Same Old Story : Too Many Graduate Students

Via Slashdot, I saw this report from the NIH advisory committee. The summary of the problem: there are too many graduate studnets produced in biomedical fields for the number of academic positions that will be available for them in the future. Quotes include:

NIH should create a program to supplement training grants through competitive review to allow institutions to provide additional training and career development experiences to equip students for various career options, and test ways to shorten the PhD training period.

Of course, earlier there is the statement of purpose:

Attract and retain the best and most diverse scientists, engineers and physicians from around the world to conduct biomedical research as well as increase the number of domestic students from diverse backgrounds who excel in science and become a part of the Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) workforce

This is a decades-old story at this point. I remember my junior or senior year of college (back in 1989 or thereabouts) hearing news stories about how there was going to be a "shortage of scientists", because all of those who rushed into science after Sputnik were going to be retiring. BS, of course, because during the intervening decades they all groomed multiple replacements for themselves, but they're only retiring once.

In my very early years of graduate school (1990-1992 or thereabouts), there was a statistical continuum of letters to the editor to Physics Today talking about the sea of physics post-docs out there: PhDs who could get a temporary post-doc position, or two, or three, but who couldn't find permanent positions. The astronomy journal club (I believe it was) at Caltech dedicated one of their meetings to talking about this issue. And, the professors there all gave lip service to "training students so that they can go into other careers." But I could practically hear each and every professor there thinking "but not my students— they will be the ones who get the coveted academic positions." (Some may even have been generous enough to think "Caltech" students.)

The sad truth is that those professors were probably mostly right, although not entirely. Of the three PhD students who worked with my advisor, Tom Soifer, when I was there, we're all in faculty positions. James Larkin is at UCLA and Tom Murphy is at UCSD. I'm the odd one out, teaching at a teaching-focused small liberal arts college rather than at a prestigious research Unviersity, but still I've got one of those rare and coveted professor positions. In Physics, professor positions everywhere are heavily dominated people with degrees from the top handfull of schools... yet they are all themselves still training graduate students, with graduate training programs designed to produce more academic researchers.

Socieites and meetings and focus groups will meet every so often and wring their hands about the problem, and give lip service either to increasing the number of staff scientists and decreasing the number of graduate students, or give lip service to "training graduate students for other careers". But little has changed despite this hand-wringing in the last twenty years, and I don't expect it to change any time soon. The professors, the ones in position of power, are the rare few who got the desired positions, so they aren't feeling the pain, and thus have little incentive to change it. Meanwhile, funding agencies keep talking about "attracting the best scientists", which leads to university administrations talking about "improving the graduate program", which inevitably leads to trying to attract more graduate students. It's a vicious cycle that's not going to end.

(And even if you do get into a scientific research position, you're still screwed. At least in astronomy, funding has gone completely into the toilet. Last I heard, NSF astronomy was granting only about 1/8 of the proposals it received, which is even worse than when I was failing to get NSF grants in the 00's. Also, national observatory facilities are being eviscerated on the altar of ausperity and gigantic projects. Not only are there too few research science positions for the graduate students we're producing, there are too many research science positions for the amount of science that our society is willing to support! It's bad all around.)

What you should do about it is be open and honest to any young people you know. Warn them that going into an academic PhD program is a trap. You will be enticed with the promise of an intellectually fulfilling job as a research scientist, once you put up with the years of hazing you undergo as a grad student. Only, at the other end, statistically you won't be able to find a job. I wrote about this back in January in my post Why go to graduate school in Physics?. The short version is that there's only one reason: because you want to be a physics graduate student for six years, and it's worth it to you to take six years out of your life to do that. Yes, if you want to be a professor, you have to get a PhD. Similarly, if you want to win the lottery, you have to buy lottery tickets. but the competition is intense.

You will also spend much of your graduate school career frustrated as you will see that everybody around you knows that the system is broken, that academic PhDs are being vastly overproduced... but that nobody is willing to do anything about it.

So do something about it yourself. Don't let yourself into the trap unless it's not a trap for you, but an interesting diversion for your life.

18 responses so far

  • JScarry says:

    observatory facilities are being eviscerated on the altar of ausperity

    That sounds like a new Republican buzz word. We're cutting funding and imposing austerity because it funds job creators and that leads to prosperity—hence ausperity is a good thing.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    There was an article in Bioscience, late 70s or early 80s, discussing the history of biology in terms of the logistic growth curve. There have been several historical doubling of investment in science, but the article did not think there would be another doubling in the future. So biology was approaching a situation of 0 growth, carrying capacity, with fierce competition for resources, and some areas of biology dying on the vine. They suggested a drastic cutback in PhD programs. This did not happen, of course, in fact just the opposite, and here we are today.

  • Dev says:

    The best and the brightest? ..... they sure have power.

  • rknop says:

    Yeah, the sucky thing about logistic growth curves is that it's just an empirical model. The population levels off and it looks all smooth and peaceful-- but it doesn't say anything about what's actually happening to the individuals in order to make that levelling off happen. Ideally, the birth rate just slows down to match the carrying capacity, and everybody's happy. But it might just be that you keep producing as many offspring but fewer survive to maturity as the room available is less....

  • Troy McConaghy says:

    Medicine, mathematics and engineering are old professions, but many of the other science-related professions only emerged in the 1800s or later. Indeed, the word "scientist" was only coined in 1834.

    Pierre de Fermat was a lawyer his whole life. He considered himself to be only an amateur mathematician.

    William Herschel was a professional musician for a long time, with telescope-making and using those telescopes being just a hobby (albeit one he obsessed over).

    Augustin-Louis Cauchy was trained as a civil engineer, and even started out with an engineering job.

    Paul Dirac studied to become an electrical engineer, but in post-WWI Europe, he couldn't get a job doing that. So he went back to school to do a second degree, in mathematics. (I can only wonder what would have happened if he did find a job as an electrical engineer.)

  • economyfailed says:

    The analysis and interpretation of the current environment in science is not openly taking into account the factor money, and all that means, because just as a starting point in questioning the extreme oddities happening around it will inevitably lead you to an insufficient economic system for even more than the niche of science, for the current society, and anywhere in the world. All the other problems are byproducts of that. Because it moves most things in society, is essential in modern times.

    So if you accept that assumption, if it becomes a problem it spoils everything else, so it would be the best starting point to solve this crisis.

    Take as an example the 'wild idea' somebody is running in web forums: that instead of bailing out big economic players to bail out the population with printed money at no interest. Directly, let's say a million granted per adult (assume 300 million), which then pay bills (housing, education, health, food, transportation, beauty and grooming, set small-medium businesses, biotechs, make loans to the big players, etc). And support science, of course. The economy will, at least, get temporarily lifted and in the process those not really interested in science will have their choice out, their degrees put to use, science by default will improve and at least some of the stated goals ill come through.

    People are pissed because they are not receiving the benefits promised by science, and have no money to spare in charities that any way are being associated with damaging society.

    So a good scientist or advocate of it should see that, clear.

    Sorry for the slight deviation from the focused of your post. But it matters for science indeed.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    You forgot the part about how Professors are actually incentivized by the system to train more and more graduate students.

  • rknop says:

    DrugMonkey -- definitely true. It's sort of in there, in that I talk about how institutions always want to provide more and more graduate students for the sake of the institution's prestige. But, of course, it's more than that. Part of the metric used to evaluate you for purposes of prestige (the true currency of academia) is the number of graduate students you produce. More than that is if you have one or more highly prestigious former graduate students, and the best way to shoot for that is to produce a lot and hope that one "sticks". Plus, granting agencies want to support graduate students and want you to be showing how what you're doing is helping train "the next generation" and all of that. It definitely goes beyond the "cheap labor" that reports like this mention.

  • argh says:

    I keep thinking that what we need is a scientists union- a "scientific workers of the world". Especially for post-docs- that's the only way they're going to have any kind of political power to try and change this massively screwed-up system.

  • Dev says:

    So, what is, or should be, the role of academia in society?

    Maybe is worth a post, at least one, and from the perspective of more than just the people in academia.

  • DvR says:

    There are other possibilities.. For example; on approaching the K, selection would favour hightened resource efficiency and if any such adaptation occurs, K would gradually shift to a higher level.

    I'm not sure how to elevate resource efficiency in research though, but maybe lower wages and cheaper experiments could do the trick.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    The limiting factor on number of PhDs hired into tenure track academic professorships is the number of such professorships offered by academic institutions. It bears little relationship to the number of PhDs who compete for such positions. Doing searches in the 90s we had from 3 to 300 applicants for a position, depending on the position. In the three case, we hired a person already an instructor who was the best qualified of the three applicants.

  • [...] Same Old Story: Too Many Graduate Students by Rob Knop [...]

  • chimpanzee says:

    Dr Alan Hale (JPL alumni) is outspoken against bleak prospects for science careers, he couldn't find work in Astronomy after getting his PhD

  • Rob Knop says:

    ...and that article is from 15 years ago. If anythjng, things ard worse now.

  • Mike says:

    I recently saw the Nobel Prize lecture from 2011 in physics by Saul Perlmutter. You were mentioned as being in the group that did the research. Seriously, is it really that bad to spend several years being a part of something cool like that and ending out doing something else eventually? Perhaps this is an extreme case, but seriously I've never been a part of anything particularly exciting in my life, and it seems like an ok tradeoff, spend a bunch of years doing something you really like and then if you get to pursue that further, great, and if not go find another career, which astro people can often do easily due to their computer skills.

    I guess I just don't get why the whole job situation has to be so traumatic. Yes it's dissappointing and all, but why the whole oh-no-the-sky-is-falling thing?

    • rknop says:

      Mike -- you're right, of course, and if you come at it with that attitude you're doing it right. See my post here : I more or less advocate the attitude.

      The thing is: when you're in graduate school, you're making a whole lot less money than you could be with your skills and background. And, that might be fine-- but it has to be fine with you. There's also the cultural sense, throughout grad school and your post-doc, that you're a failure if you don't go on to the desired research position. It's difficult to see past that position. There's also the fact that you might want to settle down and have stability in your life; if you're a post-doc, travelling from one temporary position to the next every 2-3 years without a lot of choice where you end up going, it can be a very stressful lifestyle. The chance to be able to do science, just for a time with no future, has to be be worth all of that. And if it is, great! The real danger is going into graduate school with the illusion that you're setting yourself up for a *lifetime* of scientific research. I think many students still go in sort of expecting that that is the deal. Society still implicitly promises that, despite vast evidence to the contrary. That's the thing that we need to make clear is no longer true.

  • chimpanzee says:

    I met your grad school colleague Tom Murphy, I had my solar telescope (H-alpha) setup on my lawn 2 block from Caltech, & he was riding by on his bike. He has a background in amateur-astronomy

    I happened to hook up with Dr Michael Richmond (PhD Berkeley, Filippenko's student, “The Supernova Rate in Starburst Galaxies”), thru TASS -- The Amateur Sky Survey. He was involved with the BAIT (Berkleley Automated Imaging Telescope), which was used for supernova hunting. Unfortunately, a CRACKPOT amateur got involved with this area (automated telescopes), & disrupted Professionals wanting to use this technology. Saul Perlmutter was interested in automated SN hunting telescopes, he/Filippenko had papers intermixed with the trouble-maker amateur. I.e., he INTERFERED with the eventual work that led to 2011 Nobel Physics!!

    He has an section about "Thinking of a Career in Astronomy?"

    "It's not impossible, but it's very difficult. It took me many years of work for little pay. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who doesn't love astronomy with a passion."

    I still remember this NOVA episode

    featuring the principals of the 2011 Physics Nobel.