The STEM PhD Glut Makes the Mainstream Media

I’ve written many, many, many, many, many times about the PhD glut in the sciences, so, like many, I appreciated Sunday’s Washington Post article, “U.S. pushes for more scientists, but the jobs aren’t there.”

Before I get to the article, it’s worth noting some context provided by DrugMonkey (boldface mine):

There is a very good argument to be made that the NIH is quite happy with the status quo. It permits them to get their work done more cheaply. The labor force is persuaded to work hard for less money through the strategy of dangling a PI career on a stick ahead of postdocs.

The “trainees”/labor force are induced to voluntarily put up with exploitation now because they imagine they will be compensated later for their sacrifices.

Understanding of how the odds apply to themselves is, shall we say, incomplete and optimistic.

The interests of the NIH are best served by maintaining the value of the future reward as high as possible.

Anyway, back to the Washington Post, which lays out the situation:

That reality runs counter to messages sent by President Obama and the National Science Foundation and other influential groups, who in recent years have called for U.S. universities to churn out more scientists.

Obama has made science education a priority, launching a White House science fair to get young people interested in the field.

But it’s questionable whether those youths will be able to find work when they get a PhD. Although jobs in some high-tech areas, especially computer and petroleum engineering, seem to be booming, the market is much tighter for lab-bound scientists — those seeking new discoveries in biology, chemistry and medicine.

“There have been many predictions of [science] labor shortages and . . . robust job growth,” said Jim Austin, editor of the online magazine ScienceCareers. “And yet, it seems awfully hard for people to find a job. Anyone who goes into science expecting employers to clamor for their services will be deeply disappointed.”

And why is this the case? Mr. Supply, meet Mr. Demand:

One big driver of that trend: Traditional academic jobs are scarcer than ever. Once a primary career path, only 14 percent of those with a PhD in biology and the life sciences now land a coveted academic position within five years, according to a 2009 NSF survey. That figure has been steadily declining since the 1970s, said Paula Stephan, an economist at Georgia State University who studies the scientific workforce. The reason: The supply of scientists has grown far faster than the number of academic positions….

One reason: A glut of new biomedical scientists that entered the field when the economy was healthier. From 1998 to 2003, the budget of the National Institutes of Health doubled to $30 billion per year. That boost — much of which flows to universities — drew in new, young scientists. The number of new PhDs in the medical and life sciences boomed, nearly doubling from 2003 to 2007, according to the NSF.

Yes, it has. And, as I’ve noted before, it’s not sustainable:

But that boom is about to go bust, because an equal number of permanent jobs failed to follow. One big factor: Since 2004, federal research spending across all agencies has stagnated relative to inflation, according to an analysis by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Although the injection of $10 billion in federal stimulus funds to the NIH from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 “created or retained” 50,000 science jobs, according to the NIH, that money is running dry, putting those positions at risk.

To return full circle to what DrugMonkey wrote, the article also has a great description of post-docs:

The lack of permanent jobs leaves many PhD scientists doing routine laboratory work in low-wage positions known as “post-docs,” or postdoctoral fellowships. Post-docs used to last a year or two, but now it’s not unusual to find scientists toiling away for six, seven, even 10 years…

Salaries for university post-doc jobs start at about $39,000, according to the National Postdoctoral Association. They require a science PhD — which can leave the recipient buried in debt. Benefits are usually minimal and, until a decade ago, even health insurance was rare.

Stephan, the Georgia State economist, calls the post-doc system a “pyramid scheme” that enriches — in prestige, scientific publications and federal grant dollars — a few senior scientists at the expense of a large pool of young, cheap ones…

“I don’t think anybody minds sucking it up for a year or two, seeing it as an apprenticeship,” said Zoe Fonseca-Kelly, a PhD geneticist who spent seven years as a post-doc at three universities. “What’s very frustrating is that it’s turned into a five-year process. People get very disillusioned with it.”

Unlike those in the system–especially those who have succeeded within the current system–any objective observer of the post-doc system could only conclude that it is a source of cheap, highly-trained (if not over-trained) labor. And I hate to write this, but I’m inclined to agree with David Kroll: the science-related alternative careers are also becoming scarce.

Meanwhile, this is coming to a head in a political environment that reifies austerity (even though there is no reason to do so). The only way this changes is when PhDs decide to stop playing the post-doc game. Then, perhaps, NIH will do something. Or maybe not.

Now, if only more reporters would commit more science journalism like this.

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9 Responses to The STEM PhD Glut Makes the Mainstream Media

  1. I can say from the outside that this ever escalating “degree” war is also helping to codify the difference between “those who have” and “those who don’t”. Make the wrong steps early on in your education/career and you’re effectively locked out from the system with little tenable way in.

    For instance, one could get a law degree without a undergraduate degree. That is essentially no longer possible. So, should you fail to get a 4 year degree, even if you are highly technical and have a longstanding technical job history, the idea of getting a position that requires a secondary degree is virtually impossible, regardless of how qualified you are. This is particularly true if you have a family – where dedicating the time to “catch up” on an undergraduate degree then pursue a graduate degree seems nye impossible both from a time standpoint, but also a money standpoint.

    I would find it less flustering if I actually believed many of these degrees actually yielded some great advance over say lacking the degree. Certainly in many science fields a graduate degree is critical, but I also see “degree creep” in places like “education” where I’m not sure it yields much more than a title and fodder for selecting one possible qualified candidate from another possibly unqualified candidate simply over who owns a piece of paper.

  2. JohnV says:

    So far I’ve got 10 or 12 applications out for jobs and got 1 interview (for a job I wasn’t qualified for, long story) and no response on the rest. These are a mix of research and non-research but still science jobs. PhD in microbiology with 6 years of post-doc experience (2 places)…

    Next up is applying for a 3rd post-doc and hoping that I don’t get turned down because of too much experience. Extra special thanks to the government agencies that won’t hire a research scientist/post-doc if they’ve got 5 or more years of experience.

    And just think, the DoD says the lack of STEM trained researchers is a national security threat.

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  5. bob sykes says:

    I retired from an engineering faculty position in 2007. As emeritus faculty, I am often consulted regarding new hires. One thing that is striking is that new PhDs are so brain-washed they think postdoc positions are a good thing rather than an exploitive mechanism. The whole system depends on the delusions of our students. It is rather shameful, actually.

    The STEM field has been producing surplus BS, MS and PhDs for many years. When I was an undergraduate civil engineer in the 60s, we were told that half of all BS engineering graduates did not go into engineering but rather found work in other areas. That was mostly technical sales. A high-ranking official of the American Society of Civil Engineers was quoted in the 70s or maybe 80s that engineering schools continued to produce a “comfortable surplus” of young engineers every year. This may have been specific to civil engineering, but other fields must experience similar job paths. Overall, probably 1/3 to 1/2 of all BS engineers leave engineering.

    When I was an undergraduate, anyone could sit for the licensing exams as long as they had documented experience working for a licensed engineer (8 years). No degree of any kind was required. Nowadays, engineering societies like the ASCE are pushing to make the MS (or equivalent) mandatory for licensure. In this scheme, mere BS holders would be reduced to subprofessional technicians. The system is becoming malicious.

    At the graduate level, the situation is even more dire. Our PhD/MS graduates find work largely because 1/2 to 3/4 of all PhD/MS candidates in the hard sciences and engineering are foreigners who go home, usually involuntarily. Our graduate programs actually function as extensions of the Chinese and Indian educational systems, and we supply our services for free.

  6. jtotheizzoe says:

    What many of these articles and blog posts are missing is that we PhD students are acutely aware of this problem, but are not being given opportunities to OBTAIN this more widely applicable knowledge. To be more precise, my fellow biology PhD students and I want to take business, programming, management classes, we want to work with media and tech incubators, and we so badly want to gain the skills that will be useful in other fields . . . yet when we open course schedules and ask our advisors we are either discouraged, unable or forbidden from doing so.

    Is it incumbent on the PhD program to expand its scope? Time will tell.

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