What to do about overproduction of PhDs?

Aug 19 2010 Published by under [Education&Careers], Academia, Rant

There is an interesting and anguishing post on Inside Higher Ed by psychology professor Monica J. Harris entitled Stop Admitting Ph.D. Students. (Hat tip: Chad.) She describes a problem familiar to anybody who's paid attention to the PhD market in probably just about any academic field in the last couple of decades. Departments continue to admit and produce PhD students, and college administrations (and rankings by professional societies) judge departments partly on their ability to produce large numbers of PhD students. Yet, there are very long-term jobs out there for people with PhDs. Knowing that society and her department isn't going to change to address the problem, she's tried to do what she thinks is the only ethical thing she can: she's no longer accepting new graduate students into her lab, so that at least she personally won't be contributing to the oversupply problem.

The comments are also very interesting. The range from agreement and sympathy to outright claims that she is lazy and "not doing her job." I think the best comment was made by "scandal and a byword":

Many of us PhD students DO know what we're getting into. The problem is that (at least in my experience) we're strongly discouraged from making contingency plans. I get a fairly explicit mixed message from my teachers:
1) There aren't many good (tenure-track research) jobs out there.
2) If I don't get a tenure-track research job, I'm a failure, and my name will ever be a scandal and a byword and a source of discomfort to my teachers. If I have any plan B, I'd better not mention it!

My own field is physics, and the problem of physicists being trained for and expected to get tenure-track faculty positions, without enough of these positions being out there, has been a sore topic for two decades (at least). My last year or two of college (1989-1990), I remember reading a national report about how there was going to be a "shortage of scientists". This was based on a rather naive consideration that the boom of scientists who went into the field after Sputnik were all about to retire. In reality, the tech push after Sputnik created a system whereby a tenure-track or tenured physics professor at a research institution produces during his career something like 10-15 PhD students. In other words, while he will retire only once, he replaces himself 10 to 15 times. At first, this worked, because there was demand for that level of expansion. But not for long. Even considering that some will go to smaller, undergraduate-only colleges, this level of over-replacement is not sustainable.

By 1991 or 1992, far from the "shortage of scientists" talks, there were regular columns and letters to the editor in Physics Today talking about how physics graduate students could usually get post-doctoral positions, but it was very tough for those post-docs to move on to a faculty position. At one point, one of Caltech's colloquium periods (perhaps it was Astronomy journal club-- I don't remember exactly) was given over to a discussion of this topic. One of the things parroted there, as in many of these articles, was that we need to be training our PhD students also for jobs outside of academia. Professors said this... but I almost hear each professor present thinking, "but my students will be the ones to get those coveted faculty positions." (Or perhaps it was "but Caltech students will...".)

At least in physics, and at an institution like Caltech, there is a very strong cultural sense that "success" means "ending up in a tenure-track faculty institution at a research University". When, in grad school, I would despair with my friends about our chances, I would sometimes mention that I was as or more interested in teaching than primarily in research, they would say, oh, well, you can get a job at a small liberal arts college! Of course, those jobs are just as competitive as the research jobs. Yes, sometimes people "settle" for those jobs, but the truth is that there are a bunch of us who really value teaching as a primary professional, intellectual, and creative activity.

I also remember hearing students talking about PhDs who had gone on to teach high school, and how depressing that was that they'd have to settle for so little. At the time, I was seriously considering that as a long-term possibility, but I didn't say anything. And this comes back to the comment of "scandal and a byword" above: the culture of PhD granting institutions in many fields remains extremely destructive to the notion of PhDs being self-respecting individuals if they don't get one of the very few coveted faculty jobs.

Many of the comments on thread note that cutting off the opportunity for people to get PhDs cuts off the opportunity for the people who value the PhD work itself. This is a valid point. What I tell people is that if they're going to go to graduate school in physics or astronomy, they should do so because they want to go to graduate school. There is absolutely no guarantee that the PhD will allow them to spend the rest of their lives in physics research. With their skills, the PhD is a more stressful and lower-paying occupation (*) than other things they could be doing. If the coveted faculty job were likely, it might be worth the "sacrifice" of going through a PhD program, but because that faculty job is not likely, the PhD has to be worth it all by itself.

(*) (Aside: in physics, it's a lot better than it is in the humanities. You generally teach for a couple of years, and most of the time your advisor has grant money to pay you a research assistantship to complete your PhD research. In the humanities, you may have a fellowship for a few years, but it's more common to have to teach for many years, or to have to do research assistantships that are not your own thesis research. Yes, you're being paid a pittance in physics, but at least you're being paid.)

You also need to be aware that you're going to receive direct and indirect pressure to consider "success" as going on in research. Even the pep talks about how great a given graduating class is will come across as pressure: "I'm sure you'll go on to do great things to advance the field!" It's supposed to be a compliment, but it bolsters the culture that success is going on in research. You have to be aware of this, and have to be aware that you're still a good person, still a good PhD, and still contributing to society even if you don't manage to go on, or if, horrors, you choose not to go on in research.

The whole culture of the system is broken, and I don't see it changing any time soon. We've been collectively wringing our hands about it for at least a couple of decades, but the evaluation criteria for ranking departments remains "more PhDs" rather than "a responsible number of PhDs", and administrations at Universities continue to pressure departments to produce lots of PhDs to make their numbers look good. How we each respond to this ethically is difficult; I admire Monica Harris' response, and am dismayed by those who think she's finding an excuse to be lazy. Myself, I think the most important thing is to make sure that undergrads going on to PhD programs are not fed a line about a "shortage of scientists", and are fully aware of what they're getting themselves into.

20 responses so far

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    Some years ago (1980+-) there was an article on this in Bioscience. It talked in terms of a logistic growth curve. Said science is at carrying capacity because science funding will never double again. They argued for a drastic reduction of PhD programs, no more set up of large labs, etc. I haven't been involved in hiring academic PhD's since 1996. However, friends who are still active in hiring bemoan the dearth of qualified candidates for particular positions.

    It's time for students to think in terms of getting in the short line. Preparing themselves for something other than the hot topic of the moment where the competition will be fierce, and the topic may not stay hot.

  • AmoebaMike says:

    There may very well be a shortage of scientists, but whether or not that's the case, there are certainly too many people for vying for TT-positions. But the university system is screwed up anyway, because they have subject experts teaching undergrads. TEACHERS teach. Not all can break down scientific concepts like Carl Sagan, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Carl Zimmer, Robert Krulwich, etc.

    These are two distinct problems, but they both fight for the same resources.

    College, and by extension doctoral degrees, needs to be harder. The value of a PhD drops when a large percentage end up in high school because they have no other options. And in most cases it hurts science in the next generation, because those teachers don't know how to teach.

  • Michael Cohen says:

    I bailed out of my PhD program in math for these reasons. My friends who got their Phd's couldn't get jobs, and actually started witholding their Phd's from their resumes. The professors spent all their time doing research and couldn't care less about working with the graduate students, let alone the undergrads. I was at a large state school, and they used the grad students as cheap labor to teach their classes. It was an ugly situation all the way around. I'm glad I bailed out before I spent too long wasting my time there.

  • Bob O'H says:

    We discussed this over at Nature Network a few months ago. The reason for the problem is that students are cheap labour, so if you want to get science done you have to employ them. That means bringing in more students. But higher academic training has traditionally been a way of producing more academics, but we're producing an over-supply. The only real solution, i think, is to get over the idea that PhDs are about producing academic researchers. If we can broaden the careers that PhD graduates will go into, we can alleviate some of these problems. But it'll take a culture shift within academia.

    Tear down the ivory towers!

  • NM says:

    As a current astronomy grad student nearing the end of my PhD, the main challenge is not so much that non-academic careers are considered a failure, but simple lack of information. Other than fellow equally-confused grad students, my main professional contacts and mentors are people who have all "made it." These include my adviser, committee members, collaborators, etc. They are all very successful astronomers, either tenured or tenure-track, which means that they've never had to search for a non-academic job and have no idea what is even out there, let alone how to go about getting one. I never meet the ones who didn't make it - because they don't go to AAS anymore or hang around the university. They are the ones who would be able to offer some real advice about non-academic careers. PhD programs need to do a better job of keeping track of alumni who have left academia, and put them in touch with current grad students. There are probably 10 tenured or tenure-track astronomers whom I know well and can email for career advise. There is probably only one astronomer I know who has any non-academic experience, and that is the author of this blog.

  • rknop says:

    Yes, NM makes an excellent point. The advisors of PhD students really don't know what's out there, by and large. And, even though I have some non-academic experience (two years as a computer engineer for Linden, followed by half a year as a contractor), my experience is very limited. What's more, I got that job on the strength of my computer experience. To be sure, I had used that to support my astronomy research, but it wasn't really as a result of my graduate school or subsequent research. (I think I'm in the top percentile or so of Linux-geekery amongst astronomers.) I've always had the advantage that I knew I had those skills to fall back on, and had some clue how to go about finding a job based on them. But if I had to find a job (other than teaching high school) that would benefit from a Physics PhD, I don't know how to go about doing it.

  • Emma says:

    I think your point that PhDs need to feel comfortable taking non-research jobs post-PhD is really important. As a current PhD student, it has been made very clear to me that anything other than a post-doc position at a big, important university would be seen as failure. It is implied that not only would I be letting myself down, but I would be reflecting poorly on my supervisor and institution. My name would never be spoken again.

    So what if I want to go into teaching? Or industry? Or I want to pack it all in and open a cake shop? I entered this program because I loved the work - not because I have my eyes on the tenure-prize. Yet, I don't feel I can even mention that I might be interested in a non-academic career in case that is seen as weakness and my chances at an academic job are compromised.

  • Anonymous Coward says:

    The situation is different here in the Netherlands, at least in my area of physics. Take note that here we have a 5-year MSc program followed by a 4-year PhD program that has no further exams, but do supply additional classes. One gets a decent wage, and there is no tuition.

    It is accepted that only 10% will get a permanent (TT) position, and about 50% quit science after their PhD. This is OK, because top research is to be done by the very best, so there needs to be competition.

    Usually during the program one can take non-science courses preparing for other employment. Physics PhDs can find work just about anywhere, but especially in consulting, finance, and also at industrial research with e.g. Shell. Also, this is not considered a 'failure' but 'the right choice' when you either don't want to put up with the academic system, or don't have the potential to make it to the end.

    People start on a PhD because of their own interest, considering but not having committed to a career in science.

  • Chris' Wills says:

    Education is for educations sake's. So my mother taught me.

    Learning about things tht interest you is an end in itself, or should be.
    This idea that education is for a particular type of job is silly.

    Sad that people doing PhDs in physics think that they have to become tenured to be a success.
    Using your PhD outside of academia isn't failing, in fact it can be more worthwhile for society as well as earning you more money.

    I studied what I found interesting and even some things I thought would be boring but necessary and weren't either.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    My department did not have a PhD program and I was glad of it. Our MS program was very successful, whereas I don't think we could have mounted a credible PhD program. Our MS people either got appropriate jobs, went on to professional school, or went for a PhD elsewhere.

  • I agree with rknop's assessment that the culture of PhD granting institutions is destructive to the self-respect of most of their customers. I'm amazed, though, that I read the whole post and half the comments before anybody (Bob O'H, first) mentioned any job possibilities other than university research and teaching. My PhD is in materials science; I spent seven years at a US national laboratory and I'm going on four years in industry. I can tell you any physics PhD holder would have been welcome in those jobs. For a PhD student, awareness of these jobs is the first hurdle to overcome, and pride is the second. That pride is what's destroying their self-respect. There are other career paths - and I'm having a lot of fun in mine.

  • Brian says:

    I have a Ph.D. in physics and happily left academia a few years ago for a company full of scientists and engineers, doing something that's not really all that different from what I was doing in academia. It seemed to me that physics and astronomy departments had a couple problems which end up getting expressed as a "too many Ph.Ds" problem.

    First is that most science is done by grad students and postdocs. Academia is addicted to this cheap highly trained labor, and most people with tenure don't really want the situation to change. Personally I think it's lazy to keep relying on an army of grad students and postdocs to do your work (as opposed to making the decision to do more of it on your own). There's a lot of denial required to do this while at the same time having no idea what those people are going to do for a living.

    The second is a cultural problem, more or less what Jeff is getting at. As an undergrad I was in engineering for a while before I switched to physics. In engineering I had profs who had worked in industry, and now that I'm in industry I've worked with people who have at times taught at a university -- it's a two way street. A teaching position wasn't the job goal for the majority of the students, but if it was something that interested you, it was one option.

    In physics it's much more of a one-way street -- Rob is pretty much the only person I know who has left and come back. (And I've encountered a fair share of physics profs unlike Rob who despise teaching but see it as a necessary part of the job.) When you're on the inside, most grad students are left with the impression everyone here has mentioned, that if you leave you're a failure. If you know people who have left, you get a rather different impression -- most people who leave are so much happier with non-academic jobs that they would never consider going back. (On the inside the assumption is that these people are just in it for the money -- on the HEPNames database you even get a $ next to your name if you leave for industry, one of three possible special symbols along with those denoting retirement and death. No implied message there. I'd say it's a lot more about the whole workplace atmosphere.) Personally, if I had not been good friends with several people who left academia, I never would have gotten the outsider's view, and probably would have felt differently about leaving myself. Without that kind of support, most physics grads and postdocs don't even know what kind of jobs might exist for them.

    I'm not sure what anyone can do about all this. It would be great if physics departments were to adopt a culture closer to that of engineering departments, but I doubt that will happen. (I think it just doesn't work with the self-image most tenured physicists have of themselves.) It would be great if federal funding agencies would limit the ratio of staff to term/student positions on funded projects. If you said only one postdoc or grad student per full time scientist, that would still be a vast oversupply, but far fewer than groups I've seen and worked in. Maybe you could just start by judging departments not on grads produced but by job placements. Either they would have to scale back or they would have to become a little more open positions outside academia.

  • Brian says:

    Anonymous Coward wrote: "The situation is different here in the Netherlands ... It is accepted that only 10% will get a permanent (TT) position, and about 50% quit science after their PhD. This is OK, because top research is to be done by the very best, so there needs to be competition."

    This is part of the myth that creates the one way street in physics. I remember reading an article, maybe about a year ago, that made a claim many in academia found upsetting: if you are good enough to get a Ph.D. at a reasonably good university, you are good enough to get a tenure track position. The rest is basically luck. This agrees with my own experience -- I certainly wouldn't claim to be the best of the people who completed a Ph.D. in my department, but very few of those people who clearly were the best and the brightest are in tenure track positions today. Most of the best people left for other things outside academia, often earlier rather than later -- they didn't get kicked out because they weren't the best, they chose a different path. I'm not saying the people who try to stay aren't good -- I mean, if I was average in that group, it was a pretty amazing group to be average in. Or that some of the tenure track folks I've known aren't among the best I've met. I'm just saying that if you've come far enough to get a Ph.D., being the best in that group has very little to do with getting a tenure track position, even if that's what you want. I think it's pretty far down on the list of factors, and far behind outright luck. (Now that I think of it, I was once offered a job in large part thanks to an unpredictable and largely unexpected astrophysical event...)

  • Jerry A says:

    As a retired chemist I may be an intruding stepchild in a physics conversation, but while surfing Scientopia I saw the header and dropped in. After getting my chem doc (1971) I took a job in industry rather than embark on the tenure grind. Back then, that was considered to reflect poorly on the university, the department, your committee, and your advisor. It's amazing to think that after 39 years the culture still exists. And Brian, the use of $ in the HEPA list points out a really conceited superiority complex. Leaving academic life for industry can be a good thing in the long run.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    Back in the late 1960's, our first straight A student went into a PhD program. A ways into the program, he had some sort of a review, and told his committee he wanted to teach. They roundly condemned him, to the point that he left the program in disgust, and got an MS in Junior College Administration. Then he spent some years running a research program, publishing papers, etc, for a state agency. He went as far up the ladder as he could, then found a teaching position in a small Christan college and lived happily ever after. We all understood the irony of him wanting to teach and segwaying into running a research program.

  • There is no "overproduction" of PhDs, any more than there is an "overproduction" of minor league baseball players.

  • rknop says:

    PP -- I don't know that the analogy holds. My belief is (and I could be wrong) that those who start playing in the minor leagues are fully aware of how rare it is for a minor leaguer to go to the majors. In contrast, I suspect that a decent number of those who go into PhD programs believe that they'll be able to become faculty or national lab researchers one day.

    Also, you don't "graduate" from the minor leagues. You can get cut from the team, yes. But you don't "complete your work", after which time you're on the street. If you keep being of value to the minor league team, you may be able to stay on it indefinitely. PhDs, in contrast, once they're done, they're stuck. Probably they can find a post-doc or two, but they're stuck for permanent employment.

    I don't really know how well (or not) minor league baseball players are paid. PhD students typically are paid peanuts, especially when you compare it to the amount of money that amount of training could be earning them if they'd become engineers or lawyers. If we're not in the sciences, the pay may well be negative-- either through loans, or through doing more teaching than scientists do, or through doing research assistantships that (in contrast to science) don't include working on their thesis research.

    At some level it's a matter of perspective. If your perspective is, we want to pump out lots and lots of PhDs to throw into the shark pool so that the best and strongest will end up in our tenure track positions, and the goal is to keep the tenure track positions filled with the most hardened candidates, then the current system is fine. (Perhaps-- it may well be that the weed-out procedure we have in place will weed out some of the ones we'd rather have getting through.) However, I think that that perspective is inhumane; there's more to consider than just what the field wants. We could go to a humane system that produces just as much PhDs as we do right now, if a PhD program didn't both include the ethos that a career in research is the only thing that makes you a worthwhile person, and training for nothing other than being a post-doc.

  • Derek says:

    Your comment about rankings is an interesting one. What if, instead of rankings based on the number of PhDs or even responsible numbers of PhDs, some sort of job satisfaction measure of PhD graduates 3-4 years out was the benchmark? That might shift the focus of graduate education from "produce top flight research faculty" to "help grad students achieve their goals--whatever they might be."

  • AC says:

    I have been extremely lucky in that my adviser has been very open about the possibility of not being a professor. He outright says, like the author of this blog told me when I was an undergrad - expect that you won't be a professor. There aren't enough positions. I never held any illusions of being a professor at a research university becasue by and large they wouldn't come.

    On a personal level, I got to say that I have a reasonable amount of frustration for the whole qualifications process to even apply to begin with. Conventional wisdom is that nowadays you need THREE post-docs under your belt before you are competitive enough to even bother applying to a assoc. professor position. Granted, this is not the rule, but often times that is the number thrown out there. Three. Six more years of working for far less money than deserved before I can even hope to think about a position that MIGHT some day get me an offer of tenure (yeah right). There is an absolutely outrageous expectation here. I need to be in my late 30s before I can even qualify? Screw that. I want to get my life started. Even if I wanted to apply to a postdoc position, many times it is clear people are looking for someone who is already 1-2 postdocs in.

    As I have said, I have been very lucky in that my adviser outright admits that, in his own words, "there are more important things you can do than research" with a PhD in physics. I haven't outright told him that I am leaning towards getting out of academia, but I think he knows just by the way I talk about these things. I'm not ruling out postdocs - lord knows I would love being in a place like Italy for 2 years making probably twice what I am as a grad... but it wouldn't be useful in the long run as ultimately there is no point.

    So while I have escaped the bad culture of physics grad school directly, it is still out there that there is no hope of succeeding in research without dedicating lots of time as a postdoc (which in my mind is just grad school with somewhat better pay). There certainly is just a case of too many people for too few positions that causes this. I think it would be fun to be one of those who got to teach at the "small liberal arts" colleges just to teach astronomy and not have to worry about the horrors of grants etc., but I think grad students fool themselves there. Not only is it just as competitive applying for those positions, in most cases, you still going to have the fun of being turned down for grant after grant and have the college mad at you for reasons beyond your control.

    It's also very frustrating that most places outside of conventional research (e.g. Industry) takes one look at a physics PhD and laughs. Even if you have the appropriate skill sets, they just pass you up for a *#@#& B.E. So not only are you screwed WITHIN academia, you are now screwed outside of it as well.

  • [...] pseudo-rant was touched off by a series of posts on the overproduction of PhDs here, here, and here. Granted, the authors comeĀ from various scientific fields, each of which has its own [...]