A reader named Hernan asked me for my opinion of a well-known rant by Jonathan Katz of Washington University, about why young people shouldn’t go into academic science since there are so few jobs and the jobs that there are stink anyway. I posted my response in the comments section, but since it seems to be of general interest I thought I’d make a proper entry of it.
Katz is correct that opportunities in academic science (at least in the US) are much scarcer than they were during the Cold War; I think government shortsightedness deserves a huge part of the blame for that. On the other hand, countless would-be grad students have already followed the invisible hand and taken Katz’s advice, and are doing quite well in Wall Street, Silicon Valley, etc. So the ones going to grad school are mostly the ones willing to assume the (by now well-known) risks: if they weren’t, they wouldn’t be there.
My fundamental disagreement with Katz is that I think PhD work is increasingly excellent preparation for industry careers. Of course, in some cases (e.g. a quantum computing PhD going to work for an Internet startup), it’s hard to argue that the PhD provides much beyond general skills like analytical thinking, teamwork, project completion, etc., and that those skills couldn’t just as well be obtained elsewhere. But even in those cases, I think a PhD at least won’t hurt your chances in industry these days (notwithstanding Phil Greenspun’s PhD expunging service). So what the PhD does is to give many people an opportunity to spend six years advancing human knowledge and doing something they enjoy, before switching to something that’s actually rewarded by the economy. (One corollary is that, if you’re not enjoying grad school, then you shouldn’t be there. But this is just an instance of a general rule: don’t choose a career option that causes you years of suffering in the hope that the suffering will end later; it probably won’t.)
Furthermore, if there used to be a stigma attached to leaving grad school for industry, I think that’s basically vanished, and that now many PhD programs even see training students for industry as a fundamental part of their mission.
I can’t comment on the rest of Katz’s complaints (the need for conformity, the burden of writing grant proposals, etc.), except to say that so far, my own experience has been more positive. Maybe the worst is ahead!
Incidentally, my comments apply most clearly to computer science PhD programs, which are what I’m most familiar with, but I believe they also apply to physics and other sciences. As for humanities PhD’s … dude, you’re on your own.