June 04, 2003
Jonathan Wilde (and me) on the (non-)value of a PhD

Jonathan Wilde emails thus:

I am a big fan of your education blog. …

A big fan. There you go, I have big fans. The desire to flatter is flattery itself, I always say. So what do I have to do for you, JW? Oh yes …

… I have made a post on the value of a PhD that you might be interested in on my blog.…

link to your post and say things about it. Fair enough.

Opening paragraph:

How many times have you heard someone say, "The solution is education," in response to an endless list of social problems. Or, "Society needs educated people in order to thrive," or "The best thing we can do for the youth of America is give them a proper education"? Education is often regarded as the modern day panacea for societal ills. Pick a problem, any problem, watch some TV, and a talking head will propose education as the solution.

But Wilde goes on to note that, according to some, one of the biggest educational problems these days is the over-production of people with PhDs.

Wilde's piece is about the subjectivity of value – the value of things generally and the value to an employer of higher education in particular – and about the fact that all these excessive numbers of people with PhDs think they have something of "objective" value, but are mistaken.

Concluding paragraphs:

And the key point is this – what the employer values in an employee is completely subjective. As circumstances change, what the employer seeks in an employee changes. Just ask any computer programmer who was raking it in three years ago but cannot find a job today. The mistake that the PhD degree seekers often make is believing that by getting a PhD, they are getting objective economic value. They believe that after 4 years of college, 5 or more years spent pursuing a PhD, being published in journals, and writing and defending a thesis in front of scholars of their chosen field, they have something that is intrinsically valuable.

But as the Austrian school reveals, nothing is intrinsically valuable. Nothing has objective economic value. Job training, specialization, postgraduate degrees, certification, etc are only valuable if others value them enough to exchange wages for the labor of those who obtain them.

And of course, the larger question is – if education is to be the cure all for society's ills, how can a top-down structure ensure by design that employers value the skills and training obtained by graduates?

Indeed.

Moving off at a tangent somewhat (i.e. changing the subject almost totally), it seems to me that what we have here is also a confusion between the permanent (if still subjective and maybe over-produced) value of some item of actual education, some actual acquired ability, and the temporarily useful but soon overtaken-by-events sign that one is up at the front of some queue to demonstrate some combination of clevernesses such as one always had but needed somehow to prove. As soon as lots of people have PhDs, having a PhD ceases to prove that you are at the front of the PhD queue, merely someone who is in it..

For what it is worth, what I hear now (and that means that this could already be way out of date) is that the current big "meal ticket for life" qualification is being in or having been in one of the big name management consultancies. But give it ten years, and ex-McKinseyites (who all swallowed the claim that McKinseyness would indeed be a meal-ticket for life and who were thus hired for crap wages in vast numbers by McKinsey and used to clean their toilets and carry the luggage of the real McKinseyites and who barged in on the real McKinsey business and thus without realising it ruined McKinsey as a star enterprise and turned it into a mere brand-X enterprise) will likewise be flooding the labour market, and mostly likewise be unemployable. Not least because they were too stupid to see that this was happening.

This is a particular example of the general law, famously stated by somebody very important whose name I can't remember, that as soon as some particular variable is publicly identified as the way to measure something, it ceases to measure it, or for that matter to measure anything much at all. Something like that. That's a principle that applies to educational "results" of all kinds, not just PhDs.

Have a nice day.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:15 PM
Category: Examinations and qualificationsRelevance
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