The science pipeline and the overabundance of Ph.D. scientists.

Chad has an interesting post about the scientific job market, in which he notes that his own experience training for and finding a job in academic science has left him with an impression significantly rosier than some circulating through cyberspace. Chad's discussion of the ways your field (and subfield) can influence what your prospects and experiences will be like is a must-read for anyone prepared to talk themselves out of pursuing science on the basis of the aerial view of science as a whole.

Chad's assessment:

So what's the real situation? Probably somewhere between his hyper-pessimistic take, and my too-rosy outlook. The chance of getting a good academic job in science isn't terribly good, and it's entirely possible that you could be stuck in miserable working conditions. But I wouldn't say that misery is an inevitable result of the process.

I do agree that too many students go into graduate school more or less on momentum, without a clear idea of what they want to do, or what their chances of success are like. But I think Katz goes too far in talking up the horrors of the scientific career path, and trying to scare everyone out of science.

I want to add just a few more thoughts to this.

First, I see the situation in the sciences (where there are "too many" science Ph.D.s produced every year in the U.S. for the number of academic and industrial jobs that employ Ph.D. scientists) as one more argument for loosening the tight linkage between what one studies and what one does (or even who one is). Of course, it's good to have doctors who have gone to medical school, lawyers who have gone to law school, and particle physicists who have earned advanced degrees in particle physics. But, I don't believe that advanced degrees, by their nature, suck all the other useful skills out of a person. Nor should they close off a person's career options.

I was flabbergasted to learn that people sometimes have to omit certain of their degrees from their resumes in order to be considered for jobs not typically sought by people who hold those degrees -- either because the employer couldn't believe that someone with the degree in question would really want to do that job, or because the employer didn't want to up the salary to what someone with that degree would be "worth". Why not just advertise the job at the salary you want to pay, then choose from among the people who actually apply for it? (Am I just missing some crucial feature of capitalism here?) In other words, having a Ph.D. doesn't necessarily mean you will find a job typically inhabited by folks with bachelors or masters degrees "beneath" you. It would be cool if employers realized that as well.

And, sometimes people pursue Ph.D.s in field X and find themselves wanting to do something completely different when they're done -- writing code, starting a catering company, running for office, whatever. This does not make such people "failures", nor does it mean they "wasted" their time pursuing that degree. Sometimes learning stuff just enriches us as people. Certainly, surviving graduate school can give a person a better idea of what she's made of. And the things we learn sometimes come back -- and turn out to be useful -- at unexpected junctures.

Finally, if you really want to pursue a particular career path -- not just kind of want it, but want it in your heart with a burning passion -- you should pursue that career path, even if the chances of success look small. (It goes without saying that you should get as much good advice as you can about the things you can do to improve your chances of success, and that it's good to have some interim plans for keeping yourself fed while you're trying to make it.) This is one of those ways that being a scientist is like being a rock star -- the rock stars with cred are the ones who would have been trying to make music no matter what, working all manner of joe-jobs to keep themselves in guitar strings. Even though a bazillion kids want to be rock stars, the ones with the burning passion to make music will keep making music even in obscurity.

It's a bit harder for scientists -- a working lab (or field-based equivalent, for non-lab-based scientific fields) is a necessity, and it's a good deal more expensive and difficult to secure than a decent guitar. But the arduousness of the trajectory from student to working scientist provides the ultimate gut-check: is this something I want to keep trying to do even if it means years of struggling in obscurity? There's no shame in discovering that your answer is "no", but if the answer is "yes", the struggle is just one more thing to deal with on your road to where you feel like you ought to be.

In other news: certain elements of the struggle to become a working scientist may not be related to supply and demand, and maybe have more to do with hazing. We should see what we can do to clear some of that stuff out of there, but that's a topic for another post.

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"And, sometimes people pursue Ph.D.s in field X and find themselves wanting to do something completely different when they're done -- writing code, starting a catering company, running for office, whatever. This does not make such people "failures", nor does it mean they "wasted" their time pursuing that degree. Sometimes learning stuff just enriches us as people. Certainly, surviving graduate school can give a person a better idea of what she's made of. And the things we learn sometimes come back -- and turn out to be useful -- at unexpected junctures."

Currently, from what I've heard, the ratio of 'appropriate' jobs to Ph.D.'s ranges from 2:1 to (pick a large number):1. For those who didn't know the odds, they are getting scr*wed. And (also from what I've heard) it won't be the universities telling them the true odds.

Barry, I'm in total agreement that the universities training the Ph.D.s ought to be completely candid with their students (and applicants) about the likely job outlook. At the same time, though, I'd hate for them to get paternalistic and decree that one couldn't sign on for the training one wanted in a potentially difficult job market.

advice to scared potential Ph.D.s, if you are in your mid-to-late 20s pick get a few programming books and learn the stuff. it is probably WAY easier than the science you are doing. software is one of those fields you can break into if you are willing to pay the dues that non-computer science people have to pay if you are smart and motivated.

To begin with, the scientific job market is not the same as the academic job market. There are more physicists employed by industry than there are by universities. When professors (in physics) talk to their students about how hard it is to get a job, they mean how hard it is to get a professorship.

By frumious b (not verified) on 08 Aug 2006 #permalink

frumious b, you're absolutely right that the academic job pool in any given field is only part of the total job pool for Ph.D. scientists in that field -- and, that lots of academic scientists assume their Ph.D. advisees will be looking for jobs in academe. (Worse, many advisors at R01 universities assume their advisees would sooner eat broken glass than take a job at a college or university that isn't a research-oriented Behemoth of Important Science.)

Nonetheless, the last time I saw hard numbers in chemistry, even taking the academic and industrial job pools into account there were more Ph.D. chemists being churned out each year than slots in the job pool.

For what its worth, there are certain areas of science that face critical PhD shortages. So a research career is not all bad. Clinical anything is one of them. Thus the incentives from NIH (loan repayment programs, pre/post doc scholarships) for people who have clinical credentials to pursue research careers.

As a case in point, there are an average of 2 applicants for every 1 job opening in my field. This count is not altered to account for people who are making lateral moves and will open up a position if they accept the one they are applying to or people who apply to more than one position. This is just the average number of applications received.

"In other words, having a Ph.D. doesn't necessarily mean you will find a job typically inhabited by folks with bachelors or masters degrees "beneath" you. It would be cool if employers realized that as well."

I wholeheartedly agree with you. I was astonished the other day when my mom told me that she interviewed a Ph.D. in physics for an IT job and rejected him because he was overqualified. She said that she thought that he would have been bored in the job. The fact that my own mother, who I think of as a very open minded, logical woman, would not give a job to a perfectly able candidate just because he had "too high of a degree for it" appalled me, especially since my own aspiration us to get my Ph.D. in physics. She did make me think twice about my dream, but I do realize that it is really what I want to do with my life and I will deal with the struggles I may encounter along the way.

Several issues you didn't consider in your piece:
1. The job outlook for PhDs in science is ROSY and lovely and sweet compared to that for people in the humanities and arts. Much of the job-related anxt in science is a diffusion from other people around university campuses who face much more difficult journies.
2. The jobs that ARE available to PhDs frequently are in dirty businesses. That's why I dropped out. Pharmaceuticals, agritech, defense contractors. THEY are hiring and are excellent options for people who only care about money or who can manage to convince themeselves that they aren't violating their principles by working in corrupt industries. I'm not in that category.
3. The true mark of a PhD's intellect is ambition--not intelligence, principle or wisdom. For many, disillusionment occurs somewhere around year 3 of your PhD.
4. The current overproduction of PhDs *is* in fact a consequence of market forces. While there isn't a lot of market pressure for PhDs, there IS market pressure for PhD candidates. They do all the work, after all. And at very low labor cost. There may be an element of hazing--but the market for cheap abusable labor is probably a greater factor.

By traumatized (not verified) on 09 Aug 2006 #permalink

traumatized, I've actually talked a bit about your #4 here, and I do agree there's a problem with treating Ph.D.s and postdocs as cheap abusable labor rather than as, you know, people. At the same time, some people go into fields where the job prospects will be slim, knowing full well that their job prospects will be slim, because they love the subject in which they'll be wrapped up. I think it would be a bad thing to keep these people from pursuing those fields.

I'm not sure I'd characterize what gets people (or at least, a lot of people) through grad school to the Ph.D. as "ambition". For a lot of us, it was more like looking our imposter complex in the eye and deciding we were smart enough and strong enough.

The pool of industrial jobs may not be ... completely unproblematic for people with strong values of a certain sort who would prefer not to compromise them just to earn a paycheck. This may just be a problem inherent in capitalism in a pluralistic society. I do have a vague recollection of hearing a story about a pharmaceutical company that was trying some new approach to drug development/production/licensing that they thought could deliver more of the needed drugs to poor companies ... if someone has a non-vague recollection here, please help me out. Also, I know that there's a lot of interest (and presumably, therefore, earning potential) in "greening" laboratory instruction in chemistry. In other words, there may be ways to get some "non-dirty" businesses together in the private sector. (It would be nicer if the jobs were already there, ready to go, but that such jobs *could* be sustained in the existing economic system is better than nothing, I suppose).

As someone who has one of those jobs for Ph.D.s in the humanities, you don't have to tell me that jobs are tight. The thing is, no one else had to tell the folks pursuing Ph.D.s in the humanities and arts that jobs would be scarce -- we already knew when we signed on. (When was the last time anyone proclaimed a critical shortage of Ph.D. philosophers?) But many of us, knowing that we might not end up working in our chosen fields, still felt like earning those Ph.D.s gave us something -- not necessarily something marketable, but something that made us feel whole.

I know somebody with a chemistry phd who is perfectly happy writing safety manuals for an airline. If all else fails then there are non-academic jobs out there if you sell your properly.

On a side note: Hopefully I'll be able to avoid going to the US for a post-doc. I would rather stay in my antipodean paradise.

I'm currently blazing through the hail of tests and graduate school applications in spite of all of this advice to the contrary. What's more, I'm changing careers to do so, in my late twenties. A colossal mistake?

Am I missing something here? Am I even more idealistic and naive than I realize?

This isn't a money decision, or even really a career decision. I am doing this because it is a worthwhile endeavour, for me personally, in the most general sense.

Maybe I'm missing the point entirely... perhaps the unspoken assumption is that I will find something to do. And the reality is that I will not.

Jordan, I think what you're doing (pursuing what you see as a worthwhile endeavor for you personally) is exactly what I'm recommending. It's pretty much what I did, after all. The trick now is to be strong and not start believing that things like academic jobs are awarded purely on the basis of your awesomeness on an absolute (or even relative) scale. Jobs are ephemeral; personal fulfilment is not.

(You see why philosophers have this reputation for corrupting the youth? It's advice like this. Nonetheless, I believe it. So pass the hemlock mojito.)

Don't knock becoming an entrepreneur. I think job opportunities for scientists are high if you are willing to take the initiative and not expect an "easy" job that one just settles into. (I don't mean easy in the sense that the job is easy, more easy in the sense that not a lot of initiative in creating things is necessary)

Not to mention the fact that all sorts of things can happen while you're in graduate school. I never had to worry about the extremely low rate of professorships for new humanities Ph.Ds (something like 20%), because I decided to stop after my MA and take some time to do something else. In fact, I have a friend who did the same with a bio degree and we've both ended up in science publishing! Of course we both started because we really thought we wanted to be researchers and professors and thought we'd beat the odds -- you have to think you'll beat the odds, you can't go in with a fatalistic attitude. But the post-graduation tenure-track employment rate is far from the only factor in determining people's career paths.

i am a fatality of a science PhD. I cannot find a job doing anything because, ever since I earned the PhD, I was magically transformed into a person who is "unqualified" to do absolutely anything that I had previously done to pay for my university education (not to say that I want to return to those intellectually bankrupt cultures if I had a choice). And now that I have finished one postdoc, I find that I am incapable for finding a job doing literally anything .. the boredom issue is the main reason given by "employers", despite the fact that i could rebuild a french-fry machine for these bastards who work for these unnamed asshole corporations.

Instead, I am left with a PhD, research experience and a completed postdoc, living off welfare, food stamps and whatever I can do to survive by working for cash under the table. yes, the cash thing is illegal and one day, I am sure I will end up in prison for tax evasion. So .. is this the new educational ghetto? or am I just an exceptionally worthless member of the "educational elite"?

I think that I, my degree, and my career aspirations are simply a big fucking mistake, otherwise I would not be in this situation, as people say. But at least I tried to do something worthwhile (because I love what I do) with my life! That's better than giving up when I was 14, as I was wisely advised to do.

By anonymous loser (not verified) on 10 Aug 2006 #permalink

I'm actually trying to be one of the first free-lance academics of the 21st century. Do a google search for Wikiversity and see what I'm up do to get this to work.

At wikimania, I made the joke that the easiest way for me to get into academia is to start my own university. That actually isn't that far from the truth.

As far as Chad's observations. I don't think that the truth is "in between." The situation is that the system is merciliessily selective. If you make it to the end (i.e. tenure track faculty), then you ended up lucky, and your history isn't too bad. However, if the slightly thing goes wrong, you don't make it to the end, and then you fall into the knives. The big problem with the system is that there are very few second chances.

The one thing that I wished had happened when I was an undergraduate was that someone older would have told me how broken the system was. The problem is that people in the system have "won" so they don't see the brokenness, and the people who the system have weeded out, don't get to tell younger people about their experiences.

The thing is that had someone told me how broken the system was, I would have done more or less what I did. The only difference is that I would have felt much less bad about myself.

At one time, women weren't hired because it was assumed that they would just get married and leave. That's similar to the rationalization that a PhD would be "bored."

But don't overlook a very important point. People aren't hired because they are good for an organization; they are hired because they will be good for whoever is hiring them. "Overqualified" often means, "Here's a potential threat to my own position in the company." For a lot of managers, hiring underlings means hiring underlings, the underling isn't supposed to ever forget it.