The Quantum Pontiff

Researchers Dispute Notion That America Lacks Scientists and Engineers in the Chronicle of Higher Education is a fine example of how thinking that scientific or engineering degree’s are like technical training degrees will lead you to say all sorts of funny things. Yep, it’s another edition of Nitpicker’s Paradiso.

The article begins with some fun stuff which is ripe for nitpicking:

At a hearing of a subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives science committee, Michael S. Teitelbaum, vice president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, told lawmakers….

Federal policy encourages an overproduction of science professionals, he said, because when federal support for research goes up, universities use the extra money to subsidize more graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. Yet the number of permanent jobs in academe and industry do not necessarily climb as a result of that spending, he said. “This disconnect between demand and supply means there are substantially more science graduate students and postdocs than can find attractive real job openings and future careers in these fields,” he said.

Oy, there are so many false implications in this paragraph I don’t know where to start. First of all it isn’t at all clear that increased federal funding doesn’t lead to more graduate student positions and postdoctoral positions and more faculty lines as the result of favorable funding lines. Anyone who has seen the growth of NIH funded research over the last many years (and the subsequent tightening) would probably say that it has led to creation (and subsequent tightening) of all three positions, graduate student, postdoc, and faculty. Okay, so we can debate the ratios, but it doesn’t seem at all possible to argue that all the increased funding leads to no faculty jobs (this also disregards people like me, who are research professors, who certainly benefit from increased funding, quite directly.)

The second problem with the above statements are that, while I agree that the pipeline for positions in academia is vastly oversupplying the small demand, this does not imply that the demand for the students with these degrees isn’t high. The only way you could make such a statement is if you believed that the goal of a degree was only to supply people who work in a field which directly uses that degree. But the benefits of a science and engineering education– strong problem solving skills, strong math skills, the ability to assimilate and apply complex knowledge to complex problems, etc–isn’t something that any country can have an oversupply of, as far as I can tell. The idea that your degree will force you into the job you will have for the rest of your life, just isn’t a reality for vast numbers of people who work in the “real world.” Further, to say that you’d be better off not getting a science of engineering degree but instead just going to work right out of high school or majoring in say, English, in college, well the statistics pretty much speak for themselves. Of course there are exceptions, but if you’re going to argue policy, the exceptions aren’t the issue.

A further problem with the above argument is that one can quite easily argue that an oversupply of science and engineers is actually a necessary component of scientific and technological progress. This is because, unlike, say, accountants, to pick on one field at random, vast scientific and technological probably requires a huge number of people who are actually failing or struggling. Why should society fund a field which is full of failings and unsuccessful ventures? Because the multiplicative effect of the discoveries made in science and the cutting edge products developed by engineers certainly pay for all of these failings hand over fist. If we eliminated the vast cauldron of scientists and engineers, would the productivity gains and fundamental improvement in quality of life we see around us be picked up by the remaining people? I certainly don’t find this very realistic.

The above is not to say that I don’t think there is a disconnect between supply and demand for academic positions in science and engineering. But to equate the academia problem with the role of science and engineering in broader society, seems to me to be quite off base. The problem there is not necessarily the oversupply, but the narrow minded view of those producing scientists and engineers in academia that only a job in the specific field of training is a successful degree.

Comments

  1. #1 Tyler DiPietro
    December 1, 2007

    Every time I read stuff like that paragraph you quoted I find myself wondering how anyone could consider it remarkable. While research positions in specific fields are dwarfed by the number of graduates, that’s basically just your garden variety economic scarcity.

    The best reason for attaining a science, mathematics or engineering oriented degree is probably the very fact that it’s a comparatively hard major. It requires a pretty high degree of ambition and discipline to achieve and thus is a better indicator of a productive employee. I don’t have any intentions to go into research per se, but I’m still working toward a CS/Math double major for a multitude of reasons (one of them being that CS/Math is interesting and worth learning in and of itself).

  2. #2 Belizean
    December 1, 2007

    Dave,

    Most students entering these disciplines do so for a career in them. That’s how these programs are sold to prospective students. There are no posters saying, “Spend four years becoming an expert in Supersymmetric Quantum Computation in Curved Spacetime, and boost your chances of getting a job outside of physics!”

    No. It’s “Exciting Careers in ________ Physics!”.

    I cannot agree that the oversupply of physics degrees is not particularly problematic, because people trained in physics are useful elsewhere in the economy. I have a problem with creating those excess physicists through deceptive (if not outright dishonest), government-subsidized encouragement.

    As a physics professor and member of a racial minority, I am very often asked to speak to inner-city high school students about careers in physics. I always find an excuse to turn down the invitation, however, because I know that my hosts would not want me to be truthful.

    They wouldn’t want me to tell the kids that they should only study physics for the love of physics. And that indulging that love will make them financially poorer than they otherwise would be. And if a life of maximum financial comfort is their aim, they would be better advised to skip college altogether and become real estate investors than to major in physics.

  3. #3 Sures
    December 1, 2007

    I think you’re conflating two different arguments, Dave.

    “Yet the number of permanent jobs in academe and industry do not necessarily climb as a result of that spending, he said. “This disconnect between demand and supply means there are substantially more science graduate students and postdocs than can find attractive real job openings and future careers in these fields,” he said.”

    This is fairly accurate. I can write two NSF grants to fund a student through their Ph.D, but that’s not going to be close to enough to justify a new faculty line. A new line gets justified by rapidly increasing undergraduate enrollment, which paradoxically exacerbates the funding problem by creating even more faculty fighting for the grant money they need to get tenure etc.

    But the crux of the switcheroo is this:
    “But the benefits of a science and engineering education– strong problem solving skills, strong math skills, the ability to assimilate and apply complex knowledge to complex problems, etc–isn’t something that any country can have an oversupply of, as far as I can tell.”

    This is true at the undergraduate and possibly masters level, NOT at the Ph.D and postdoc level that the quote pertains to. A Ph.D in computer science might allow me to get a job in a variety of companies because of the tech boom. But a Ph.D in biology really only qualifies me for a post-doc in bio, and a postdoc for a faculty job: the industrial positions that take bio-trained Ph.Ds are qualitatively different from faculty jobs (this discrepancy is much less pronounced for CS).

    Now people might throw out examples like Wall Street etc. But the vast majority of postdocs coming out of a STEM program are looking primarily for research jobs and/or faculty jobs, and only a small fraction are looking for something different. So prima facie the claim quoted by you is essentially correct.

  4. #4 Janne
    December 2, 2007

    The premise is faulty – physics, or biology, or mathematics aren’t jobs. Being a physics teacher is a job, or being an engineer, or being a physics researcher. But physics isn’t, and undergraduate physics isn’t by itself about training for a career. It can’t; the “career” parts of a physics-related job isn’t actually physics. You actually have the same in other fields, more or less obvious: studying economy versus becoming an economic analyst or accountant (though the practical difference is small); or studying Japanese versus becoming a Japanese teacher or journalist with East Asia as the beat.

    Language departments aren’t advertising themselves in terms of jobs: “Look for the exciting careers in Xhosa!”. Neither should science departments. Indeed, they should be completely explicit: we’re not training you for any specific job whatsoever – you want a job guarantee, go talk to the engineering departments across the road.

  5. #5 PhysioProf
    December 2, 2007

    “This is because, unlike, say, accountants, to pick on one field at random, vast scientific and technological probably requires a huge number of people who are actually failing or struggling.”

    True. Professional sports is the same way, but no one ever says, “There are too many minor league baseball players, because there are only a limited number of major league spots, and very few minor leaguers ever make it to the majors.”

  6. #6 Jonathan Vos Post
    December 2, 2007

    So, PhysioProf, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows are in the “farm teams” for the major league universities?

    Caltech, Harvard, Yale, Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College, Princeton, U. Chicago, University College (LOndon), MIT are the winningest teams this year (selected from the recent list of the top 200 universities worldwide) and the lesser universities ar the AAA league, and state colleges and community colleges are AA and A league, to use Baseball analogies?

    Super-star distribution of salaries seems to apply. A-Rod has a new $0.3 x 10^9 contract, but his team is estimated to gain $0.5 x 10^9 in ticket sales and TV coverage. That analogizes to having a top Nobel Laureate in your department?

    Isaac Newton as Abner Doubleday? Albert Einstein as Babe Ruth? String Theory as Steroids?

  7. #7 Dave Bacon
    December 2, 2007

    Hey all thanks for the comments.

    Belizean: I hear your argument, and agree that the truth in advertising is a deceptive and not good (probably across all fields?) But I don’t understand why you can’t be honest and also say that getting a degree and not going on to practice in the field of your degree is the end of the world. And as far as degrees go which teach you to think hard and be productive, physics is pretty good (of course this leaves out all of those who struggle with a degree….in this case what is the right answer?) Also: real estate investors? Today?

    Suresh (you forgot your “h” :) ): “…that’s not going to be close to enough to justify a new faculty line.” Okay so in my field, and in your field, and in large chunks of fields whose funding has basically been flat, yes. But in biology/medicine over the doubling of the NIH?

    “But a Ph.D in biology really only qualifies me for a post-doc in bio”… Your telling me that the pharma industry is non-existant? I don’t buy it. I also don’t buy that getting a bio degree only qualifies you to just do bio. I know bio people who work at Microsoft, work as a barista, are sysadmins, teach, and practice law. Again, I think the idea that your degree determines you destiny is a bunch of balony spread by elitists who have succeeded at their degree. But that’s just my public opinion on the matter :)

    “But the vast majority of postdocs coming out of a STEM program are looking primarily for research jobs and/or faculty jobs, and only a small fraction are looking for something different.”

    (Well in CS I’d still beg to differ here, what aren’t there any software jobs in NJ? ;) Thats a warning kids, come to Seattle for grad school: we have good jobs as well as a good grad school :) ) But again, the point is that the problem is a approaching the market in exactly the way you mention. We tell students that only a faculty job at an academic institution is the only possible success of their degree. We see science funding as only a means to supply more faculty. This in spite of considerable evidence to the contrary: that a STEM education show considerable initiative have considerably more opportunities than we ever tell the students about. When you get up before a congression committee and wear tenure track goggles, you’re doing a deservice to the way the vast majority of STEM graduates successfully live their lives.

  8. #8 Dave Bacon
    December 2, 2007

    Janne: I agree with most of what you say (as if what I say matters :)) but I have an issue with “you want a job guarantee, go talk to the engineering departments across the road.”

    I’d like to argue that engineers aren’t necessarily “techincal degrees” either. I mean the engineers I know and teach are trying to build something complete new: skill which isn’t something which you can read a manuel to carry out.

  9. #9 Jonathan Vos Post
    December 2, 2007

    The latest issue of New Scientist suggest that the 2007 ROSE report has emerged, which shows a -0.93 correlation between nations’ economic health and the percentage of 15-year-old these who state a desire to major in math or science or engineering. The below seems to be about a year old.

    Royal Society Alert – Issue 460

    http://www.ascept.org/Email/2007/Mar/RSNZ%20alert%20feb%2022.htm

    Comment by Royal Society CEO, Dr Steve Thompson Steve.Thompson@rsnz.org

    Tarja Halonen is a forthright woman. She is President of Finland, and she sees smallness as an advantage because it makes diffusion of knowledge much easier. She and a high-level science team were in New Zealand this week to talk about how a country decides to get serious about science. “Necessity is the mother of innovation,” says Halonen, and Finland was in deep recession in the 1980s, losing 13% of GDP over 3 years. The blooming of the 1990s was built on much preparatory work, to a point where Finland now invests 3.5% of GDP in R&D (cf NZ at 1.1%). But Finland invests systematically and for the long term, investing heavily in education and technology development as well as research.

    Finland does not have a science ministry, but research funding comes via the Ministry of Education, and development funding via Trade and Industry. Public funds account for just over 1% of GDP, with private funds (mostly Nokia) contributing about 2.5%. Finland saw the need to start by investing in people and knowledge. Basic research accounts for 14% of overall funding (including education) and perhaps about 19% if expressed in New Zealand terms as a percentage of Vote RS&T funding. Nevertheless, basic research funding is targeted into named fields of research. About double that goes into TEKES (their TechNZ), with relatively little government funding going into specifically targeted research.

    Last year, TEKES and the Academy of Finland worked together on Finnsight, a joint Foresight process, and saw the challenges as 1) moving from a technology focus to a future applications focus, 2) looking in particular at global risks, energy and environment, and health, and 3) clustering to develop new ways of thinking in energy, health, forestry and metal products.

    The idea of investment in basic research causes dyspepsia among Treasury officials around the world, and the Finnish Academy has commissioned a survey on how the funding agencies from about 99 countries evaluate the impact of basic research funding. Here in New Zealand our Academy Council has commissioned its own evaluation study. New Zealand has its own peculiar balance of basic versus applied, targeted versus responsive, industry versus government, and CRI versus university research. Have we reached the optimal mix? Is it the mix which will prime us to take the great leap forward? Is there any reason why we should not become the next Finland?

  10. #10 freds
    December 2, 2007

    I’ve told my students to go for a Ph.D. only if they are hopelessly in love with their subject. If they want to be practical, get a MS and get a job. The vast majority immediately decide to quit at the MS because I remind them of the competition I see every time that we post a new position in my department. I also point out the number of “professional” post-docs that I see in the applicant pools. I’ve known some damn fine scientists who are begging for a permanent position.

    Please consider the false engineer crisis of about a year ago. Duke University put out a analysis of the data that showed the alarms were based on ignorant use of Chinese data on engineer production. The Chinese were’t being disingenuous and the people using the data probably were not either. But the writers of the alarming reports had an agenda and they conveniently failed to look at the data carefully enough. It wouldn’t pass peer review.

    Personally, I’m glad somebody is trying to carefully look at just what we actually need in the way of scientist and engineer production. We are very expensive and a rational look at the data might allow us to set reasonable priorities about how we make a budget.

  11. #11 taoyue
    December 2, 2007

    So I was reading up on the Excel 2007 display bug, and clicking around led to your blog post on. Small blogosphere.

    Re: science/engineering not being vocational training. This is going to be a hard sell, and not just to those looking to enter tenure-track academia.

    The liberal arts tradition has been to produce well-rounded inviduals who then go into law, or business, or whatever. Remember that liberal arts education was developed hundreds/thousands of years ago for the sons of gentleman farmers, to pick up some book learnin’ in preparation to take over daddy’s estate.

    Historically, science and engineering *have* led to employment in that field. During the Cold War, science/technology was viewed as contributing much more directly to national priorities than the liberal arts. Producing international studies majors may enrich our national discourse, but doubling the number won’t halve our bungling in foreign policy. In contrast, producing lots of aero/astro engineers probably helped us get to the moon faster. The phenomenon isn’t limited to engineering, forty years ago physics majors had it as easy as Californian computer science majors in 1998. See, e.g. http://web.mit.edu/dikaiser/www/ColdWarReq.pdf

  12. #12 Belizean
    December 3, 2007

    Dave wrote:
    But I don’t understand why you can’t be honest and also say that getting a degree and not going on to practice in the field of your degree is [not] the end of the world.

    No it’s not the end of the world, just a waste of several important years of a young person’s life. The way to tell that it was in fact a waste, despite its being useful in obtaining certain types of less than fully desirable employment, is to ask the person:

    “Now that you’re a leading expert in the application of K-theory to D-branes but can only find a job writing device drivers in C++, are you glad that you worked your tail off for 8 years at an ivy college and an ivy league grad school to acquire the expertise that you will never again use? Or would you rather have had a great time at a party school and wound up with the same C++ job anyway — four years sooner?”

    real estate investors? Today?
    Absolutely. The object is to buy low, sell high. There are plenty of desperate property owner’s willing to sell way below market value. [Huge fortunes were made this way during the depression in the U.S. and in post-war Europe.]

  13. #13 Dave Bacon
    December 3, 2007

    Now that you’re a leading expert in the application of K-theory to D-branes but can only find a job writing device drivers in C++, are you glad that you worked your tail off for 8 years at an ivy college and an ivy league grad school to acquire the expertise that you will never again use?
    Or would you rather have had a great time at a party school and wound up with the same C++ job anyway — four years sooner?

    Well see the problem is the application of K-theory to D-branes! Talk about boring stuff that I wouldn’t want to study ;) And C++? Isn’t that Ruby on Rails now? ;) BTW, I guess my problem is I’m still going to take column Ivy League (except I’m a west coast kid so don’t care much for those esteemed east coast locales.) Why? Because the kid who took option A ended up learning a lot more than how to do a keg stand. I’d also argue (doing a lot of that these days…makes me grumpy) that by arguing that no matter what they end up in a job which you clearly consider inferior your setting up a sort of false set of choices.

    Absolutely. The object is to buy low, sell high. Yeah, but telling _kids_ this? By the time they are ready to enter the market, will it still be low? I think you’re setting them up to be the next fodder for “Flip This House.”

  14. #14 Michael J. Biercuk
    December 3, 2007

    Hi Dave et al,
    I’ve actually spent a fair bit of time thinking about this issue precisely. A lot of the story has been told so far, but I’ll add a couple of tidbits.

    1) While there is low growth in tenured faculty positions, overall growth, according to NSF, in university employment is on par with the general economy. I won’t argue whether a shift towards research and adjunct faculty is good or bad, but there are academic jobs.

    2) Growth in the industrial job market for doctoral recipients has been robust as well.

    3) Here’s where it gets interesting: from 1997-2006 the number of US-citizen doctoral recipients in the hard sciences – physical (incl. CS & Math), biological, engineering – was flat. ~10,200 in 1997, ~10,300 in 2006, according to the NSB Science & Engineering Indicators and the NSF Science and Engineering Statistical Data Center. There was, however, a 16% increase in the total number of doctoral recipients in these fields during this time; growth accounted for almost exclusively by an increase in the number of foreign students in the US. Fully 50% of PhD recipients in these disciplines in 2006 were foreign nationals. The point of this note is not to be xenophobic – immigration to the US is a major boon to US science and research. However, it’s important to observe that these individuals are excluded from many of the non-academic jobs in research and development. Think Lockheed, Northrop, Government, etc. So the absolute number of people receiving advanced degrees is highly misleading in evaluating a “glut” of scientists and engineers.

    4) There are other problems at hand – notably a flight of many talented students from scientific disciplines due to low pay. Remember, the absolute number of researchers available isn’t as important as their quality. The Russian Academy of Sciences had major productivity problems associated with its entrenched bureaucracy – eventually negatively impacting the quality of science in Russia as pay plummeted, and the best scientists jumped ship or left the country.

    Anyone with further interest in this topic is welcome to email me. I’ve amassed a huge amount of statistics on the problem and would be happy to discuss.

  15. #15 fredt
    December 4, 2007

    Michael: “Fully 50% of PhD recipients in these disciplines in 2006 were foreign nationals. … So the absolute number of people receiving advanced degrees is highly misleading in evaluating a “glut” of scientists and engineers.”

    But there is a glut in PhD’s, and the fact that 50% of your competitors are from overseas doesn’t make your job prospects very appealing.

    I can’t read the article, since it is apparently private, but from what you have quoted, Dave, Teitelbaum seems to be arguing that federal policy should not propagate the oversupply in PhDs. This makes sense! Dave, the statistics you quote on bachelor and master’s degrees are not relevant to PhDs. And on the second page you link to, the only times it mentions a PhD is as a requirement for “independent research.”

    What is optimal for science? You might be right that it is good to have low salaries and lots of dropouts, because the cream rise to the top (like you, right?).

  16. #16 Michael J. Biercuk
    December 4, 2007

    FredT,
    You missed the point of my post in failing to quote the portion of text in between the two sentences you selected. The fact that 50% of competitors receiving PhDs are foreign dramatically impacts job prospects, because these candidates are EXCLUDED from many positions which require US citizenship (if you’re interested in industry, that takes away half of your competition – the “glut” is reduced by 2!). Therefore, when looking at job opportunities and claiming that there is a “glut” of PhDs, one has to evaluate much more carefully, and see which job sectors, if any, are impacted.

    That being said, there do seem to be problems in Academia. Growing percentages of recent PhD recipients (3-5 yrs after degree) report being in postdoctoral positions, citing a lack of tenure-track academic jobs (NSF). If Universities are, in fact, showing limited growth in academic faculty positions, perhaps it is important for the Gov’t to step in now and increase funding to further subsidize research endeavors. Doing so would ensure that short-sightedness in the markets won’t have long-term consequences for our society.

    “What is optimal for science? You might be right that it is good to have low salaries and lots of dropouts, because the cream rise to the top (like you, right?)”

    I strongly disagree. History has shown that the best are often the first to go! Look at the state of Russian science today, where the median scientist’s salary is lower than that of the median industrial laborer. Many of the best researchers saw the decline in remuneration coming and bailed, leaving behind what has commonly been described as an unproductive “bureaucratic research ministry.” Look also, at the flight of top PhD candidates and recipients to careers in finance, where requisite levels of personal sacrifice similar to research careers (time, rough hours, etc.) provide extreme remuneration.

    We’re fortunate that many of good scientists stay in the field despite their pay, but trends suggest that more and more, highly talented and motivated individuals are leaving science, or not considering careers in science at all.

  17. #17 Dave Bacon
    December 4, 2007

    “What is optimal for science? You might be right that it is good to have low salaries and lots of dropouts, because the cream rise to the top (like you, right?)”

    I strongly disagree

    Yeah, really, calling me the cream? Now that’s funny. Have you looked at my peers? I’m a lagger, most definitely. They keep me around because I tell jokes. And now that I’m growing old, I just get less and less funny every year.

    BTW, I know a buttload of physics Ph.D.s who’ve left academia and are doing quite fine, thankyouverymuch. The problem is our insistance that the only success is academic success, thus causing all sorts of depression in graduate students everywhere. A successful Ph.D. in my book is a student who has performed original research and then goes on to apply the skills they learned as a graduate student to better the world, build a company, raise a happy educated family, teach, engineer airplanes, etc, etc. I don’t view a Ph.D. as a track to produce more Ph.D.s, but instead as a way to acquire knowledge and skills for the rest of life (For example, who knows how long I myself will continue in my position, which is very non-standard, i.e. not a teaching tenure track position. Will I consider myself a failure if I don’t continue on this path? No. But apparently many of my peers would. I call BS.)

  18. #18 Jonathan Vos Post
    December 4, 2007

    Well, Dave, I am biased to agree with you: “A successful Ph.D. in my book is a student who has performed original research and then goes on to apply the skills they learned as a graduate student to better the world, build a company, raise a happy educated family, teach, engineer airplanes, etc, etc.”

    I’ve performed lots of original research [journal papers, books, conference papers, including the extremely short edited entries in web pages such as Online Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences, as well as letters to the editor, science fiction stories, poems, plays, music reviews, crossword puzzles, TV talkshows, etc.] gives a total of over 2,500 publications, presentations, and broadcasts.

    “To better the world” [the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and linear approximations] but I’ve at least been elected Town Councilman in Amherst MA and Altadena CA and delivered infrastructure enhancements to my constituents.

    “Build a company” — several times, once making three 20-year-old each worth $2,200,000 when the software start-up in a garage was acquired nby a NASDAQ firm.

    “Raise a happy educated family” gives me yet another chance to boast of my wife’s Physics professorship, and my son at age eighteen getting his double B.S. in Math and Computer Science.

    “Engineer airplanes” as I did at Boeing, Hughes, Lockheed, Rockwell, and others, as well as building spaceships.

    So I happily accept that I am “a successful Ph.D.”

    Except that the plagiarist ex-Chairman and incompetent Chairman (later kicked out of chairmanship by vote of nonconfidence from faculty) refused to turn my ad hoc thesis committee into a formal thesis, so my PhD dissertation was never either accepted nor rejected, but shows up on my grad transcripts as “incomplete” after a third of a century, albeit most chapters have subsequently been published inn refereed venues.

    This makes the oversupply of PhDs and the resulting difficulty of landing a faculty position extremely painful for me. Try competing from a PhD (All But Degree) who DID original research, against newly minted PhDs (who filled in a footnote of the Advisor’s dissertation).

    It’s remarkable that I’ve ever been able to land even Adjunct Professorships. But tenure track? No way.

    The teaching-oriented schools are bent out of shape by how much research I do (one sociopathic Dean was perturbed that I’d published more than the entire College of Arts & Sciences over which she cracked her alcoholic sociopathic whip).

    The research-oriented schools sweep under the rug the literally thousands of students I’ve taught in a dozen subjects. Obviously inappropriate for a serious scholar.

    So I’m an extreme outlier in the data. But there is, to my way of seeing things, a catastrophic problem in the impedence matching of PhDs to faculty positions.

    Some of the slack is taken up in the exponential rise of Postdocs. They tell me that the average postdoc in Japan is in that pool for a decade. That’s where the USA is heading, fast.

    And why I’m a grad student again for the first time in 34 years, to get my California Public Schools teaching credentials (subject to Emperor Bush’s No Child Left Behind madness). I’ll teach more High School Math and Physics and Biotechnology, while doing my research on my own time. High Schools don’t usually cover international conference tavel and page charges, sad to say.

    Many of the places I apply don’t even know what Caltech is. After I started at Boeing, in 1979, I later found that my personnel file translated “Caltech” into California Aeronautical Technical College.”

    “No, no,” I said. “Not an aircraft engine mechanic. A QUANTUM mechanic.”

  19. #19 FredT
    December 4, 2007

    Michael: “I strongly disagree. History has shown that the best are often the first to go! … Look also, at the flight of top PhD candidates and recipients to careers in finance, where requisite levels of personal sacrifice similar to research careers (time, rough hours, etc.) provide extreme remuneration.”

    Well, I too disagree. In terms of cost-benefit, it is cheaper to hire foreign postdocs to do research than to hire faculty. So for the best science for the least money, this situation isn’t bad at all. Sure, in an ideal world, all the smart people who can make millions in finance would be paid equally well in science, but that isn’t going to happen.

    “The fact that 50% of competitors receiving PhDs are foreign dramatically impacts job prospects, because these candidates are EXCLUDED from many positions which require US citizenship.”

    I didn’t quote this because I don’t know how true this is. Do you have statistics to support this? I am also not sure what the state of Russian science matters for the US, since I don’t think the situations are close to being analogous.

    Dave, do you disagree with my tone or with my joke? Of course I don’t really think you are the cream*.

    * Yes, that is a joke, too.

  20. #20 Michael J. Biercuk
    December 5, 2007

    FredT,
    Here is the source of the stats: http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/infbrief/nsf08301/

    Look under the “Demographics” section, and see the trends for foreign researchers – of course these are statistics based on reported information, but A) it’s all we have, and B) it’s been shown to be reasonably representative over many years.

    Similar information can be found in the National Science Board’s Science and Engineering Indicators 2006 and the National Science Foundation’s Scientists and Engineer’s Statistical Data System, available at http://sestat.nsf.gov.

    The state of Russian science matters because it has responded to government policies in a straightforward manner for decades. Housing allowances for PhDs go way up (akin culturally to doubling salaries); # of scientists and researchers goes up. Salaries plummet to less than industrial wages; top scientists flee and annual research productivity per capita (among researchers obviously) trails off. Russia is not the US; the differences are broad and profound, but the influence of government policy is straightforward to observe.

    As for postdocs vs faculty: “In terms of cost-benefit, it is cheaper to hire foreign postdocs to do research than to hire faculty. So for the best science for the least money, this situation isn’t bad at all.”

    I agree with you that this is the market solution in the present context – get the most for the least. However, I argue that this is potentially deleterious in the long term, and requires intervention in the way of a research-funding policy change. Don’t be too surprised if this happens. Many in government see opportunities for change, and even for increases in investment levels.

    Once again I’ll note that foreign postdocs are often excluded from other career opportunities in research. Coming back to the original discussion thread, I therefore argue that examining only the total number of PhDs does not necessarily provide an accurate representation of any “glut ” of researchers.

  21. #21 Jonathan Vos Post
    December 5, 2007

    If I was not clear on this before, I’ll try again.

    Half or more of classes in American colleges and universities now are taught by some combination of Teaching Assistant, Temps, Adjunct, Instructors — anything but actual full-time Professors.

    To hire a full-time Professor means making at least a one megabuck salary and benefit commitment. There are people who have been an Adjunct or an Instructor for up to 30 years, still not promoted to full-time (let alone tenure track).

    So those seeking full-time professorial appointments come not just from around the world, plus the recently minted PhDs, but a large number of those hanging by their fingernails, often with no benefits, who actually have proven that they can teach those specific classes at that specific campus.

    The supply/demand balance is wildly out of kilter both for research and for teaching.

    It is massively messed up. I do not say this merely from my own statistical outlier experience.

    There is no one-to-one match between the part-time faculty positions and the people, either. There are “freeway fliers” who teach a class at one campus, a class at another campus, a class at a third, and so forth. Some earn $100,000 to $150,000 per year, by dint of much effort, good time-management, and many miles driven daily, which is better than some full-time professors.

    The students that feed into colleges and universities, except the most elite and selective colleges and universities, are severely underprepared. The public school system, if it were a business, would have gone bankrupt many years ago. The students are being “socially promoted” from high school, in some cases still unable to add fractions, write a coherent sentence, or know the boiling and freezing points of water. The “consumers” of those students, both academic and corporate, have to put a large percentage of students through a year or more of remedial classes to teach them what they should already have been taught.

    The full-time professors don’t usually want to teach the “101″ classes, let alone the remedial classes which do NOT count for college credit. The typical student admitted to a 2-year college (junior college, community college) in the USA takes 1.5 years of those remedial classes.

    The colleges don’t protest; they get to charge tuition and fees for the remedial classes. The high schools don’t protest; they’ve lied to students and parents that they can always catch up in college.

    It is a massive scam. “If a foreign power had done to the American educational system what we’ve done to it ourselves, it would be an act of war.” [Presidential Commission Report, several presidents ago].

    And yet the elite High Schools and elite universities are doing very well. The paradox of American education: the best is unsurpassed anywhere in the world; the median and mean are third-world at best.

  22. #22 Dave Bacon
    December 5, 2007

    Interesting statistics on projected growth in computer and mathematical science occupations in the next ten years here. Third only to health care and educaton in size.

  23. #23 Travis
    December 5, 2007

    First of all, it’s worth mentioning that a debate about this subject is also going on in the letters to the editor pages of the Wall Street Journal right now (see Dec 5 paper and a few previous days).

    I’ve heard two contrasting claims:
    1) There is a shortage of PhDs willing or able to go into non-academic jobs
    2) There is a glut of PhDs seeking academic jobs

    (2) is obviously true–just ask any faculty search committee how many applications they get. As for (1), my own experience suggests it is also true. Yes–both claims can be and are simultaneously true.

    The solution? We need to shift PhDs from pool (2) to pool (1)–then everybody wins. To do this, we need to do much, much more to help PhDs gain the skills they need for non-academic jobs. Preparing for a non-academic job shouldn’t just be something covered by an obscure 1-day seminar offered once per year, but rather a substantial part of graduate education.

    This isn’t going to happen on its own–many faculty members are strongly biased to produce more faculty, and regard anything else as a failure. One member of my department is well-known for saying, “I train future collaborators”, and telling anyone not interested in an academic path to get lost, while another in another department has her postdocs scared to look for non-academic jobs because she’ll immediately fire them if she finds out they’re not trying to follow in her footsteps.

    Reform has to come from outside. I propose that government demand dramatic improvements from universities in the preparation of PhDs for non-academic jobs. This could be done on both a coarse-grained (university-wide) and fine-grained level. Any research group or university that produced too high a percentage of PhDs that became eternal postdocs (as opposed to faculty or successful non-academics) would lose substantial amounts of funding. Universities would be motivated to identify students that were unlikely to become tenure-track faculty, and help prepare them for non-academic jobs.

  24. #24 FredT
    December 6, 2007

    “Reform has to come from outside. I propose that government demand dramatic improvements from universities in the preparation of PhDs for non-academic jobs. This could be done on both a coarse-grained (university-wide) and fine-grained level. Any research group or university that produced too high a percentage of PhDs that became eternal postdocs (as opposed to faculty or successful non-academics) would lose substantial amounts of funding. Universities would be motivated to identify students that were unlikely to become tenure-track faculty, and help prepare them for non-academic jobs.”

    I agree that reform has to come from the outside, if it is going to happen. But the current situation is sustainable, so I doubt things will change.

    Dave, my last jokes about “cream of the crop” were just in bad taste, and I apologize.

  25. #25 Jonathan Vos Post
    December 6, 2007

    On p.103 of Dave Bacon’s citation [Monthly Labor Review, Nov.2007]:

    “The doctoral degree category [those jobs typically requiring PhD] is expected to increase the fastest of all the education and training categories over the 2006-16 period, growing at a 22-percent rate. Most of this change will be due to the fast-growing occupation of post-secondary teachers. Despite the fast growth, jobs generated needing a doctoral degree for qualification will still account for just 1.5 percent of total jobs in 2016.”

  26. #26 Dave Bacon
    December 6, 2007

    Hey FredT,

    No need to apologize. I just haven’t kept up with the thread because its the last week of classes and life is crazy.

    The real question, of course, if I’m creame, what kind of creame is it? Whipped cream? Whipping cream? Half cream? Double cream? Clotted cream? Sterilised half cream (god I hope not.)

  27. #27 Jonathan Vos Post
    December 8, 2007

    Over at It’s Equal But It’s Different, there’s a thread starting:

    “Salaries of College Professors vs College Football Coaches
    mjperry.blogspot.com � At least 50 coaches are making seven figures, seven more than a year ago, and up from only five in 1999. At least a dozen are pulling down $2 million or more, up from nine in 2006.”

    gbarberi responds:

    “Most students also don’t realize that their professors work about 50-60 hours a week. They have to grade papers, prep for their courses, attend meetings, develop the curriculum, research, etc. They do more work than seen by students.
    Add to that, only a small proportion of people who seek a PhD will get accepted, get a degree, and then get an academic job. The PhD makes no fiscal sense. As the level of education goes up, average earnings go with it. Until you get to the PhD, then there is a decline in average earnings from the Masters/professional degree level. Even worse, more and more are being hired as Part time, non-tenure tracked faculty. Part timer professors have it even worse.”

    I’m intentionally not mentioning Caltech’s football team (other than the 1946 season, not just undefeated, but unscored-against). And the Caltech Basketball documentary: “Quantum Hoops.”

  28. #28 getnutri
    April 3, 2008

    The facts are that newly graduating American scientists and engineers will not be chosen for American jobs. A local national law firm, representing corporations, has been working to keep American scientists and engineers out of the American work force because it is cheaper to hire foreign scientists and engineers at lower salaries, while giving them guest worker visas. It has also been reported that American professionals, such as scientists and engineers will be outsourced at lower pay. This may likely be the New America. And, this could likely happen to your child!!!

  29. #29 Dave Bacon
    April 3, 2008

    Thank yo very much, Mr. Lou Dobbs.

    A local national law firm, representing corporations, has been working to keep American scientists and engineers out of the American work force because it is cheaper to hire foreign scientists and engineers at lower salaries,

    Details, please. Facts, please.

    I’m sorry, but outsourcing of scientists is extremely silly. The bigger issue is that other countries are building up their scientific workforce and the US is not. Can you believe, it, other countries are discovering that supporting science and engineer pays off with local jobs? Who would have thought.

    Is “New America” so sort of codeword for “I don’t like foreigners”?

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