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.

13 comments :

  1. 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.
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    This is so true. What does need to change is the mindset of many faculty members. Too many in my grad school department would put down other career choices outside of trying to get a faculty position at a research university. Needless to say this wasn't the best situation for graduate students. Not to mention anyone selling the simpleminded concept of getting a PhD means you need to pursue a faculty position is selling a pyramid scheme. In the US, we need more people with training in the sciences not less. My PhD advisor's philosophy was that the primary skills he/she was teaching us were analytical skills that can be used in any number of ways. We wanted to become research faculty like him, great. We wanted to go into industry, great. If we wanted to go into science policy, great. If we wanted to teach, great. We wanted to leave science and do something else, great. His goal was to make sure we had the thinking skills to do whatever we wanted to do.

    To expect faculty to know about all the options available and how to get them though is a little unreasonable. Faculty are busy people. There is teaching, writing reviews/grants, university committees, service work (reviewing articles, grants, serving on professional committees, etc), attending conferences, running labs, etc. Shouldn't the overhead universities extract from grants (at the universities I have been at, 60-65% of a grant goes towards overhead) go towards having resources available for graduate students and post-docs to aid them in their career development?

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  2. The pejorative reference to graduate students as indentured labour is quite unnecessary.

    But accurate.

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  3. It would be lovely if every student we graduated was suited for a faculty position. But let's get real - the bozo quotient is never even close to zero.

    That's not because of flaws in the grad-student screening process, or in the training we give. Rather it's a human universal.

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  4. wlwalker said,

    But accurate.

    I'm sorry to hear that you've had a bad experience. I can assure you that it's not universal and that's why the label "indentured labour" is insulting to so many students and faculty.

    I can't imagine why any student who feels that way would stay with their supervisor. I advise them to get out while they're still sane. If you're not having fun as a graduate student then it's only going to get worse.

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  5. I couldn't agree more with Larry's position. I would also like to add that people have been complaining about the skewed supply and demand of academic biological sciences and complaining of the pyramid schemes for quite some time. It is hardly fair for academic departments to discriminate against motivated, hard working students just to maintain some sort of quota. What about people who don't want academic/tenure jobs. A lot of people actually don't mind the so called 'soft money' positions. Plus, who is to say what the labor market is going to be in the future for current entering graduate students, not to mention the availability of alternative careers that a graduate biological sciences degree also might work towards.

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  6. On another note Larry, I would be interested to hear what advice you would give an interested undergrad who asks about careers with a bio sci graduate degree

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  7. I can't imagine why any student who feels that way would stay with their supervisor. I advise them to get out while they're still sane. If you're not having fun as a graduate student then it's only going to get worse.
    *****************************************

    Well when the advisor undermines the graduate student's confidence & berates them to the point of driving them into a depression the brain isn't exactly in the position to make such a rational decision. I have seen these sort of abusive advisor-student relations. Some faculty take advantage of their power to use graduate students to churn out papers. It isn't pretty. I am glad I have not had to go through this myself. Just wish more of the good faculty members would speak up and tell the bad apples off more often.

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  8. Dave Bridges asks,

    On another note Larry, I would be interested to hear what advice you would give an interested undergrad who asks about careers with a bio sci graduate degree.

    Thanks for asking.

    I begin by explaining the purpose of a university education. At the risk of over-simplification, the goal is to teach you how to think.

    There are many ways to achieve this goal but most of them require some concentration in a particular field of study. This is an essential part of higher education. It doesn't much matter whether the concentration is in art history, sociology, or biochemistry. The end result is that you have learned how to think and how to deal with complex problems and this appeals to many employers.

    A biochemistry undergraduate degree will open different doors than a degree in art history but not all students will want to go through those particular doors. If you do, then the doors lead to working in a science lab and teaching science in high school (among others).

    If you're looking for a "career" in life science then I'm worried that you have the wrong attitude about university. Taking a degree in biology is not the same as a job training program. The goal of biology Professors is not to prepare you for a specific career as a lab technician, for example. You should be selecting a program that you will enjoy and one that will give you a good education in how to think. You should not be looking for a program that will prepare you for a specific career. Those programs are usually found in community colleges or other places.

    On the other hand, if you want to be a research scientist specializing in life sciences then there's a special reason for taking a major in biology or genetics, or biochemistry. This is the path to graduate school and graduate school is a necessary step in the pathway.

    I tell undergraduates that if they are thinking about graduate school then, by all means, give it a shot. Especially if they are excited about science. While they are in graduate school they will see first hand what it's like to work in a lab. They will learn about all kinds of opportunities they can pursue with a graduate degree. Some of these have nothing to do with science and some do. Some of them are things that you (and I) haven't even thought about today. You will change your mind many times before you settle on a life-time occupation. Don't worry about it now but try to make decisions that keep as many doors open as possible.

    And have fun in graduate school. It can be the most wonderful time of your life. If you aren't having fun then quit as soon as possible. It's not for you.

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  9. ponderingfool says,

    Just wish more of the good faculty members would speak up and tell the bad apples off more often.

    There are many proven ways to avoid the worst abuses of the system.

    A good department will have a strong graduate coordinator who monitors the progress of graduate students and alerts the department when some Professors are behaving inappropriately. In some cases graduate students will be removed from the lab and in some cases the supervisors will be banned from taking any more graduate students.

    Departments that don't do this are failing in their responsibility to graduate students.

    Most departments will have graduate committees for each graduate student. It is part of the responsibility of committee members to ensure that the relationship between student and supervisor is working. If they fail in this responsibility then the committee members should not be allowed to take graduate students.

    The graduate students themselves should belong to an organization of graduate students. The university and the departments should encourage this and provide financial support. The graduate student union provides both intellectual and emotional support when the going gets rough. If the other checks and balances don't work then the leadership of the graduate student union can alert the chair of any problems.

    It's important that graduate students themselves take some of the responsibility for their own education. If you know of abuses in other labs then you need to speak out. If you don't then you are just surrendering to the "indentured labor" stereotype.

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  10. The graduate students themselves should belong to an organization of graduate students. The university and the departments should encourage this and provide financial support.
    *****************************************
    How many US universities have this? My graduate institution had a grad student government. They do not have any authority other than provide advice. It doesn't appear to be set-up to deal with such issues. Other schools I have seen, it is a similar situation. My high school student government had more authority than the one in graduate school. As for an actual union, all private universities that I know of in the US lack a graduate student union and many schools have vigorously opposed their formation. Not sure those at public universities in the US would be that much help either as they tend to be TA unions.

    Committees are great as long as you have constructed your committee with the right people. I set-up mine, it worked great. Most of the time though from what I have seen, students are really given advice on how to select a thesis committee except from their advisors. This can be problematic.

    The departments I have been in seem to favor giving as much room to each faculty member to run his/her lab as he/she sees fit, much like the universities give wide room to the departments. They are unlikely to punish faculty who behave poorly. My graduate department did have a graduate coordinator that was good about getting students to switch labs and removing the stigma that can sometimes go with that which was good.

    Speaking up I am all for but at a certain point you can't speak for someone else when details are asked for.

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  11. "I'd like to think that there are still students out there who go to graduate school for the love of science. I did."

    That is SO refreshing to hear. That is exactly why I think the PhD DEGREE SHOULD NOT BE AWARDED ANY MORE. Because people should be in graduate school just for the experience.

    And that is also why I think that scientists SHOULD NEVER BE PAID A SALARY. Instead, if they make it to a permanent position, they and their families should be given 3 packed meals a day (beyond retirement...right until death), 3 sets of clothes each year and a tent in the university courtyard.

    I really love to think there are scientists who are not just doing grad school but ALL of professorial work just for "the love of science".

    Isn't it wonderful when an old man takes the moral high ground?

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  13. Hi,
    PhD qualification has traditionally led graduates to a career in academic-related research, Also demand from the private and public sectors, has opened up a variety of opportunities.The number of science doctorates earned each year is growing. Its certainly led them to a highend Job.
    Thanks for this Blog.

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