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Physicist, Startup Founder, Blogger, Dad

Friday, April 22, 2011

Nature on the PhD glut

Nature reports on the worldwide glut of PhDs. The path to a permanent (tenured) position these days is nasty, brutish and long.

See related posts Supply, demand and scientists , A tale of two geeks , Survivor: theoretical physics

Nature: ... In some countries, including the United States and Japan, people who have trained at great length and expense to be researchers confront a dwindling number of academic jobs, and an industrial sector unable to take up the slack. Supply has outstripped demand and, although few PhD holders end up unemployed, it is not clear that spending years securing this high-level qualification is worth it for a job as, for example, a high-school teacher. In other countries, such as China and India, the economies are developing fast enough to use all the PhDs they can crank out, and more — but the quality of the graduates is not consistent. Only a few nations, including Germany, are successfully tackling the problem by redefining the PhD as training for high-level positions in careers outside academia. Here, Nature examines graduate-education systems in various states of health. ...


Japan: A system in crisis

Of all the countries in which to graduate with a science PhD, Japan is arguably one of the worst. In the 1990s, the government set a policy to triple the number of postdocs to 10,000, and stepped up PhD recruitment to meet that goal. The policy was meant to bring Japan's science capacity up to match that of the West — but is now much criticized because, although it quickly succeeded, it gave little thought to where all those postdocs were going to end up. ...


China: Quantity outweighs quality?

The number of PhD holders in China is going through the roof, with some 50,000 people graduating with doctorates across all disciplines in 2009 — and by some counts it now surpasses all other countries. The main problem is the low quality of many graduates. ...


United States: Supply versus demand

To Paula Stephan, an economist at Georgia State University in Atlanta who studies PhD trends, it is "scandalous" that US politicians continue to speak of a PhD shortage. The United States is second only to China in awarding science doctorates — it produced an estimated 19,733 in the life sciences and physical sciences in 2009 — and production is going up. But Stephan says that no one should applaud this trend, "unless Congress wants to put money into creating jobs for these people rather than just creating supply". ...

The problem is most acute in the life sciences, in which the pace of PhD growth is biggest, yet pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries have been drastically downsizing in recent years. In 1973, 55% of US doctorates in the biological sciences secured tenure-track positions within six years of completing their PhDs, and only 2% were in a postdoc or other untenured academic position. By 2006, only 15% were in tenured [tenure-track] positions six years after graduating, with 18% untenured ...

Some universities are now experimenting with PhD programmes that better prepare graduate students for careers outside academia (see page 280). Anne Carpenter, a cellular biologist at the Broad Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is trying to create jobs for existing PhD holders, while discouraging new ones. When she set up her lab four years ago, Carpenter hired experienced staff scientists on permanent contracts instead of the usual mix of temporary postdocs and graduate students. "The whole pyramid scheme of science made little sense to me," says Carpenter. "I couldn't in good conscience churn out a hundred graduate students and postdocs in my career."

But Carpenter has struggled to justify the cost of her staff to grant-review panels. "How do I compete with laboratories that hire postdocs for $40,000 instead of a scientist for $80,000?" she asks. Although she remains committed to her ideals, she says that she will be more open to hiring postdocs in the future. ...


Germany: The progressive PhD

Germany is Europe's biggest producer of doctoral graduates, turning out some 7,000 science PhDs in 2005. After a major redesign of its doctoral education programmes over the past 20 years, the country is also well on its way to solving the oversupply problem. ... [REALLY?]

Just under 6% of PhD graduates in science eventually go into full-time academic positions, and most will find research jobs in industry, says Thorsten Wilhelmy, who studies doctoral education for the German Council of Science and Humanities in Cologne. "The long way to professorship in Germany and the relatively low income of German academic staff makes leaving the university after the PhD a good option," he says. ...

9 comments:

LondonYoung said...

The U.S. market is, of course, distinct from the others. The U.S. physics postdoc market is majority non-citizens. In that way it is kinda like the market for nannies and gardeners ...

BobSykes said...

There are also gluts in the BA/BS and MA/MS degrees, and the gluts extend to engineering and business management.

Back in the 70s I was consulting at a small civil engineering company that was making the transition to computers. First, the accountant and secretarial departments largely disappeared. Then the draftsmen almost disappeared. Finally the engineering staff was reduced, although by less. The transition was stunning, especially all the empty space. I asked the CEO how the changes affected the actually engineering design, and he said that their designs were now more detailed and comprehensive and considered more alternatives--all with a greatly reduced staff.

Over the last 20 to 30 years or so, manufacturing has doubled and remained a nearly constant fraction of GDP. But labor productivity has tripled, and this has resulted in a large drop in manufacturing employment. The myth of jobs lost to other countries (I heard this rant just an hour ago on local radio) is just that, a myth.

Large-scale changes in the way we do business and science have been and are underway, but our current institutions (grad schools, government) are oblivious.

David Coughlin said...

And to that end, I'm not interested in a PhD [other than when I jones access to certain things], but I would engage in a course of study [that is challenging beyond a master's degree] which validated my fluency [and not necessarily my aesthetic] in a couple of subjects.

Sam H said...

I'm not sure how I can make this comment tie in perfectly to this post but it appears that China, one of the only states to believe in HBD, may likely take the lead because of this belief. More here: http://www.counter-currents.com/2011/04/the-coming-chinese-superstate-richard-lynns-eugenics/

Justin Loe said...

FYI: Here's a similar article from The Economist, December 2010: http://www.economist.com/node/17723223
The disposable academic: Why doing a PhD is often a waste of time

Derek Lowe, blogger at In the Pipeline, http://pipeline.corante.com/, has covered the poor job market in the pharmaceutical industry rather extensively.

My observation is that chemistry, biology, and physics all suffer from an abysmal PhD market. That's why medicine or law is a popular alternative, or Wall Street, of course.
It will be interesting to see what Derek has written on this recently.

Kevin Kramer said...

The MD market is highly constrained by a powerful professional society (the AMA) to keep doctors salaries high. Medical programs also don't have as many foreign students since med school is very expensive (which most foreign students can't afford and can't get loans for) whereas science PhDs you get a stipend and tuition paid (and an extremely valuable student visa). Law school, on the other hand, is expensive and there is a huge glut of lawyers because universities use it as a money making tool without concern whether lawyers practice law.

Justin Loe said...

Tier 1 law school graduates do not face that glut, from experiences of acquaintances who earn > 6 figures upon graduation, without the process of 6 years of post doc work for many science PhDs.

In any case, the academic market is likely to remain poor for science PhDs, especially considering budget constraints on the science budget (NIH 1% cut this year and more to follow).

By contrast, CS graduates have a more practical degree and generally better job prospects.

tony said...

This is precisely why I am dropping out of graduate school, and bypassing this big mess altogether.

We have a big glut of science & engineering PhDs, yet they keep pushing american kids down "PhD unemployment lane". It works out for academia, who gain cheap research labor, for the $830 Billion student loan industry, who see increased demand for student loans, etc. But what about the student?

Is it fair to create "supply" without creating "demand"? And I think not.

Postdoctoral jobs said...

A postdoctoral position is a job that is usually taken up after one completes a PhD that could last anything between 3 to 5 years. The position is usually referred as a postdoc position and is often termed as postdocing. The "postdocing" phrase is usually deemed derogatory as it refers to something of a low paid job as soon as one completes a PhD. The position is a temporary one ranging from a few months to 5 years. The length of the tenure is dependent on the type of funding the university has obtained through the group leader and investigator.

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