Thursday, August 23, 2007
Job Prospects for Graduate Students
This week's issue of Nature has two short articles on the future of science in the USA. The first one refers to Indentured Labour. It talks about the fact that the number of life science researchers in the universities (tenure and tenure-track) has leveled off at about 30,000 while the number of students earning degrees in the life sciences has doubled. The pejorative reference to graduate students as indentured labour is quite unnecessary. It declares a bias and prevents rational discussion.
The second article makes a similar point [More biologists but tenure stays static] about the job prospects of Ph.D. students.
Both Nature articles are based on statistics compiled by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASED). The original study can be found at [Education and Employment of Biological and Medical Scientists: Data from National Surveys]. The Nature articles have stimulated considerable debate on the blogosphere, See PZ's posting and the comments [The most daunting numbers I've seen yet].
Most of the postings have failed to ask the really hard questions so that's what I'm going to do. But first, let's look at the data from the powerpoint presentation on the FASEB site.
The first graph shows the number of Ph.D. graduates in life sciences over the past 40 years. The rate was about 4,000 per year throughout most of the 1980's then jumped up to about 6,000 per year in the late 1990's. Lately there has been a further increase to about 7,000 per year. Much of the increase is due to foreign students.
The second graph shows the increase in positions for researchers with a Ph.D. in life sciences. The number of jobs has almost tripled from 1973 to 2003. Most of the increase has been in industry as a result of the expansion of biotech firms. Most of the fuss is because the number of academic jobs seems to have flattened out at about 60,000. Of these, only 30,000 are tenure or tenure-stream positions. At our university the number of positions in hospital research institutes (non-tenured) has vastly outpaced the number on the campus (tenured) so this isn't a surprise to me.
One of the questions being debated is whether we should continue to graduate far more Ph.D's than the number of academic positions that need to be filled. The answer is yes and here's why.
Assuming (incorrectly) that our primary purpose in graduate education is to train our replacements and assuming (incorrectly) that all graduates want an academic position, we should still graduate more candidates than there are positions because we will want to choose the best candidates for a position and this means that there has to be a larger supply than the demand. How large should this supply be if we were to treat graduate students as a commodity? I don't know, maybe five or ten times the number of jobs?
Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not advocating that we behave this way. I'm simply pointing out to those who do want us to adopt this point of view that there should be many more Ph.D.'s than jobs. That's something that most people don't seem to understand. They seem to think that the number of Ph.D. graduate should approximate the number of jobs available. What this would mean in practice is that the selection for tenure-stream Professors would take place mostly on admission to graduate school and whatever happens afterwards is hardly relevant (i.e., no weeding out). (Some people even think that the candidates for tenure-stream positions are chosen from graduates of their own institutions. Those people are really out of touch.)
Is the "crisis" as serious as most people think? I don't believe it is for several reasons. First, many of the foreign students will return to their native countries. This means that the graduate students who are getting Ph.D.'s in America won't all be looking for jobs in America. Second, many students want to take jobs in industry because they pay better. They won't be competing for academic positions. Third, there's a considerable lag between the expansion of student numbers and the expansions of faculty. Many universities have plans for faculty expansion in the near future. Fourth, the steady-state level of faculty positions disguises the fact that faculty hired in the 1970's expansions are now retiring. Thus, for the short term there will be more new hiring than the graphs indicate.
But behind all this debate and discussion is a more serious issue. Why do students go to graduate school? Is it only because they want to be trained for a future job? Should Professors look upon every graduate student as a job trainee and behave accordingly? I'd like to think that there are still students out there who go to graduate school for the love of science. I did.
The graduate school experience is an end all by itself and not always a means to an end. Sure, it would be nice if things work out and the student gets a nice post-doc and an academic position—if that's what they want—but there's other things to do after graduate school. I've known lots of students who went into teaching, medicine, or law for example. I've known students who choose to be full-time parents even though they did well in graduate school and enjoyed the experience.
I'm very reluctant to fall into the mindset where I view every graduate student as a trainee for a job in industry and academia and not as a young inquisitive scientist. If Professors adopt the former mindset, and some do, then the goal of graduate research is not to answer important scientific questions but to churn out enough papers in respectable journals to ensure you get a good post-doc. The fact that this goal is sometimes compatible with the ambitions of the P.I. (more papers) makes for a deadly combination.