The Overproduction of PhDs Was Recognized Over a Decade Ago

Recently, there has been some discussion about the overproduction of PhDs by the U.S. educational system. Some bloggers have proposed sharply reducing the number of PhD students that the NIH supports. This is not merely the rantings of bloggers, but also the opinion of the National Academy of Sciences. In 1998 (pp. 80 – 81; boldface mine):

This committee takes a different position. We believe that the current rate of production is too high and certainly should not grow higher. The system of training and research that worked so well in times of overall expansion of the enterprise is increasingly deleterious in an era of little growth. The aging of the “young” scientist is disquieting. The system is delaying independence and muffling creativity at perhaps the most productive phase of the individual scientist’s life. Finally—and most important—the committee is concerned that an unduly crowded labor market with small chances for success could in the long run drive out the most talented and ambitious aspirants, who will opt for more promising career opportunities in other fields and professions. When the system produces an imbalance like the contemporary one, it is inefficient, wasteful, and dispiriting to its recruits.

For those reasons, the committee believes that there is justification for intervention to adjust the imbalance in the education and training system…

The current annual rate of increase in awards of life-science PhDs—5.1% from 1995 to 1996—if allowed to continue, would result in a doubling of the number of such PhDs in just 14 years. Our analysis suggests that that would be deleterious to individuals and the research enterprise. The committee recognizes that the number of PhDs awarded each year might already be too high. Although a return to pre-1988 levels of training might be beneficial, we believe that a concentrated effort to reduce the size of graduate-student populations rapidly would be disruptive to the highly successful research enterprise. The professional structure of life-science research requires the services of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows to conduct the research that is now being funded. A serious reduction in this labor force would impair, delay, or forestall the accomplishment of current and future research…

The committee acknowledges that its recommendation to constrain further growth will not be easy to implement. Life-science faculties need teaching assistants and research assistants, and limiting the number of entering graduate students will be resisted. But the current rate of growth can no longer be justified, and the premises that have produced it must be reexamined. The committee urges life-science faculties to seek alternatives to these workforce needs

It’s pretty clear that the NIH ignored this report. Next week, I’ll have more to say about the ethical failure and misunderstanding of governance that represents.

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6 Responses to The Overproduction of PhDs Was Recognized Over a Decade Ago

  1. Jim Thomerson says:

    There was an article in BioScience, maybe in the late 1970s, making the same case comparing the history of science support to a logistic growth curve, with the curve now at carrying capacity. As I recall, they recommended allowing one PhD program per state, and thought that too many.

  2. sethkahn says:

    And from over here in the humanities, the overproduction of PhDs (in English particularly) is very heavily linked to the ability to exploit adjunct faculty willy-nilly; there just aren’t enough tenure-track jobs for people who are qualified to take them. I know this is true in the social sciences to an extent also. I’m not as familiar with hiring patterns in the sciences, although I get it that you have places to go besides faculty positions that we don’t have much of.

    And in the humanities, one of the reasons for the overproduction of PhDs is that doctoral students provide cheap labor to research universities in the form of teaching assistantships. Neat trick, yes? Pay PhD students peanuts to teach general education courses while getting PhDs that then don’t pay off very often in tenure-track jobs.


  3. BugDoc says:

    “It’s pretty clear that the NIH ignored this report. Next week, I’ll have more to say about the ethical failure and misunderstanding of governance that represents.”

    Actually I think the ethical failure is not that NIH ignored the report. The failure then and now is the NIH refuses to recognize that they are the only centralized organization that has the leverage to regulate PhD and postdoc training. The NIH acknowledged then and has done so now that there is a problem of training too many scientists. However, the party line is that individual institutions must be the point of regulation, which is bad policy. The institutions that continue to accept high numbers of PhD students and postdocs (as long as they can be paid) will likely be more productive than other places and be competitive for more NIH dollars. As far as I can tell, that is disincentive for individual institutions to decrease their training cohorts.

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