The Intersection

Fact: According to the National Postdoc Association, between 1972 and 2003, the percent of recent Ph.D. holders hired into full-time faculty positions fell from 74% to 44%.

Fact: During the same period, the number of post docs in science and engineering has increased from 13% to 34%.

Fact: The probability that a Ph.D. recipient under 35 will obtain a tenure-track job has fallen from 10% in 1993 to 7% in 2003.

Unfortunately, these numbers just don’t add up to my satisfaction… So what’s going on?

Read my full post now up over at Correlations which begins to examine the problem by asking:

Are graduate programs today equipped to provide appropriate alternative opportunities for a growing scientifically-literate work force? Further, are the nation’s education funding priorities in line with reality?


Continue reading here


  1. #1 Mary
    May 22, 2008

    Wow, that’s even worse than I realized. And I went into industry in 1998.

    I can remember a day in journal club in the mid 90s. The professor running the latest faculty search for 1 position arrived early. I asked him how the applications were looking. He said they had over 400 already. For 1 position. And it was for a sort of a niche–you had to be a “model organism” researcher to be right for it. Many good candidates were going to get tossed right away because they weren’t the right specific item.

    That was the instant that it became clear to me that grad school was futile. Or feudal. Or both.

    I know academics sometimes complain about gubmint money going to companies in the SBIR system or in contracts. But we need to be supporting jobs outside of academia too.

  2. #2 Wes Rolley
    May 22, 2008

    As someone who never really utilized my “advanced degree” (MA – Theater – Northwestern U.) I fully understand the problem. However, I was able to give a damned good marketing presentation after learning my lines.

    However, besides the question of funding for higher education, is there not also one of as growing anti-intellectualism in America? Susan Jacoby’s latest book is called the American Age of UNreason. Another recent title is The Myth of the Rational Voter. Are they not connected?

    The late Jane Jacobs warned in her last book, Dark Age Ahead, she warns that we have a culture that gives lip service to valuing science but has not developed the scientific habit of mind to question and then seek answers.

    Can we fix any of these problems without fixing them all?

  3. #3 Walker
    May 22, 2008

    I asked him how the applications were looking. He said they had over 400 already. For 1 position.

    So I have done several searches in my time. You get a lot of applications. But you do not get a lot of good applications. And by good, I mean a proper fit for what your school needs.

    For example, a poor SLAC is not going to take a risk on anyone who does not have permanent residency. H1Bs or anything whose renewal is up in the air are right out. It is not fun to hire a person and have them not show up to teach the classes that they were hired for because of visa troubles (I have been in a department where that happened). And a SLAC often does not have the money to fight your visa battles for you. So that is an easy first cut that many people do not think about.

    The last faculty search I ran at the previous SLAC I worked at (which my colleagues joked was my “replacement” search) I got 250 applicants. When I filtered for citizenship or green card, I was down to 40. Still only one position, but 40 to 1 is pretty good, especially since there was a large amount of overlap between the applicant pool at my school and similar institutions. I have run into many of the also-rans at conferences since then, and they have all done pretty well for themselves.

  4. #4 Rob
    May 22, 2008

    This is a stimulating article. I hope it get circulated so we can have a real discussion on and off the blogs. You touch on a huge problem that most people aren’t yet considering but I think will become more evident in the next decade. Thanks for starting the ball rolling on addressing this.

  5. #5 Jim Thomerson
    May 22, 2008

    Back in the 70’s, maybe, there was a paper in Bioscience on the growth of academic biology. They discussed it in terms of the logistic growth curve. They showed that funding for biology had doubled several times historically, but argued that it was unlikely to double again; that funding into the future would be essetially flat. They argued that biology was thus at or beyond carrying capacity. They predicted the shutting down of PhD programs and a diminishing number of well funded labs. A diminishing number of academic positions as a result. They also predicted that some areas of biological research would be out-competed and cease to exist. I thought, at the time, that it was a cogent analysis.

    Our faculty search announcements usually carried the phrase, “postdoctoral experience preferred.” Search responses varied. We would get 300 responses for one and three for another. In the first case, each member of the search committee would inspect the submitted applications for one or two of the criteria stated in the job announcement. Each member would set aside those which did not meet their particular criteria. Then, from the survivors, the search committee would put together a list of 10 or so names to submit to the faculty. Depending, there might be a request to each of the ten for additonal information, letters of reference, etc. The faculty would then discuss the candidates and rank them. Interview invitations would be sent to the top three candidates. We would go down the line until we had a hire or a failed search. We had some failed searches.

    So, the thing to do is get in the short line. Be unique so that you have little competition, but not so unique that no one needs you.

  6. #6 Bonzey
    May 23, 2008

    As someone with only a BS and in an environmental research field, I have immense pressure from my peers to go get my MS if I’m going to advance at all. All of the scientists at my station have PhD’s, and there’s no hope of being a PI on a funded project without at least a MS. I don’t know much about the prospects of working in Academia, but a BS is just not enough in government. Grad school, here I come!


  7. #7 James Haughton
    May 29, 2008

    This is a systematic problem stemming from the way academic employment and universities are structured, not just levels of funding. Check out How The University Works:

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