaders" offered people higher starting pay then they'd lure people away from PhDs! Maybe "right things" implies a value judgment that it is at best intellectually lazy to outsource "business leaders."
Brilliant, well-trained minds can go to waste when fashions change. The post-Sputnik era drove the rapid growth in PhD physicists that came to an abrupt halt as the Vietnam war drained the science budget. Brian Schwartz, a professor of physics at the City University of New York, says that in the 1970s as many as 5,000 physicists had to find jobs in other areas.

Well and were they able to find them? (Yes iirc.) If so were they high-paying? (Ditto) Isn't that relevant?
Not every student embarks on a PhD wanting a university career and many move successfully into private-sector jobs in, for instance, industrial research. That is true; but drop-out rates suggest that many students become dispirited.
No they don't! It all depends on why they drop out. If people drop out to find higher-paying jobs that does not suggest that they become dispirited. Maybe, at best, it suggests that when PhD students (say) start having kids the bargain of crummy-pay-now-secure-job-later begins to look less attractive.
Research at one American university found that those who finish are no cleverer than those who do not. Poor supervision, bad job prospects or lack of money cause them to run out of steam.

I have no idea of what this assertion actually means; it's the worst kind of "studies show" claptrap.
In Germany 13% of all PhD graduates end up in lowly occupations. In the Netherlands the proportion is 21%.

THIS IS INFURIATINGLY VAGUE. WHAT THE HELL IS A LOWLY OCCUPATION? (NB also that these are countries with low income inequality...)
In some subjects the premium for a PhD vanishes entirely. PhDs in maths and computing, social sciences and languages earn no more than those with master’s degrees. The premium for a PhD is actually smaller than for a master’s degree in engineering and technology, architecture and education.
 Yes because some PhDs in engineering become professors and earn less than people with masters' degrees.
Dr Schwartz, the New York physicist, says the skills learned in the course of a PhD can be readily acquired through much shorter courses. Thirty years ago, he says, Wall Street firms realised that some physicists could work out differential equations and recruited them to become “quants”, analysts and traders. Today several short courses offer the advanced maths useful for finance. “A PhD physicist with one course on differential equations is not competitive,” says Dr Schwartz.

Yes and you can learn everything you need to know about anything from a book. The notion that the "skills acquired" depend entirely on the nominal course content is risible. Also, it's pretty obvious that the basic reason quants are picked from the math-PhD pool is that employers think (probably incorrectly) that a math degree is an IQ filter. 

* I was supposed to fly back from Santa Barbara yesterday morning around 8am and get in in the evening. After being rerouted three times and finally outsourced to a different airline, I left SB at 7pm, and fetched up in Chicago around 5am today. The baggage carousel took half an hour to get started (though amazingly my bags made it through), Amtrak had computer problems, wouldn't issue new tickets, and wouldn't let you board if you didn't have a printed-out reservation -- which I didn't because this train is never full -- and I'd naturally forgotten to pack a coat when I left in August.

No comments: