I’ve written before about the problem of the Ph.D. glut, so I was pleasantly surprised (shocked, actually) to read several articles in a recent edition of Nature hitting the same themes. For those who don’t think there’s a Ph.D. glut, here are some data for you:
Post-doc numbers shouldn’t be increasing, unless there’s a glut. While Nature accurately identifies the problem, they fall short in explaining what’s driving it. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Cyranoski et alia:
The proportion of people with science PhDs who get tenured academic positions in the sciences has been dropping steadily and industry has not fully absorbed the slack. The problem is most acute in the life sciences, in which the pace of PhD growth is biggest, yet pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries have been drastically downsizing in recent years. In 1973, 55% of US doctorates in the biological sciences secured tenure-track positions within six years of completing their PhDs, and only 2% were in a postdoc or other untenured academic position. By 2006, only 15% were in tenured positions six years after graduating, with 18% untenured (see ‘What shall we do about all the PhDs?’). Figures suggest that more doctorates are taking jobs that do not require a PhD. “It’s a waste of resources,” says Stephan. “We’re spending a lot of money training these students and then they go out and get jobs that they’re not well matched for.”
But there are reasons for caution. Unlimited growth could dilute the quality of PhDs by pulling less-able individuals into the system. And casual chats with biomedical researchers in the United States or Japan suggest a gloomy picture. Exceptionally bright science PhD holders from elite academic institutions are slogging through five or ten years of poorly paid postdoctoral studies, slowly becoming disillusioned by the ruthless and often fruitless fight for a permanent academic position. That is because increased government research funding from the US National Institutes of Health and Japan’s science and education ministry has driven expansion of doctoral and postdoctoral education — without giving enough thought to how the labour market will accommodate those who emerge. The system is driven by the supply of research funding, not the demand of the job market.
But the Cyranoski article hints at the fundamental problem:
Anne Carpenter, a cellular biologist at the Broad Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is trying to create jobs for existing PhD holders, while discouraging new ones. When she set up her lab four years ago, Carpenter hired experienced staff scientists on permanent contracts instead of the usual mix of temporary postdocs and graduate students. “The whole pyramid scheme of science made little sense to me,” says Carpenter. “I couldn’t in good conscience churn out a hundred graduate students and postdocs in my career.”
But Carpenter has struggled to justify the cost of her staff to grant-review panels. “How do I compete with laboratories that hire postdocs for $40,000 instead of a scientist for $80,000?” she asks. Although she remains committed to her ideals, she says that she will be more open to hiring postdocs in the future.
Nature incorrectly believes that too many Ph.D’s is a bug, not a feature. That’s wrong: neither research universities nor funders think the Ph.D. glut is a problem.
From the funders’ perspective, why should they pay a salary of $80,000, when they can get the same
help scientist for half the price? On many grants, especially those given to individual labs (“R01s”), personnel are already a huge cost–often over half of the direct costs (the non-overhead/fringe benefits budget) of the grant. If we assume a fixed amount of money, then funders will have to cut back on the number of projects they can support. Of course, overhead/indirect costs could be lowered too.
But all of those scenarios are bad for universities dependent on research largesse. I’ve conservatively estimated before that roughly 15% of total federal grant dollars (direct plus indirect costs) are ‘profit’–they don’t support the costs of research or actual overhead costs (administration, keeping the lights on, etc.)*. Fewer grants means that there’s less opportunity for overhead dollars. Even if a university (or more accurately, the faculty) can keep the funding level constant with fewer, larger proposals, this is far less cost-effective: you have a high faculty-grant dollar ratio.
Keep in mind, if a high-powered research university loses $20 million dollars of this ‘overhead profit’, this has to be made up somehow. One way is to ‘dedicate’ $400 million to $500 million of endowment every year to make up the shortfall (four to five percent interest on that sum). Alternatively, tuition or other fees can be cranked up. Of course, faculty could be laid off, but then people complain about class sizes and so on.
So I agree with Nature: creating Ph.D’s without any idea of how they’ll be employed ‘post-post-doc’ is bad policy. It’s a good argument for a research center model. But the impetus to change won’t come from funders or universities-they’re too dependent on the status quo.
*‘Profit’ doesn’t mean they’re spending the money on pornstars and coke (WINNING!). But the money can supplement the general budget (or departmental budgets).