Gas station without pumps

2014 November 16

Good enough for what?

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 11:05
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A blog post by Nick Falkner, Thoughts on the colonising effect of education, ended with the

I had a discussion once with a remote colleague who said that he was worried the graduates of his own institution weren’t his first choice to supervise for PhDs as they weren’t good enough. I wonder whose fault he thought that was?

Nick’s implied message was that it was the duty of the professors to make the undergrads they taught be good enough to go on for PhDs.  But I’m not sure he’s right here.

We do not need huge numbers of new PhDs—some, but not nearly as many as are being graduated from BS programs. Only about 10% of undergrads (or less) should be going on for PhDs, so the majority of graduates from any institution should not be “first choice to supervise for PhDs”. We should be bringing up as PhDs those most likely to be productive researchers and university faculty, and encouraging other students to find productive lives outside of academia (there is a world outside academia, though many professors prefer to ignore it).

If most of the undergrads graduating are top candidates for PhD programs, then perhaps the criteria for PhD candidates are wrong—or the undergraduate program is too small and selective, so that students who would benefit from it are being excluded.

I’m an engineering professor, and in most engineering fields the working degrees are the BS and the MS—the PhD is reserved for cutting-edge research that is not expected to result in products any time soon and for university teaching. I would consider myself a failure as an engineering professor if none of my students went on to become working engineers, but all went into academia.

I expect many of the best students not to be well-suited for PhD degrees—they want to go out into the real world and solve real problems (sometimes to make money, sometimes to save the world, sometimes just for the joy of solving problems).  The best PhD candidates are often not the best engineering students, because a PhD candidate has to be willing to work on an esoteric problem for a really long time with no promise of success, while good engineering often calls for quick prototyping and rapid development, dropping unproductive projects quickly, before they cost too much—not long-term projects that may never pay off.

So, while I certainly want some of my undergrad students to go into academia and to be top choices for PhD programs, I’m happy if most of them are not suited for PhDs, as long as they have acquired an engineer’s problem-solving mindset, enough skills to get them started in a job, and a lifelong habit of picking up new knowledge and skills.

1 Comment »

  1. As someone who teaches engineering courses, I wholeheartedly agree with the entire post. Many of the best engineering students really should go out into the world and solve difficult practical problems, because that is what their true calling is and where their talents lie.
    Our undergraduate degree is very much tailored to get people employable in their major, and has become increasingly so in recent years (perhaps to a fault). As a result, the students have a lot of practical skills but an insufficiently broad base in the basic sciences to do a PhDs, at least in my field. While I teach undergrads to the best of my abilities, they see me one or two courses, and the core curriculum is, alas, is out of my hands.
    When it comes to recruiting PhD students, I recruit from certain international schools where engineering students have a much stronger physics and math background than our own undergrads do. That’s what’s needed to do research in my area. Our own undergrads generally don’t have the right background, but they sure are employable. The few who are grad school caliber I help to get NSF fellowships and go to sunny CA to top-notch schools.

    Comment by xykademiqz — 2014 November 17 @ 18:25 | Reply


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