Martin Luther once nailed 95 theses to the door of a church . A thesis was simply a position one wanted to argue. Luther, in his theses asserted that Christians could not buy their way to heaven. Today a doctoral thesis is both an idea and an account of a period of original research. Writing one is the aim of the hundreds of thousands of students who embark on a doctorate of philosophy (PhD) every year.
In most countries a PhD is a basic requirement for a career in academics.
For most of history even a first degree at a university was the privilege of a rich few, and many academic staff did not hold doctorates. But as higher education expanded after the second world war, so did the expectation that lecturers would hold advanced degrees. American universities geared up first: by 1970 America was producing just under a third of the world’s university students and half of its science and technology PhDs (at that time it had only 6% of the global population). Since then America’s annual output of PhDs has doubled, to 64,000.Other countries are catching up fast though.
Universities soon discovered that PhD students are cheap, highly motivated and disposable labour. With more PhD students they can do more research, and in some countries more teaching, with less money.
In research the story is not different. PhD students and contract staff known as “postdocs”, described by one student as “the ugly underbelly of academia”, do much of the research these days. There is a glut of postdocs too.
Fashion Change can Destroy Careers
These armies of low-paid PhD researchers and postdocs boost universities’, and therefore countries’, research capacity. Yet that is not always a good thing. Brilliant, well-trained minds can go to waste when fashions change.!!