Saturday, September 17, 2005

Don't become a scientist! II

Despite the lip service paid to the importance of basic science to US competitiveness, you can see that not only are natural scientists underpaid here, but their rate of income growth has lagged that of other professions in the last decade. A careful study would show that US scientists, as a class of workers, are the first victims (in an economic sense) of globalization and its consequent reduction of returns to labor. Science was the first field of human endeavor to become globalized, with a truly international market for talent. US cold war policies were meant to produce as many scientists as possible, providing generous graduate fellowships for talented foreigners (like my father). After the cold war, the lion's share of the most talented Soviet scientists ended up here, along with the cream of the university crop from countries like China, India, Korea, Taiwan, etc. Beneficiary: the US economy in general, losers: US-born scientists.

If you love science, by all means go for it, but please be advised that it is hardly an optimal choice from an economic standpoint! See here and here for previous discussion.

Data below from WSJ. Note that among professionals, scientists had the worst wage-growth performance (essentially zero when inflation adjusted) in the period under study. Does that sound strange in our era of nanotech, biotech and infotech? You might argue that, according to this data, natural scientists are better paid than programmers (a group that is starting to feel the effects of globalization), but the vast majority of scientists have PhDs and should be compared with workers in categories like lawyers, physicians or "teachers of economics" (econ profs).

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

Those figures are quite surprising. I thought plumbers made alot more money than that.

steve said...

Plumbers who run their own businesses might do very well, but the average is probably dragged down by their employees, who are also plumbers.

Note that school teachers do better than natural scientists :-(

Brandon said...

I don't know about those figures for economists. I'm happy to see them since I'm an econ grad student but they seem too high. Does it include finance guys as well?

steve said...

Not sure, but probably includes B-school profs, including in finance.

Anonymous said...

I don't believe those figures. For one thing, architects and school teachers are NOT paid well at all. Those figures look artificially inflated to me.

scienceguy11 said...

I posted this on another thread, but I think it belongs here.

Sadly, I think Katz's piece... while perhaps a bit exaggerated... is more-or-less on the mark.

http://wuphys.wustl.edu/~katz/scientist.html

I'm a scientist (ivy league PhD, '01) and was one of the lucky few to land a steady job in research science within a few years of getting my PhD. I'm not a professor, but a staff scientist at a government lab. Anyway, the majority of those in my graduate school class (probably around 70 %) either quit the field entirely or are still in post-doc purgatory. Note that the ones who quit with a masters degree are, by far, the best off financially... despite the fact that those of us in the program were arrogant enough to consider leaving with a masters as a "failure."

You can read up on the post-doc trap if you like, just google it. Whatever you do, make sure you don't end up on that treadmill for too long. A post-doc can be a great opportunity to try new science and, in certain cases, work in interesting places. However, it's usually true that the "post-doc" experience doesn't live up to its promise. It's advertised as "post-doctoral training" but the word "training" is inserted, more often than not, so that those who apply can be paid far less than they're worth… specifically because their employers know how difficult it can be to get a job doing research.

Ask yourself this... what kind of "training" position requires, as a prerequisite, the highest degree in the land? Okay... you might say... "but MD's go through a residency period too." Sure, but MDs enter a residency program in order to specialize in a particular subfield of medicine. In contrast, profs are looking to hire post-docs with backgrounds and specific skill sets to implement/augment their research programs. You can have a phd in a related subject and still be rejected because your training wasn't extensive enough in the right subfield. If you're hired for your specific expertise in the first place, does it make sense to call the position a "training" period? I suppose it's an open issue for debate, but I see a certain level of unfairness here... particularly given that exactly what the post-docs are "training" for is not always terribly clear. The likelihood that any given post-doc (particularly at lower-end institutions) will get the kind of academic job in which they will actually use their "training" is comparatively low. In contrast, a radiology resident who successfully completes the program is nearly guaranteed a job as a radiology specialist.


I'm a bit disgusted, frankly, with how little we pay our post-docs and how we treat them. It's endemic to the system - science is structured to eat its young. We string people along for years on the mere, faint hope that they'll someday get a permanent position. Yet, the longer they remain in the "training" program, the more valuable their skills become to the principal scientist... thus the lower the incentive for that principal scientist to fulfill his part of the "training" bargain and help the post-doc find real work. I’ve seen this kind of abuse first-hand while collaborating with a well-known academic group. It can be especially egregious and flagrant in the case of foreign-citizens whose visa status is tied to the post-doctoral “advisor.” I recall one instance in which a PhD chemist from Asia (who was in this country because her husband had found a job) worked for the better part of a year without pay because her “advisor” promised to help her obtain a work visa. This is technically illegal and probably atypical, but the point is that these positions are so ill-defined and policing so infrequent that the system is rife with abuse.

Beware of excessive post-docing. It can kill your spirit and rob you of your youth. That being said, I understand and sympathize with all who want to make research a career. It's a path that has many, many rewards... both intellectual and personal. I'm not recommending against trying it... I'm just saying that if you're on your second or third post-doc, it's time to look elsewhere even if your advisor tells you that work is just around the corner. It probably isn't... there are far more people with PhD's in the sciences than there are permanent positions.

scienceguy11 said...

re-posted from:

http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/career_development/issue/articles/1820/thanks_for_the_great_postdoc_bargain/

Thanks for the Great Postdoc Bargain
Richard Freeman
United States
30 August 2002

BACK TO THE FEATURE INDEX

Postdocs are at the heart of the United States?s extraordinarily successful biological and life scientific research program over the past two-plus decades. In this period, postdocs have produced most of the results in academic laboratories and have come to play an increasing role in industrial and government labs as well. Academic institutions, which engage some 80% of postdocs, aren?t sure whether postdocs are employees, students, or some form of apprentice. With responsibility for hiring and career development resting firmly with the principle investigators who employ the postdocs on their research grants, many universities don?t even know how many postdocs they have or what they are paid, much less how they are progressing toward ? whatever the future holds for them.

Whatever they are, however, postdocs are one of the greatest bargains in the U.S. economy. Where else can one hire Ph.D.s, whose training and smarts put them among the best and brightest in the world, to work 60 hours a week for $30,000 to 40,000 a year, with limited benefits and little power to influence their working conditions and pay? Given the long hours that postdocs work, their hourly pay is on the order of $10 to $13 per hour--on par with the wages paid to custodial and other low-paid workers that have spurred living wage campaigns around the country.

On behalf of the taxpayers who fund much of the postdoc-conducted research and on behalf of the principal investigators who are able to undertake more experiments and advance their careers with low-cost postdocs in their labs, I want to thank the postdocs in our country. The United States could hardly ask for a more cost-effective way to advance knowledge and ultimately improve our lives. In a world where former Enron CEO Kenneth Lay (an economics Ph.D.!) paid himself millions of dollars before bankrupting his firm, postdocs deserve a round of huzzahs for creating so much of value and charging so little that they themselves are the ones risking bankruptcy.

Huzzah! Huzzah!

Two to three decades ago, the U.S. rewarded postdocs with a reasonably good chance of being hired as a principal investigator. Sorry, but we can no longer carry out that part of the bargain. As Table 1 shows, there are just too many postdocs for us to absorb them as tenured faculty. In 1987, the ratio of postdocs to tenured faculty was already too high at 0.54 for most to obtain faculty jobs at the rate of growth of academic employment. By 1997, the ratio had risen by 43% to 0.77. It has presumably risen further since then. As a result--and as many postdocs have learned to their chagrin--the U.S. does not have a place for them on standard academic tracks.

But don?t get discouraged, postdocs. We need you for our research. How about another postdoctorate--a few more years of long hours at low wages?

Table 1: Ratio of the Number of Postdoctorates in Higher Educational Institutions to the Number of Tenured Faculty, 1987 and 1997

Discipline
1987
1997
% Change

Life Sciences
0.54
0.77
43%

Physical Sciences and Mathematics
0.20
0.23
15%

Engineering
0.11
0.19
73%

Source: The National Academies Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers, (NAS, 2000), table B-1 and table B-14.


The forces of supply and demand are unlikely to improve the economic situation of postdocs in any plausible time period. One reason is that the supply of postdocs consists not only of U.S. citizens and permanent residents gaining Ph.D.s but also of U.S.- and foreign-trained Ph.D.s from other countries. Indeed, U.S. scientific research could not proceed at anything like its current pace was it not for the influx of foreign postdocs. Roughly half of postdocs currently come from overseas, many from countries with low personal income rates such as China. Remove foreign postdocs from the nation?s labs and postdoc pay would zoom ... at the cost of short-term chaos and a long-term slower rate of scientific progress. Nevertheless, we should not forget to thank our foreign postdocs for their long hours and hard work on behalf of the rest of our society. ?

Huzzah! Huzzah!

Postdocs, we appreciate deeply your working so hard for so little and making science go so well. We beneficiaries of the great postdoc bargain hope that you are happy to be part of this great endeavor and will do nothing foolish to disturb the status quo. Don?t support the efforts of the major funding agencies of the U.S. government, the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation, to raise their postdoc stipends significantly. It will add to our budget deficit. And if NIH and NSF awards rise, universities may have to match those increases with moneys that they may have trouble finding. Don?t listen to the committees of the National Academy of Sciences or to the leaders of professional societies or those scientists in the university world who tell you that you should be getting a better deal. Science is advancing wonderfully thanks to your hard work at bargain-basement pay. Who knows what might happen if your economic situation were to improve?

But above all, absolutely, positively don?t form organizations to make your case to the public and to represent your interests within the university or science worlds. Don?t become another special interest group. Our heartfelt thanks should be enough. You don?t need clear and mutually understood contracts, stipends that pay more per hour than custodial help, health insurance and other benefits for your family, and all those other things that recent reports by the Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy and the Association of American Universities think you should have. Postdoc organizations might just gain the power to get you those things and destroy the great postdoc bargain. Isn?t it enough to know that you are indispensable to the science and engineering endeavor? Wouldn?t you rather have some more huzzahs.

Hip-hip hooray for bargain-basement postdocs! Huzzah! Huzzah! Huzzah!

scienceguy11 said...

more from freeman:

Stimulating Careers in Science and Engineering
Richard Freeman
United States
7 May 2004

BACK TO THE FEATURE INDEX

BACK TO THE FEATURE INDEX

The United States is the leading country in the world in scientific research and in applying the results of research and development (R&D) to practical economic problems. The U.S. relies on high-tech industries and intellectual property for its competitive edge in the global economy. The country exports high-tech goods and intellectual property while importing low-tech goods such as plastic children?s toys and sneakers from low-wage countries, and importing medium-tech consumer and other items such as washing machines and cars from advanced European economies, Japan, and Canada.

In the lingo of economists, the U.S. has a comparative advantage in science and technology just as Columbia or Brazil have comparative advantages in producing coffee, the Caribbean has a comparative advantage in sun and beaches, and the Middle East has a comparative advantage in oil. But unlike the comparative advantages associated with geography, a comparative advantage in science and technology is self-made. It requires public funding for R&D and science and engineering education, and policies that create and maintain a healthy job market for scientists and engineers.

What shortage of scientists?

At this writing the job market for scientists and engineers is not healthy and it risks getting less healthy. Many in the science establishment complain about shortages of scientists and engineers and call for investments in improved schooling at the K-12 level to create a larger flow of young persons into science and engineering careers. This misreads the problem and possible solutions.

There is no shortage of scientists and engineers in the U.S. Between 1990 and 2003 the number of scientists and engineers increased more rapidly than the rest of the workforce while earnings and career opportunities in these fields fell short of those in other education-intensive fields. Unable to gain independent research grants, young scientists spend years as low-paid postdocs before gaining ?real jobs? in academe, industry, or government. Many bright young Americans choose to invest in other occupations. Do you want to be a 35-year-old postdoc earning $40,000 in someone else?s lab, or an MBA earning $150,000 working in a major business directing others?

Still, the U.S. has been able to increase the number of scientists and engineers to meet growing demands. There is no shortage because the country has attracted large numbers of the best and brightest students, researchers, and science and engineering workers from foreign countries. According to the 2000 Census of Population, 38% of Ph.D.s working in science and engineering occupations were foreign-born--a massive rise over the 24% foreign-born figure for 1990. In 2000, 52% of employed Ph.D. scientists and engineers in the age bracket 24 to 45 were foreign-born. Among postdocs, the foreign-born proportions is around 60%. The pattern of rapid influx of immigrants into science and engineering is also found at the master?s and bachelor?s level, albeit from lower bases.

Until this year the flow of students from overseas seemed unending. Were it not for the flow of foreign-born researchers, U.S. science and engineering would be in crisis.

The shortfall of young Americans in science and engineering does not reflect the state of U.S. education or the innate intelligence or work ethic of young Americans. Each year our students do well in the Math and Physics Olympiads. Thousands more American students are capable of pursuing careers in science and engineering. Suggestions to ramp up K-12 education to create a scientifically literate and able group of students--which invariably takes 1 to 2 decades--or to try to convince U.S. undergraduates that science and engineering is for them without improving their career prospects will not succeed. Americans are not enrolling in science and engineering in increasing numbers because the job market for scientists and engineers does not offer opportunities as attractive as competing areas. Low-paid postdoc, or lucrative MBA, MD, or law degree?

The real problem in the science and engineering job market is in the balance between domestic and international supplies of workers and students. The influx of foreign-born students and immigrant scientists and engineers is both a blessing and a problem. It is a blessing because it brings the best and brightest from around the world to our universities and labs and strengthens our comparative advantage in science and high-tech fields. Given the nature of the American position in the global economy, this is not a luxury; it is necessary for long-term U.S. economic well-being. It is a problem because, at the same time, the huge influx of foreign students and workers keeps wages and employment opportunities below what they would otherwise be. This discourages U.S. citizens from investing in science and engineering careers, and thereby increases our dependence on the foreign-born.

There are inherent risks to the U.S. economy from relying extensively on flows from other countries for the key input into our economic success. Countries like China that currently supply a large proportion of students and workers to our science and engineering endeavor might, in the future, discourage students from coming to the U.S. As the Chinese and Indian economies improve, the attractiveness of the U.S. as a place to study and work will decline. Reacting to the flow of European scientists and engineers to the U.S., the European Union has already begun improving its offerings to top researchers.

Recent headlines highlight the risks. This spring the Council of Graduate Schools reported a 32% drop in the number of foreign students applying to the U.S. for higher education. Officials at Wisconsin, Southern California, Minnesota, Princeton, Texas A&M, among other major universities have been stunned and troubled by the decline in applications. Some, such as Chancellor John Wiley of Wisconsin, have focused on the danger to the supply of scientists and engineers from reduced flows of international students. Others, such as former CIA head and president of Texas A&M Robert Gates, have focused on the implications of denying entry to foreign students on the war on terrorism and our national security. My concern is with the risk to our economic health--to trade, jobs, and living standards.

To some extent, the drop in overseas applications to U.S. universities reflects U.S. visa policies, which the State Department can hopefully correct. The message from visa officials should be that we want foreign-born students and scientists and engineers to come to the U.S. We want them to choose our country as the best place to do their studies and work. The message should also be that we want them to stay and join us as citizens. We want them not only because Americans love the cultural diversity of our melting pot and appreciate hard-working immigrants more than almost any other peoples; we want them also because they are necessary for the health of our economy, for our comparative advantage in the global economy, and for the long-term ability of our country to provide rising living standards for our citizens, native born as well as current and future immigrants.

Greater investment needed in young scientists

At the same time, we have to find ways to increase the attractiveness of science and engineering careers to U.S. citizens. This is a hard problem because it means improving pay and career opportunities for independent work by younger scientists and engineers, potentially at the expense of older PIs and of the relatively inexpensive research endeavor that the flow of foreign born researchers has permitted. With a given R&D budget, agencies must devote larger shares to investing in younger scientists and engineers. The Administration and Congress must recognize (as many firms already do) that slowdowns in the growth of R&D budgets are penny wise and pound foolish.

The country does not have many levers to improve the career attractiveness of science and engineering for Americans while simultaneously encouraging foreign-born students and immigrants to come to the U.S. There is, however, one area in which policy can make career prospects more attractive to Americans. This is through the number and size of stipends available to U.S. citizens from the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and other government agencies. Since these awards are limited to U.S. citizens (just as scholarships and stipends given by foreign governments are almost always limited to their citizens), they are the natural tool for differentiating U.S. citizens from noncitizens.

What is needed to attract more young Americans into science and engineering are larger and more attractive fellowships and stipends and a major revamping of the career structure and timing of rewards in science and engineering. We need to make science and engineering more like athletics, where pay and career opportunities are frontloaded rather than backloaded in careers. The relation between senior PIs and postdocs and young researchers should be more akin to that between coaches and managers and young athletes than that between employer and employee. More credit and reward should go to the young researcher.

We all know the poem by Emma Lazarus, ?Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free,? at the foot of the Statue of Liberty. For our economic health (and for our national security as well), I would amend this: ?Give us your best students, your creative scientists and engineers, yearning to make great discoveries? and we will continue to be the locomotive economy on which all of the world can rely. But we must also deliver ample economic rewards and fulfilling careers to our own best and brightest if we are to maintain our position as the world?s science, technology, and economic powerhouse. Striking the right balance between domestic and foreign supplies is the science and engineering workforce problem of our time. Let?s get on to solving it by improving the job market for scientists and engineers

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scienceguy11 said...

Malthus And Graduate Students: Checks On Burgeoning Ranks Of Ph.D.'s
by Jesse H. Ausubel
February 5, 1996
The proletariat of American research, the graduate students and the postdocs, cry and whisper. Internet traffic even suggests they organize. At Yale, some struck. Meanwhile, William Massy of Stanford University and Charles Goldman of RAND Corp. present a fresh analysis to explain the doctoral system (W.F. Massy, C.A. Goldman, The Production and Utilization of Science and Engineering Doctorates in the United States, Stanford Institute for Higher Education Research, 1995), and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) complex releases two major assessments of American graduate education and research (Reshaping the Graduate Education of Scientists and Engineers and Research-Doctorate Programs in the United States, NAS, Washington, D.C., 1995). The bottom line is that alma mater is doctoring too many children.
Malthus's classic negative checks on population were famine, war, and ill health. Here I would like to provide a backdrop for considering more positive checks on the burgeoning number of Ph.D.'s, drawing in part on the facts and findings in the three 1995 studies. Five features dominate: expansion of degree-granting franchises; the forgotten origin of the expansion, a need for teachers; emergence of a research enterprise recruiting students to sustain itself; a star system for faculty, further tipping graduate schools toward research; and, finally, too many doctorates. My positive checks, like those of Malthus, will involve better understanding and purposeful action as well as moral restraint.
Franchise Expansion
The number and size of universities granting doctorates have multiplied. Gaining status, the institutions awarding a Ph.D. in science and engineering (S&E) doubled from 1961 to 1991, reaching 299. Grantors of master's degrees in S&E slightly more than doubled in the same period, reaching 442, and provide a ready pool to multiply the population of schools granting Ph.D.'s still more.
No convincing logic defines the optimal set of doctoral programs for America. However, absolute numbers now impress in almost every field. In each major sub-field within biology, 100 to 200 schools now award Ph.D.'s. Circa 1990, 182 granted degrees in physics, 169 in mathematics, and 130 in civil engineering. Even in a sub-sub field such as biomedical engineering 86 granted Ph.D.'s, and in the sub-field of physics and biology called oceanography, 50 did so.
Enrollment multiplied as the franchises expanded. From 1967 to 1992, graduate students of all kinds increased about half, twice the growth of the United States population. They multiplied from slightly less than a half-million to just over two-thirds million. The swelling number of schools increased the annual output of S&E Ph.D.'s from about 18,000 to 25,000 during the decade 1983-93.
If a franchise means spending $30 million or more of federal money annually for basic research, about 100 institutions have franchises. In 1970 only about 30 universities had large research programs. (The 100 produce about 90 percent of Ph.D.'s.)
From 1960 to now, major league baseball added more franchises, too, from 16 to 28. The New York Yankees could not maintain their dynasty in that expanding field. The 1995 NAS ranking of doctoral programs in dozens of fields showed predictably that the average rank of most universities declined with the expanding number of competitors, worsening morale and lengthening the climb to the top of the standings. Questions also arise about the qualifications of a larger absolute number of students and faculty.
The Forgotten Need For Teachers
In the 1950s, war veterans swelled the ranks of students. Recovering from the thin years of the Depression, colleges needed teachers quickly. Fresh Ph.D.'s staffed the rapidly expanding state universities and enlarging older institutions, too. Subsequently, democratization of educational opportunity and the baby boom sustained the college boom.
Secondarily, the government paid for training technical personnel to compete with the perceived scientific prowess of the Soviets. With fresh memories of the victories of science in World War II and ample tax revenues, the government paid for research campaigns, even a war on cancer. These payments to spend more time on research encouraged professors to cut their hours of contact with students from, say, nine to three per week, tripling-in this example-the need for teachers (or teaching assistants).
Notwithstanding the college boom, the fraction of Ph.D.'s employed in academe declined from about 55 percent in 1973 to about 45 percent in 1991. The fraction whose primary work is teaching dropped from 36 percent in 1972 to 23 percent in 1991. Meanwhile, the fraction no longer performing research, the presumed goal of a Ph.D., or whose work was unclear, doubled to about one-third of those surveyed. When the investment in a degree totals $250,000, one wonders for these lost researchers whether doctoral training was a wise choice, for them or the nation.
Sustaining Research
By the 1980s, the demand for full-fledged teachers slowed, a large cadre of principal investigators was in place, and the research enterprise needed skilled workers. The market for Ph.D.'s no longer drove the production of Ph.D.'s but rather the need of the research enterprise for low-cost labor called graduate students and postdocs. The enterprise perfumes this reality by praising the effectiveness of joint education and research. Of course, no oppressive conspiracy existed. Rather, individual faculty and funders have acted rationally in their self-interest, heedless until recently of possibly harmful collective effects.
Objective understanding of doctoral production and use demystifies many current features of the system. These include the lengthening time to get a degree and the growing number of foreign students. Doctoral students and postdocs substitute for faculty in research. They also unburden faculty, more in the humanities and social sciences, in undergraduate teaching and evaluation. Expanding graduate enrollments and postdocs costs less than hiring new faculty. Moreover, faculty-especially young faculty-competing for promotion and eminence through research logically recruit yet more graduate students but lack an incentive to speed them to a degree.
Recruits to S&E face a dim future: six or seven years registered for a degree, eight or nine years from B.S. to Ph.D., then one or more postdocs, and thus no substantial income until past age 30. In the life sciences, for example, the Ph.D.'s age to a median of 33 years by the time they land their first permanent job.
American undergraduates with exceptional talent likely spy the opportunity costs posed by the long apprenticeship. Far superior incomes in other careers leave science attracting only those young Americans who hear a profound calling. In fact, the number of American male Ph.D.'s has shrunk for a quarter-century. Women and foreign students account for the growth. In many schools and fields, roughly half of graduate students and postdocs are foreign.
Foreign youth still know graduate training in America will propel them upward. Preferring to remain in the U.S., they may accept slow progression to the degree and a succession of low-paying postdocs. The practically infinite availability of young foreign talent could maintain the system as it exists, although politics, prosperity, and currencies cause fluctuations. Japan, Taiwan, Korea, and China send the most students. China, India, Malaysia, and Indonesia send particularly high fractions for engineering and science.
The Star System
Senior faculty have evolved a strategy of horizontally mobile stars, akin to "free agency" in baseball. The stars auction themselves to the highest bidder, driving up the cost of their services. Ratcheting up the top-most compensation packages, they restrict the dollars for expansion of the middle class of permanent faculty. The recent end to mandatory retirement at age 70 works in the same direction. At the same time the middle class is restricted, the enterprise tilts from teaching toward the research that brightens the stars.
The stars' ambitions and tastes require not more undergraduates but more workers. Thus, institutions offer or accommodate more graduate students and postdocs as part of their bid for a star, and also hire more cheap adjunct teaching faculty to moderate the wage bill. The number and years of the postdocs expanded most dramatically in biology, where the fraction of postdocs so employed one to four years after an American Ph.D. first climbed rapidly during the 1970s and now hovers around 40 percent. As almost all fields boarded the bandwagon, the number of S&E postdocs tripled from about 8,000 in 1975 to 24,000 in 1992. The stars are well served.
Too Many Ph.D.'s
At the bottom line, one finds the "natural production rate" of Ph.D.'s in the American system based on the population of professors in doctorate programs and the total fertility rate of each professor. Physicist David Goodstein of the California Institute of Technology puts that fertility rate at about 15 Ph.D.'s per professorial career in fields he knows, while I guess the rate necessary for breeding professors to replace the national population of S&E Ph.D.'s is about five per career. The present outcome exceeds the steady-state intake of faculty into U.S. schools more than the demand from American industry and government and from abroad can absorb. Students stretch out their school years, partly because job prospects are poor, and partly because funders and peers of the discipline favor money for students or recruits. The life of the postdoc provides a further way to stretch the years, but even their numbers may be near saturation.
Persuasive recent findings by Massy and Goldman, funded by the New York-based Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, hint Ph.D.'s in engineering, math, and some sciences are currently overproduced fully 25 percent.
An expansion of universities or research could temporarily absorb the excess doctorates, but within a few years, sponsoring more university research would worsen Ph.D. job prospects in S&E. Immediate gains from faculty expansion would give way to more oversupply as expanded doctoral programs produce yet more graduates.
Challenges And Opportunities
Universities must reconsider production of Ph.D.'s and the invisible hands of franchise expansion, recruiting to sustain the enterprise, and stars that propel it. We should seek positive checks on population rather than suffer the academic equivalents of famine, war, and ill health.
The prescription must produce research without producing the disillusioned. During a period when money from research remains steady or falls, some universities might well revisit an antiquated system of staffing that makes durable commitments to technicians and shelters faculty who do not hold the high expectations of fresh Ph.D.'s and postdocs. Universities could reward students who finish fast, and penalize faculty whose students loiter.
Valorizing the master's degree in sciences would reduce exploitation. In engineering, the master's is respected and lucrative, while in scientific fields it is a stigmatized consolation. Consider students who look forward to careers in business or secondary schools, which might be where the elusive third of the Ph.D.'s went. For them, instead of a protracted and disillusioning Ph.D., an intensive two years of science courses after a B.S. program might meet their needs while benefiting the nation and reflecting glory instead of disenchantment on the university.
Another positive prescription is reducing the cost of research without a youthful army of exploited inductees minimizing labor cost. The late Yale historian of science Derek de Solla Price resignedly conjectured that scientific results grow at the discouraging price of the cube root of the expense (Little Science, Big Science . . . and Beyond, Columbia University Press, 1986). Cannot science find routes to increase its productivity, as other service industries now aggressively do? Surely, for example, scientists in America should spend more time doing research and less time proposing and reviewing.
Affection for alma mater and recognition of the invisible hands driving her causes several of us to try seriously to create "SimU." Opportunities come from understanding the university as a system, in particular how the actors make their decisions. In more and more useful ways, simulation games raise questions about how agents behave and how the parts of a system interact. Such tools now simulate oil refineries and factories, the oceans and the atmosphere.
Maxis Software Inc. of Orinda, Calif., has created educational and commercially successful games, engagingly called SimEarth and SimCity. Seeking a learning tool for the many people and organizations concerned with the problems and solutions discussed here, experts in universities and simulations are beginning to create a virtual alma mater of Malthusian forces, invisible hands, and stakeholders. It may help universities manage better. The proletariat who cry and whisper on the Internet deserve at least this much.
________________________________________
Jesse H. Ausubel is director of the Program for the Human Environment at Rockefeller University and a program officer for the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in New York, where he leads the foundation's program on "The University as a System and the System of Universities."
________________________________________
(The Scientist, Vol:10, #3, pg.11 , February 5, 1996)
(Copyright © The Scientist, Inc.)
The Scientist, 3600 Market Street, Suite 450, Philadelphia, PA 19104, U.S.A.
________________________________________
[This article appeared on The Scientist web page, used with permission - psm].
URL: http://phe.rockefeller.edu/malthus/

scienceguy11 said...

Malthus And Graduate Students: Checks On Burgeoning Ranks Of Ph.D.'s


by Jesse H. Ausubel
February 5, 1996

The proletariat of American research, the graduate students and the postdocs, cry and whisper. Internet traffic even suggests they organize. At Yale, some struck. Meanwhile, William Massy of Stanford University and Charles Goldman of RAND Corp. present a fresh analysis to explain the doctoral system (W.F. Massy, C.A. Goldman, The Production and Utilization of Science and Engineering Doctorates in the United States, Stanford Institute for Higher Education Research, 1995), and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) complex releases two major assessments of American graduate education and research (Reshaping the Graduate Education of Scientists and Engineers and Research-Doctorate Programs in the United States, NAS, Washington, D.C., 1995). The bottom line is that alma mater is doctoring too many children.

Malthus's classic negative checks on population were famine, war, and ill health. Here I would like to provide a backdrop for considering more positive checks on the burgeoning number of Ph.D.'s, drawing in part on the facts and findings in the three 1995 studies. Five features dominate: expansion of degree-granting franchises; the forgotten origin of the expansion, a need for teachers; emergence of a research enterprise recruiting students to sustain itself; a star system for faculty, further tipping graduate schools toward research; and, finally, too many doctorates. My positive checks, like those of Malthus, will involve better understanding and purposeful action as well as moral restraint.

Franchise Expansion

The number and size of universities granting doctorates have multiplied. Gaining status, the institutions awarding a Ph.D. in science and engineering (S&E) doubled from 1961 to 1991, reaching 299. Grantors of master's degrees in S&E slightly more than doubled in the same period, reaching 442, and provide a ready pool to multiply the population of schools granting Ph.D.'s still more.

No convincing logic defines the optimal set of doctoral programs for America. However, absolute numbers now impress in almost every field. In each major sub-field within biology, 100 to 200 schools now award Ph.D.'s. Circa 1990, 182 granted degrees in physics, 169 in mathematics, and 130 in civil engineering. Even in a sub-sub field such as biomedical engineering 86 granted Ph.D.'s, and in the sub-field of physics and biology called oceanography, 50 did so.

Enrollment multiplied as the franchises expanded. From 1967 to 1992, graduate students of all kinds increased about half, twice the growth of the United States population. They multiplied from slightly less than a half-million to just over two-thirds million. The swelling number of schools increased the annual output of S&E Ph.D.'s from about 18,000 to 25,000 during the decade 1983-93.
If a franchise means spending $30 million or more of federal money annually for basic research, about 100 institutions have franchises. In 1970 only about 30 universities had large research programs. (The 100 produce about 90 percent of Ph.D.'s.)

From 1960 to now, major league baseball added more franchises, too, from 16 to 28. The New York Yankees could not maintain their dynasty in that expanding field. The 1995 NAS ranking of doctoral programs in dozens of fields showed predictably that the average rank of most universities declined with the expanding number of competitors, worsening morale and lengthening the climb to the top of the standings. Questions also arise about the qualifications of a larger absolute number of students and faculty.

The Forgotten Need For Teachers

In the 1950s, war veterans swelled the ranks of students. Recovering from the thin years of the Depression, colleges needed teachers quickly. Fresh Ph.D.'s staffed the rapidly expanding state universities and enlarging older institutions, too. Subsequently, democratization of educational opportunity and the baby boom sustained the college boom.

Secondarily, the government paid for training technical personnel to compete with the perceived scientific prowess of the Soviets. With fresh memories of the victories of science in World War II and ample tax revenues, the government paid for research campaigns, even a war on cancer. These payments to spend more time on research encouraged professors to cut their hours of contact with students from, say, nine to three per week, tripling-in this example-the need for teachers (or teaching assistants).

Notwithstanding the college boom, the fraction of Ph.D.'s employed in academe declined from about 55 percent in 1973 to about 45 percent in 1991. The fraction whose primary work is teaching dropped from 36 percent in 1972 to 23 percent in 1991. Meanwhile, the fraction no longer performing research, the presumed goal of a Ph.D., or whose work was unclear, doubled to about one-third of those surveyed. When the investment in a degree totals $250,000, one wonders for these lost researchers whether doctoral training was a wise choice, for them or the nation.

Sustaining Research

By the 1980s, the demand for full-fledged teachers slowed, a large cadre of principal investigators was in place, and the research enterprise needed skilled workers. The market for Ph.D.'s no longer drove the production of Ph.D.'s but rather the need of the research enterprise for low-cost labor called graduate students and postdocs. The enterprise perfumes this reality by praising the effectiveness of joint education and research. Of course, no oppressive conspiracy existed. Rather, individual faculty and funders have acted rationally in their self-interest, heedless until recently of possibly harmful collective effects.
Objective understanding of doctoral production and use demystifies many current features of the system. These include the lengthening time to get a degree and the growing number of foreign students. Doctoral students and postdocs substitute for faculty in research. They also unburden faculty, more in the humanities and social sciences, in undergraduate teaching and evaluation. Expanding graduate enrollments and postdocs costs less than hiring new faculty. Moreover, faculty-especially young faculty-competing for promotion and eminence through research logically recruit yet more graduate students but lack an incentive to speed them to a degree.

Recruits to S&E face a dim future: six or seven years registered for a degree, eight or nine years from B.S. to Ph.D., then one or more postdocs, and thus no substantial income until past age 30. In the life sciences, for example, the Ph.D.'s age to a median of 33 years by the time they land their first permanent job.

American undergraduates with exceptional talent likely spy the opportunity costs posed by the long apprenticeship. Far superior incomes in other careers leave science attracting only those young Americans who hear a profound calling. In fact, the number of American male Ph.D.'s has shrunk for a quarter-century. Women and foreign students account for the growth. In many schools and fields, roughly half of graduate students and postdocs are foreign.

Foreign youth still know graduate training in America will propel them upward. Preferring to remain in the U.S., they may accept slow progression to the degree and a succession of low-paying postdocs. The practically infinite availability of young foreign talent could maintain the system as it exists, although politics, prosperity, and currencies cause fluctuations. Japan, Taiwan, Korea, and China send the most students. China, India, Malaysia, and Indonesia send particularly high fractions for engineering and science.

The Star System

Senior faculty have evolved a strategy of horizontally mobile stars, akin to "free agency" in baseball. The stars auction themselves to the highest bidder, driving up the cost of their services. Ratcheting up the top-most compensation packages, they restrict the dollars for expansion of the middle class of permanent faculty. The recent end to mandatory retirement at age 70 works in the same direction. At the same time the middle class is restricted, the enterprise tilts from teaching toward the research that brightens the stars.
The stars' ambitions and tastes require not more undergraduates but more workers. Thus, institutions offer or accommodate more graduate students and postdocs as part of their bid for a star, and also hire more cheap adjunct teaching faculty to moderate the wage bill. The number and years of the postdocs expanded most dramatically in biology, where the fraction of postdocs so employed one to four years after an American Ph.D. first climbed rapidly during the 1970s and now hovers around 40 percent. As almost all fields boarded the bandwagon, the number of S&E postdocs tripled from about 8,000 in 1975 to 24,000 in 1992. The stars are well served.

Too Many Ph.D.'s

At the bottom line, one finds the "natural production rate" of Ph.D.'s in the American system based on the population of professors in doctorate programs and the total fertility rate of each professor. Physicist David Goodstein of the California Institute of Technology puts that fertility rate at about 15 Ph.D.'s per professorial career in fields he knows, while I guess the rate necessary for breeding professors to replace the national population of S&E Ph.D.'s is about five per career. The present outcome exceeds the steady-state intake of faculty into U.S. schools more than the demand from American industry and government and from abroad can absorb. Students stretch out their school years, partly because job prospects are poor, and partly because funders and peers of the discipline favor money for students or recruits. The life of the postdoc provides a further way to stretch the years, but even their numbers may be near saturation.

Persuasive recent findings by Massy and Goldman, funded by the New York-based Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, hint Ph.D.'s in engineering, math, and some sciences are currently overproduced fully 25 percent.
An expansion of universities or research could temporarily absorb the excess doctorates, but within a few years, sponsoring more university research would worsen Ph.D. job prospects in S&E. Immediate gains from faculty expansion would give way to more oversupply as expanded doctoral programs produce yet more graduates.

Challenges And Opportunities

Universities must reconsider production of Ph.D.'s and the invisible hands of franchise expansion, recruiting to sustain the enterprise, and stars that propel it. We should seek positive checks on population rather than suffer the academic equivalents of famine, war, and ill health.
The prescription must produce research without producing the disillusioned. During a period when money from research remains steady or falls, some universities might well revisit an antiquated system of staffing that makes durable commitments to technicians and shelters faculty who do not hold the high expectations of fresh Ph.D.'s and postdocs. Universities could reward students who finish fast, and penalize faculty whose students loiter.
Valorizing the master's degree in sciences would reduce exploitation. In engineering, the master's is respected and lucrative, while in scientific fields it is a stigmatized consolation. Consider students who look forward to careers in business or secondary schools, which might be where the elusive third of the Ph.D.'s went. For them, instead of a protracted and disillusioning Ph.D., an intensive two years of science courses after a B.S. program might meet their needs while benefiting the nation and reflecting glory instead of disenchantment on the university.
Another positive prescription is reducing the cost of research without a youthful army of exploited inductees minimizing labor cost. The late Yale historian of science Derek de Solla Price resignedly conjectured that scientific results grow at the discouraging price of the cube root of the expense (Little Science, Big Science . . . and Beyond, Columbia University Press, 1986). Cannot science find routes to increase its productivity, as other service industries now aggressively do? Surely, for example, scientists in America should spend more time doing research and less time proposing and reviewing.

Affection for alma mater and recognition of the invisible hands driving her causes several of us to try seriously to create "SimU." Opportunities come from understanding the university as a system, in particular how the actors make their decisions. In more and more useful ways, simulation games raise questions about how agents behave and how the parts of a system interact. Such tools now simulate oil refineries and factories, the oceans and the atmosphere.
Maxis Software Inc. of Orinda, Calif., has created educational and commercially successful games, engagingly called SimEarth and SimCity. Seeking a learning tool for the many people and organizations concerned with the problems and solutions discussed here, experts in universities and simulations are beginning to create a virtual alma mater of Malthusian forces, invisible hands, and stakeholders. It may help universities manage better. The proletariat who cry and whisper on the Internet deserve at least this much.
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Jesse H. Ausubel is director of the Program for the Human Environment at Rockefeller University and a program officer for the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in New York, where he leads the foundation's program on "The University as a System and the System of Universities."
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(The Scientist, Vol:10, #3, pg.11 , February 5, 1996)
(Copyright © The Scientist, Inc.)
The Scientist, 3600 Market Street, Suite 450, Philadelphia, PA 19104, U.S.A.
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[This article appeared on The Scientist web page, used with permission - psm].
URL: http://phe.rockefeller.edu/malthus/

Anonymous said...

Good posts Scienceguy. Unfortunately, there are many important people in the field, most of them higher up, who (probably deliberatedly) refuse to acknowledge the gravity of the situation or the fact that it exists at all. I am currently a postdoc who is transitioning out of science completely--my only regret is not having done it sooner. I strongly urge the youngsters who are considering science out there to seriously reconsider this career option. As it stands right now, a career in science can be potentially disastrous and damaging.

Anonymous said...

Five features dominate: expansion of degree-granting franchises; the forgotten origin of the expansion, a need for teachers; emergence of a research enterprise recruiting students to sustain itself; a star system for faculty, further tipping graduate schools toward research; and, finally, too many doctorates.
This franchise information is really interesting! Thank you!

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