12 September 2009

Better PhDs

It's widely-acknowledged that many research professors bring a weak grasp of reality to their subject. This so-called "ivory tower" problem usually means that their research is irrelevant to the outside world, but sometimes that research is dangerous -- as we have found with financial theory recently.

One way to reduce this problem is by requiring some work experience in the outside world. Such a minimum, say 4 years, would not fix all problems, but it would change the way that most PhDs see the world. I suggest that this gap be maintained at the leading edge, i.e., 4 years after a bachelors or masters degree before a student would be allowed to matriculate to a PhD program. Besides the obvious -- it's easier to monitor the leading edge than the trailing edge -- this requirement is also useful as a means of bringing more real-world experience into the classroom. Students with experience would be able to challenge teaching that was poorly-framed wrt the outside world.

Bottom Line: The academe is useful (even necessary), and its use depends on its contribution to the outside. Increase the intensity of academe-lay interaction and make both better off.


  1. The problem with your idea (although I like it) is that it doesn't work, at least not very well. For years now, it has been virtually impossible to get into any MBA program, except for completely half ass ones, without a number of years of job experience. That seems to have changed nothing on Wall Street, where most of the bright ones headed.

    And Scholes and Merton sure had lots of first hand experience with the real world, and they still managed to bankrupt Long Term Capital Management.

    And, having said that, I still remember all those bizarre economics courses at USC that nothing in common with the world where I had spent the previous twenty years, and when I would reluctantly ask a question, I would be met with a really strange look.

    And having said that, I loved micro-economics for its beautiful, intricate, interlocking nonsense. You have to love a good design even if it won't take you around the corner.

  2. @jwt

    What might work?

    Many engineering programs interlock real world internships, a semester at a time, with undergraduate learning. Would that help?

  3. I totally agree, but unfortunately fellows who want to pursue the academic career until the "end" would probably never agree to do that or survive these 4 years. My boss was a little confused when I told him proudly that I financed my unpaid PhD in Germany working years as a hostess for event agencies and actually learned a lot of useful thgs..oh, and travel outside(!!) of the U.S. should be obligatory too!!!

  4. Some universities in South Africa required at least five years of experience to apply for a Ph.D. program in the Geosciences. Their geologists are world class - look no further than their gold and diamond mining success (but look beyond the human impact associated with that mining).

  5. One commonly cited trade-off is the opportunity cost of wages before and after the PhD.

    I've heard many say that most of what is studied in Grad School doesn't apply to reality. I'm getting work experience and spending my nights prepping for the useless theory and real analysis that comes with grad school. This way when I do well in a Masters program, I'll get into a better university for PhD.


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