Should you encourage your M.Sc. students to go for a Ph.D.?

Should you encourage your M.Sc. students to go for a Ph.D.? If you want to get more grant money, publish more papers and be generally viewed as a more “important” researcher, than you should definitively push all your talented M.Sc. students to go for a Ph.D.

Yet, Yuhong does differently:

I never encourage my master students to get Ph.D., though some have the talent. I know that a Ph.D. does not gain a lot more happiness in one’s life. I even find that normal people enjoy better life than researchers. So why impose research to my students?

Myself? I remember the first time a student came in my office to inquire about an academic career. She was a bright first-year student. The type that went to the best high school, got the best grades, had probably been involved in several extracurricular activities, in short, the perfect student. She was the best student in my class. Maybe she is reading this and will recognize herself. She also wanted to have a family. My answer to her? Make a choice: either a family or an academic career. She left my office pretty disappointed. I could never figure out whether she was disappointed at me or at life.

Is it true you can’t be a great scientist and also a family person? Of course not. Some people become astronauts, get a Ph.D., and get a gold medal at the Olympics. Such people exists. However, is it a reasonable plan? For a young lady, I don’t think so. I don’t think you can have 2-3 kids, raise them well, feed them well, spend quality time with them, and at the same time, pursue a solid academic career. There are counterexamples, but…

What we need to do is to:

  • Stop sending more and more people to the Ph.D. track. Make sure those who get on the Ph.D. track have fair expectations; make sure they are not betting their lifes on what this Ph.D. can bring to them.
  • When reviewing a colleague, clearly separate work done with students from work done by the researcher. It is easy: just check the names on the papers.
  • We should value academic simplicity: fewer papers, fewer students, less money, more quality of life, and happier professors.

Further reading: The 2003-2004 Taulbee survey shows that the number of new Ph.D. in Computer Science is sharply on the rise (17% from the year before) whereas the number of undergraduates is about to take a significant drop since the number of new students has significantly gone down (60%).

Published by

Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

5 thoughts on “Should you encourage your M.Sc. students to go for a Ph.D.?”

  1. Daniel,

    I hope you also question all of the talented male students interested in an academic career if they want a family, and tell them the same thing. Although actually what I really hope is that you make clear that academic life is challenging and that there are other possible career paths. Given the trouble we have keeping women in computer science, in academic careers or otherwise, I would be deeply concerned that your attitude might have turned that wonderful student not only off of an academic career, but off of computer science completely.

    A simpler life would be wonderful, but you’re deluding yourself. Competition is only going to get harder — and not just in academia, but in business across the board. That’s what all the business books and magazines are saying, with particular attention to the talent from India and China coming on-line now and in the coming decades. Why should academia be any different in this respect?

    I do think that as a community, CS could possibly do a better job paying less attention to things like the number of publications, and more on the quality of the publications. But I do not think we do a particularly bad job in that respect. And it does not change the issue that success in academics — and most any endeavor — is at least correlated with hard work and being willing to put in the hours.

    For talented Ph.D.’s who don’t want a full-time research career, there are many teaching-oriented colleges that have less stringent research requirements (but still value some research work). Isn’t this a viable solution for the lifestyle you’re promoting? Of course, such institutions often pay less and seem to command less prestige, but isn’t that the obvious tradeoff one has to make?

    Michael Mitzenmacher

  2. Michael… no, I don’t think I’m contributing to keeping women away from CS or any other scientific domain more than men. I have a single Ph.D. student and she is a woman!!!

    Genders might be equal, but they are not the same. If I talk to a male students, I might offer other reasons for staying away from the Ph.D. track, but I would be equally critical.

    As for your comment…

    For talented Ph.D.’s who don’t want a full-time research career, there are many teaching-oriented colleges that have less stringent research requirements (but still value some research work). Isn’t this a viable solution for the lifestyle you’re promoting?

    It might be true in the USA, I don’t know. In Montreal, either you are a professor or a lecturer. Lecturers are paid by the course (about $5k per course) and there are many of those, many, many, many. If you teach, say, 6 courses in a year, which would be a lot, you make $30k. That’s a pathetic salary.

    There isn’t a single university in Montreal where you can get a professorship without significant research. I don’t know about other cities or other countries… but here, with a Ph.D., you don’t have a lot of choices.

    You could hope for a community college job where they only require a basic degree. However, because they only require a degree, they have lots and lots and lots of candidates and from what I know, people with Ph.D.s are not favored at all. They will probably expect you to lecture one class here and there for many years before you have a shot at a regular position.

    As for competition, I’m not worried about people who count papers. I’m very worried about people who count how many Ph.D.s you’ve produced without a careful analysis of what has become of these students and whether they were satisfied of the guidance they received. I’m worried about funding agencies who ask you how many Ph.D. students you are supervising and use this, together with your number of papers, to estimate your worth as a scientist. I don’t mind “paper factories”: it doesn’t hurt badly if we end up with a very large flow of papers being virtually ignored and going unread. I worry about an increasing flow of Ph.D. students who will go jobless or will have a bleak future. We should not train many more Ph.D.s than we can employ. How many Ph.D.s does Harvard hire every year? How many is it producing? What’s the ratio? [I honestly don’t know, and maybe Havard is a sane school where we don’t try to mass produce Ph.D.s.]

  3. Daniel,
    Many of your arguments about the academic life spring from the premise that students are being “pushed” into a Ph.D program. But who exactly does this ? for sure, professors need Ph.D students to support their research, but you have cause and effect inverted ! I have seen a few universities operate (in the US) and nowhere is there pressure on students to join Ph.D programs. In fact, the reverse is true; because of funding limitations, there is a cut off on the number of students who can join a Ph.D program, and no one that I know of has ever sugar coated the rigors of doing a Ph.D

    You cite Yuhong’s post, but she is making a far simpler (and reasonable) point: people are only likely to be interested in a Ph.D if they already have tons of self-motivation. If not, no amount of encouragement will help.

  4. Thanks Suresh. I wasn’t pushed into a Ph.D. though I was funded by the government (which “encouraged me” so to speak).

    You cannot deny though that there is a lot of misleading information going around. Again this summer, I read a story in newspaper about Ph.D.s shortage in universities. Who is sending these stories to the media?

    Why does my grant proposal has a section on Ph.D. students I supervise and trained? Doesn’t this pressure me to recruit more Ph.D. students?

    Maybe Yuhong is more reasonable than I am. I won’t deny this possibility!


  5. Why should a grant proposal have a section on Ph.D students ? because the ability to supervise and train Ph.D students is part of the job of an academic, and adds to the qualifications of the researcher. Note that numbers are not the issue necessarily; i know of people who are lucky to have a student every couple of years, but this does not hinder their ability to get money, or at least cannot be directly shown to hinder it (since many other factors are correlated with a lack of students).

    For tenure decisions, people want to see that you are working with students, but it is very hard to actually have graduated many students by the time your tenure decision comes up, given that it takes a few years to set up a program and 5 or more years to graduate a single Ph.D student.

    Much of the reporting on shortages is news because it is a new trend, and any new trend is newsworthy. Clearly there is a vested interest in having more students be admitted to universities, but there are severe budgetary constraints in any case: I’d argue that the financial restrictions limiting Ph.D enrollment are severe enough to cap admissions below the employment rate

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