Pre-Docs: Academia, Are You OK?!


Academia is forever innovative. And I don’t mean that in a “driving excellent research” kind of way, although that also happens. No, I mean it in a “are you fucking serious?!” kind of way. I was recently, and I do mean only recently, made aware of the existence of a pre-doc. A predoctoral fellowship. Not to be confused with a postdoctoral fellowship. These are two very different things. Now the reason I mention that I’ve only very recently been made aware of this, is that the pre-doc already has a Wikipedia page. So it’s not exactly a new phenomenon if someone has found the time to write up the page as well as get it through several checks…


 

If we check the definition on Wikipedia, we find that “a predoctoral fellow (pre-doc) is a researcher who is enrolled in a preparatory program at university for admission to PhD”. For slightly more clarification as to what this may mean, we read several lines over and find that “in recent times, for instance, the path to a PhD in Economics and Business often contemplates a period of research assistantship for faculty or researchers at universities and research institutions”. There we go. So a predoc is just more work to get into a PhD. Let’s call it as we see it, shall we?

 

Now academia is becoming increasingly more competitive. People opting into doing a PhD continue to grow, whereas positions after the PhD, especially those in the highest echelons of academia barely grow at all. We’re getting an increasingly weirder looking pyramid that is rather bottom heavy and refuses to do something about it. The issue with the pre-doc, in my humble opinion, is just another layer added to that pyramid. Instead of having to have a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree and one hell of a motivation letter and research proposal to get into a PhD, you now need even more. You need research experience obtained throughout yet another formalised degree. Yippie. Keep in mind that committing to doing a PhD, especially if there’s no real desire to go into academia, comes with a massive opportunity cost for doing research. A PhD in the UK is 3-4 years, within the US it’s more likely to be 5-7. What is the value of adding another year, or couple of years, to this process? Is this a way for discouraging people who have no real ambitions for being in academia to apply to these positions? Has academia completely lost their vision on the current job market and the fact that a PhD can, in certain sectors, give the edge a candidate needs? Even if you do want to go into academia, this journey is far from over. After having completed the PhD, there’ll often be postdoctoral training. This can come in many forms, and comes with titles such as postdoctoral fellow, research fellow, teaching fellow etc. These degrees were not that common about two decades ago. However, in the past decade these titles have gone from being rare to being incredibly normalised, to the extent where some academics have held multiple of these titles, and have done multiple years in these positions before being able to progress onto the next stage: assistant professorship. Again, I ask, what is the value in just adding years?

 

Having read through the pre-doc marketing pages of NYU Stern, California State, and Stanford, we get a bit of a mixed bag. California state quotes that the pre-doc is “designed to increase the pool of potential California State University faculty by supporting the doctoral aspirations of CSU students who have experienced economic and educational disadvantages.” Fair enough, I have nothing negative to say about that, given that it does seem that this additional training comes with a stipend (which I’m hoping is enough to cover living expenses). But when looking at Stanford I cannot figure out what the pre-doc is for, and I’m starting to have a feeling they mean something completely different by it. With NYU Stern I’m hitting the jackpot:

“The Stern Pre-Doctoral program is intended to prepare select students to apply to Ph.D. programs in Business, at Stern or elsewhere, and promotes a diverse, scholarly environment to encourage promising individuals from under-represented or non-typical backgrounds (personal, academic, or employment) to enter the academic profession.” If you’re thinking that this is the same as the one for California State, it isn’t. With CS I believe that it is designed for those disadvantaged, with NYU Stern I can tell it’s a marketing ploy. We continue: In the course of the program, each student will gain a thorough grounding in calculus, matrix algebra, basic and intermediate statistics, and basic and intermediate economics. Students will also have the opportunity to engage in faculty research.” This is starting to sound like a Master’s degree? Also, what if I already have all of these skills because I did a prior Master’s degree? Is that now chopped liver?!

“Full tuition scholarship is provided. Some living stipend and student health insurance may also be provided.” I guess at least it’s a free Master’s degree?


“In addition, Pre-Doctoral students will receive advisement in the Ph.D. application process from the Doctoral Program and Stern faculty. Students demonstrating outstanding academic ability will be encouraged to apply for the Stern Ph.D. program for the following year; otherwise, students will have Stern’s support in applying to other programs.” Well I’m glad you’re at least giving me advice, seems like the least you can do. Also, if I don’t turn out to be “PhD material”, where else am I supposed to be applying? What are these other programs you’re referring to?!


“The Pre-Doctoral Program is a full-time, in-residence, non-degree program. Applicants must have a Bachelors degree (or will complete one by the time the program starts). Applicants should apply through the regular Ph.D. Program application.” God damn it, it’s not a degree… Also, why is there a need to apply through the regular PhD track? Am I indicating that I want a pre-doc, or is admissions going through all of these applications indiscriminately and saying that some people are “good enough” to immediately go into a PhD position and deciding that others would benefit more from doing a pre-doc? Is this my choice, or your choice? Lastly, the fact that you “only” need a bachelor’s degree to apply to these positions reinforces the idea that this is a master’s degree, but without the actual degree title. Should you risk doing this program to get into a PhD, where if you don’t get selected into the PhD, you don’t have a degree to show for your efforts? I’ve got more questions now than when I started!

 

After this confusing experience I decided to read more about several other pre-doc programs, but it’s the same nonsense on repeat. For Columbia it’s a 2 year program, where the role description reads a lot like that of a research assistant. You’re promised “an opportunity to gain experience in academic research” and “admission to PhD programs in top-tier business schools”. Even the elusive publication is thrown in there: “When predoctoral fellows make significant intellectual contributions to a research project, they may be offered authorship.” Uhuh… Another key promise: “In the second year of the program, a faculty member helps guide the predoctoral fellow through the PhD application process.” If they are as much help in this stage as they are during the PhD itself, Wikipedia, Stack Overflow and Twitter will be more helpful to you. Mark my words! Also, another thing to keep in mind, stipends are not competitive wages. Meaning that those who are actually fulltime research assistants, which is the role description, would out earn those on a stipend. How about that little nugget of information? And it’s the same for all the rest of them. At least Harvard Business School hasn’t changed the official title of the pre-doc yet, they still call them research assistants. Oops. Now of course if you read the official PREDOC site (no joke), a rather different picture is painted. Again, there is a strong emphasis on diversity, inclusion and helping those less advantaged. I don’t know if it’s because I’m a raging cynic or because I’m incredibly privileged, but I’m somehow not buying it.

 


I applaud the fact that it seems that these pre-docs are paid, thank God. I’m worried that the pay of what is essentially a research assistant position is lower than if one were actually a research assistant, rather than a pre-doc (that’s the cynic in me). The fact that not all universities call this a degree worries me even more. If after a year, or longer, of hard work you’re not judged to be “PhD material” what then? What's the problem in making this a degree? If this were to be recognised as a degree, a Master's degree, which would be funded, than I can see how it would those who are less priviledged. But without that assurance, I just don't believe in it. I would like to know who came up with this and why. Is this another vetting stage? Have there been too many PhD students failing their degrees? Is the work not up to standard? And if that is becoming increasingly the case, should we blame the PhD students and change the vetting process, or should we finally cast our eye towards the supervisors, and see if they are any good? Given that these programs also promise mentorship and guidance on how to apply, I think it’d do us a world of good to look into who makes a good supervisor, and who should be locked into the lab to just do work on their own without a chance of the exploitation of those not (yet) of their ranking. I've got many questions left but one stands tall and above all others: Academia, what are you doing?!

 

If you, or someone you know, is doing a pre-doc, or has done one, please do reach out. I want to know more about it!

Behavioural Science