The PhD Glut Isn’t Just Biomedical: Welcome to the Sh-tstorm, Chemists

Economist and author of How Economics Shapes Science Paula Stephan notes that there’s a PhD glut in chemistry too (boldface mine):

It did not take long, however, for this to change. Faculty quickly learned to include graduate students and postdocs on grant proposals, and by the late 1960s PhD training, at least in certain fields, had become less about capacity building and more about the need to staff labs… The structure of a university lab, with the principal investigator (PI) at the top, followed below by postdocs and then the lowly graduate students, resembles a pyramid scheme. In order to staff their labs, faculty recruit PhD students onto their graduate programs with funding and the implicit assurance of interesting research careers. Upon receiving their degree, it is mandatory in most fields for students who aspire to a faculty position to first take an appointment as a postdoc.

Such a pyramid scheme works only as long as the number of jobs grows quickly enough to absorb the newly trained. But for many years, the system has not grown nearly fast enough to provide all those posts. We have created a system of ‘too many scientists, too few jobs’ (see ‘US urged to rethink chemistry graduate education’). Chemists have often had an edge over those trained in the biomedical sciences because of the large number of research positions for chemists in industry. But in recent years, industry hires have lagged – in part because of mergers and acquisitions in pharma and in part because of a fragile economy.

Stephan, like anyone who doesn’t do drive-by punditry about this problem, thinks we should limit the number of new PhDs. Her program (boldface mine):

First, graduate programs should be required to tell students the truth about job placements. Second, the incentive to staff labs with graduate students and postdocs must be altered. Raise the ‘wage’ (that will get the attention of PIs); require faculty to develop alternative training tracks for students. In other words, make faculty understand that there is a serious cost to using graduate students and make them pay for part of it out of their research budgets and their time. Third, put more funds into supporting graduate students on fellowships and training grants and fewer funds into supporting students as graduate research assistants. Fourth, create incentives for faculty to staff their labs with permanent help rather than relying on temporary labour. Finally, if need be, lessen the coupling between research and training. While effective training requires a research environment, effective research can be done outside a training environment. If universities don’t have what it takes to exercise self-control, then turn some of the research funds over to institutes that are not in the training business.

This would definitely “get the attention of PIs.” As Stephan notes, it’s worth remembering that the architect of the post-World War II scientific research system, Vannevar Bush never intended graduate students to be hired labor: he wanted them to be trained on fellowships to provide them more intellectual independence.

Are you listening, NIH and NSF?

Probably not.

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4 Responses to The PhD Glut Isn’t Just Biomedical: Welcome to the Sh-tstorm, Chemists

  1. Jonathan says:

    If you’re going to turn off the grad student tap, you’ll also need to limit the number of soft-money postdoc jobs (and do something yo limit J-1 and H-1B visas as academic institutions) otherwise they’ll just fill the gap.

  2. Eric riley says:

    I left a PhD program in mathematics – much the same problem, except instead of staffing labs, graduate students are used as extremely inexpensive adjunct faculty.

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