Why PhD-students are like baby cockroaches

Doing a PhD is generally seen to be quite challenging. I would certainly agree that it’s not a picnic; at the same time, I’m not a hundred percent sure how it compares to other occupations due to the lack of experience. But, to stick with what I do know, I am tempted to conclude that it’s a long and rocky road to having two desired letters in front of your name. Actually, it’s kind of like the story of the Lord of the Rings -- an endless journey through darkness, swamps and fiery mountains, chased by nameless creatures of doom (we call them reviewers rather than ringwraiths), just to end up in a bloody volcano. Barefoot! Now, for shits and giggles, let’s stick with Tolkien’s masterpiece for a bit, but let’s also add a cheeky little Orc to the story, who is passing by every now and then, telling poor Frodo something along the lines of:

“Hey hairy-feet! Great job getting through this deadly field of spiky rocks with the ugly fella chasing you. Besides telling you that you’re almost out of food and still light-years away from Mt. Doom, I just wanted to say that there’s a whole bunch of other little hobbits on their way right now trying to destroy a ring. In fact, there are actually way too many of you because the Shire is just spitting them out left, right and center. So quite frankly, we’re not even sure that you will find a job as a professional ring-destroyer once you’re done. No hard feelings though, eh? You’re doing great and oh, watch out, there will be some wicked creature trying to kill you in 5, 4, 3…”

Frodo's reaction: "You gotta be f***** kidding me, right?"

That’s something you would really want to hear, right? The good news is that even if Peter Jackson would include that in the movie, it would still be better than the second part of the Hobbit. The bad news is though, that this exact scenario is happening to PhD-students on a weekly basis. Without failure, there is at least one article a week describing the floods of PhD students competing for academic positions and adamantly emphasizing that most of them won’t find their desired faculty job. See here, here, and here (note the graphs made in Excel - any PhD student would have done a better job). Uplifting, I know. But rather than blaming the authors of these articles, here are some thoughts about why this is the case, and, because it’s what I’m most comfortable with, let’s take an ecological approach.

For the matter of this exercise, let’s think about PhDs as a university’s offspring and faculty positions as the ecosystems carrying capacity (i.e. how many little PhDs can exist in this environment). The first problem we can clearly identify is that universities seem to produce a lot more offspring nowadays than they did a few decades ago. This isn’t overly surprising seeing that humans are popping out more and more potential PhD students every hour, which is a sad story itself. What may be more intriguing is that the carrying capacity of the ecosystem does not increase to compensate for this overproduction of PhDs. But again, there is a pretty straightforward explanation for it: since there’s a whole ton of chronically underpaid and hard-working PhDs and post-docs on every university’s doorstep, there is no need for employing qualified, expensive faculty members if the former can help out with research, lectures, marking etc. Interestingly, what this really equates to is the typical description of an r-strategist.

So what the hell is that? An r-strategist is commonly considered a species that produces a ton of babies as often as possible, but only few survive to adulthood. This includes charming little critters such as cockroaches and rats and one of the characteristics of r-strategists is that they seem to fare particularly well in highly unstable environments (read: your trashcan – lots of food one day, empty once the garbage men come). In contrast, K-strategists usually produce only a few baby-K-strategists and therefore have to invest more in parental care in order to make sure that they reach adulthood to reproduce. Examples for K-strategists include all sorts of likeable animals, such as whales, elephants and all the other charismatic megafauna. Thinking back to our beloved universities and their way to deal with PhD students, we find that the r-strategy is an astonishingly fitting description. The average institution nowadays pops out squillions of PhDs but genuinely cares very little about them. That means that the awarded degrees are shorter, less comprehensive, and with very little effort from the university’s side (if anybody needs proof, my office is open for tours Monday to Sunday, 7am to 9pm). So basically, what I’m trying to say is that all PhD-students are like baby-cockroaches, waiting to be released into the big scary world where only few of them will live through their first post-doc and even fewer will ever make it to a stage where they can joyfully engage in active cockroach-reproduction (read: faculty positions). This might not the most pleasing of all thoughts but in my opinion, an apt description. What is even more interesting is the environment that makes this strategy so worthwhile, i.e. the trashcan. The trashcan, I guess, is money. Nowadays, universities are businesses more than anything, which rely on monetary goods. Unfortunately, ever since we robbed the piggybank for the first time, we all know that money is a highly unstable resource. Sometimes there’s a lot of it, sometimes there isn’t, and when there is a lot of it, chances are it won’t be there for long. For the university, this means that no matter what the resource level, it’s best to pump PhDs through the system as quickly as possible before it gets too expensive.

Is this really the case? I’m not sure. But I am sure that the major problem in academia is not the fact that so many young people are eager to enroll in PhDs in order to achieve high levels of education and independent thinking – the problem is the strategies universities employ with regards to these ambitious young people. Or, to be more precise, how universities have become enormous cockroaches in even bigger trashcans, populating the world with thousands of babies each year, which they don’t care for at all – a textbook r-strategist.

I do apologize to every fellow PhD student for a) adding to the flood of articles that tell us that we won’t find a faculty position, and b) comparing us to baby cockroaches. On the bright side though, Frodo did make it to Mt. Doom eventually and Samwise finally got to sleep with Rosie once they made it back to the Shire, so maybe everything isn’t so bad after all. In any case, don’t get disheartened you countless little fellow cockroach-kiddies but stay away from people with shoes or spray cans in their hands.