By way of Seeing the Forest, we note that at Miller-McCune, Beryl Lieff Benderly has a must-read story about the supposed shortage of scientists in the U.S. A while ago, I described the supposed shortage of scientists as a problem of incentives:
As long as financial ‘engineering’ is more lucrative than actual engineering (and other disciplines)–both in terms of pre- and post-tax salary–and has better job security, many students, particularly when too many graduate with tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt, will choose to do something other than science.
And consider defending the economic justification for tenure the pre-40 career path of the typical Ph.D. scientist:
I’ve always thought that the primary reason for tenure at the collegiate level was economic. Intellectual freedom notwithstanding, without academic tenure, universities would either have to pay more for their faculty or wind up with worse faculty. Consider an undergraduate who might have loans to pay off. Then add five to eight years during which, if he is lucky, he doesn’t accumulate debt, but certainly isn’t saving any money. Then add the post-doc (at least one) where, again, there’s low wages and little savings. Follow that with five to nine years of running like hell, at which point you [might] receive tenure. If tenure weren’t available, few people would put up with that career trajectory, unless the pay were higher.
So I found this part of Benderly’s article dead on target:
Before the mid-1970s, U.S. science and engineering graduates could look forward not only to intellectual challenge and the excitement of doing important and admired work, but to security and, ultimately, an upper-middle-class income. Aspiring scientists could climb a clearly defined ladder from graduate school to stable and reasonably lucrative careers. Able students could finish a doctorate in four or five years, generally supported by a fellowship or assistantship.
A handful of the most talented new Ph.D.s might then spend a year or two as postdoctoral fellows, generally following a particularly promising line of inquiry in the lab of a prominent professor. Marked as rising talents, they would proceed to especially prestigious assistant professorships.
Now, not so much:
For the great majority, becoming a scientist now entails a penurious decade or more of graduate school and postdoc positions before joining the multitude vainly vying for the few available faculty-level openings. Earning a doctorate now consumes an average of about seven years. In many fields, up to five more years as a postdoc now constitute, in the words of Trevor Penning, who formerly headed postdoctoral programs at the University of Pennsylvania, the “terminal de facto credential” required for faculty-level posts.
And today’s postdocs rarely pursue their own ideas or work with the greats of their field. Nearly every faculty member with a research grant — and that is just about every tenure-track or tenured member of a science department at any of several hundred universities — now uses postdocs to do the bench work for the project. Paid out of the grant, these highly skilled employees might earn $40,000 a year for 60 or more hours a week in the lab. A lucky few will eventually land faculty posts, but even most of those won’t get traditional permanent spots with the potential of tenure protection. The majority of today’s new faculty hires are “soft money” jobs with titles like “research assistant professor” and an employment term lasting only as long as the specific grant that supports it.
Um, yes. This is exactly right. I believe the phrase you’re looking for is labor exploitation. As one anonymous director of postdoctoral affairs put it:
The director of postdoctoral affairs at one stellar university, who requested anonymity to avoid career repercussions, puts it more acidly. The main difference between postdocs and migrant agricultural laborers, he jokes, is that the Ph.D.s don’t pick fruit.
And quelle surprise, this might convince people to not continue in science:
Many young Americans bright enough to do the math therefore conclude that instead of gambling 12 years on the small chance of becoming an assistant professor, they can invest that time in becoming a neurosurgeon, or a quarter of it in becoming a lawyer or a sixth in earning an MBA. And many who do earn doctorates in math-based subjects opt to use their skills devising mathematical models on Wall Street, rather than solving scientific puzzles in university labs, hoping a professorship opens up.
And all the quants going to Wall Street worked out just peachy for everyone too!
Look, Benderly and I aren’t telling anyone with a Ph.D., unless perhaps they’re one of the few annointed ‘stars’, things you already don’t intimately know. But the point is that the problem is pretty obvious–those in positions of authority and who benefit from the current state of affairs are willfully ignorant (italics mine):
For a variety of reasons, however, many Ph.D.s find the transition from academe to private business hard to accomplish. And at the university, “alternative careers” — that is, becoming anything other than a professor — generally get the lip service worthy of distant second choices.
This traditional value system does not persist only because of professorial cluelessness. In his recent book, Lives in Science, University of Georgia sociologist Joseph Hermanowicz documents the key role that this mythology plays in recruiting students for graduate programs. “Professors rely upon these people to carry out their work,” he says, “and one way in which to get that accomplished is by training people in the ideals of science, which include these notions of success.”
Back when today’s senior scientists were starting their careers, this mythology formed part of an implicit bargain, labor force economist Paula Stephan of Georgia State University has pointed out. Academic science functioned as an apprenticeship system, with graduate students and postdocs accepting meager pay and long hours, knowing that their teachers took personal responsibility for launching their careers. Indeed, the success of senior scientists’ students was an important measure of their professional standing, notes Vincent Mangematin of Grenoble Ecole de Management in France, an expert on scientific career trajectories.
Starting about three decades ago, however, this long-standing agreement began to unravel. In a number of fields, placing students in desirable faculty jobs became more and more difficult, and several years of postdoctoral “training” gradually became the norm for nearly everyone rather than, as formerly, a mark of special distinction. It was, in fact, a form of disguised unemployment.
The old system is long dead and buried. So what to do? I proposed moving to a research center model, as well as preparing for scientific careers outside the traditional faculty path, and so does Benderly:
Assorted critics of the present system have suggested various models. Generally these involve staffing labs with permanent career employees, from technicians to Ph.D. senior scientists, on a long-term basis rather than depending on low-paid transients. Some institutions have used variants of this model. They include the Howard Hughes Medical Institution’s Janelia Farm in Ashburn, Va., and the legendary, now essentially defunct, Bell Laboratories, which belonged to the monopoly telephone company and produced seven Nobel Prizes.
Scientists-in-training also need effective means of preparing themselves for the careers that exist outside the academy. This will require universities to provide resources and time during graduate school and postdoc years for learning unrelated to an ever-narrowing focus on a single research question.
Given the structural incentives for faculty and universities to preserve this system, I’m not sure how we change this, especially since independent post-docs (as opposed to lab tech cum post-docs) aren’t critical to maintenance of the current system. But we can’t change anything until we recognize the problem.
And the problem is not a damn glut.