What's up with the market?

Not the financial market, but the market for highly trained folks in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). In particular, why do people keep talking about the need for a larger talent pool in STEM when so many Ph.D.s and postdocs are having a rough time finding permanent positions?

Today, Inside Higher Ed has an article about what demographer Michael S. Teitelbaum of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation makes of this apparently paradoxical state of affairs:

Looking at whether there is a shortage of qualified STEM workers, Teitelbaum argued that such claims reappear roughly every 10 years. In the late 1980s, he said, speculations of looming shortfalls were "wildly wrong," while successful lobbying in the late 1990s to triple the number of H-1B visas to fulfill a supposed shortage coincided with the IT bust -- and a resulting collapse in demand for workers -- in 2001.

More recently, he said, similar claims are arising with testimony from heavy hitters in the technology sector such as Bill Gates -- but still, he argued, the evidence doesn't support the view that there is a shortage of scientists or engineers. A shortage of workers would imply an increase in wages, but remuneration remains flat; in general, he said, there is significant variation over time and by field, with a mix of "hot" fields and "slack" markets.

The demographer finds no evidence of a shortage of scientists or engineers.

On that basis, I'm inclined to say that anyone who wants to claim there is such a shortage is on the hook to produce the evidence. (Additionally, if these shortage-seers are also employers of scientists and engineers, they could start acting like they really believe there's a shortage by paying the scarce scientists and engineers in their employ accordingly.)

Teitelbaum also questioned why federal spending supports Ph.D. completion despite the lack of demand for such degrees by non-academic employers, who mainly look for bachelor's or master's degrees. In effect, he said, the "self-defeating" practice of funding science education via research grants created a "mismatch" between graduates and employers.

There is part of the labor equation that Teitelbaum doesn't discuss (or, if he does discuss it, that isn't mentioned in the Inside Higher Ed article): the extent to which the current numbers of Ph.D. trainees are necessary to the running of their advisors' research programs. If the numbers of Ph.D. trainees were significantly produced, what would that do to the productivity (in terms of papers published, for example) of the PI's lab? What effect would that have on the PI's ability to win funding and secure tenure?

The parts of the system are all connected to each other. A change that has a positive effect on one thing won't necessarily have a positive effect on all the parts of the system, at least not right away.

Teitelbaum also has a lot to say about mismatches between the NIH funding available and the scale of research facilities and staffing involved in NIH-funded research. I'm going to leave discussion of that problem, and of Teitelbaum's tentative solutions, to the bloggers who focus on such matters.

As far as dealing with mismatch of perceived supply and actual demand in the STEM labor pool, here's the demographer's recommendation:

[R]ather than pushing students toward Ph.D.'s -- which are geared for those pursuing academic research careers -- Teitelbaum touted the effectiveness of professional science master's (PSM) degrees for science professionals with business and innovation skills, which more closely match what many employers are looking for from graduates in STEM fields. So far, he said there were 117 such programs in the United States at over 60 universities in 25 states.

"I would say the progress is real, but these are still new and fragile degrees, and the Sloan Foundation's goal is to make this degree a normal part of U.S. higher education," he said.

My guess is that PSMs, like most master's degrees, will cost the student money. (In the U.S., anyway, most STEM Ph.D. students have their tuition costs paid by graduate fellowships, while STEM master's degrees are usually a revenue stream for universities.) This might put off the newly graduated and broke from pursuing a PSM, but if there were a high probability of a well-paid position at the other end, this path might be more appealing than the lower-debt Ph.D. with a smaller probability of a permanent STEM position at the other end.

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I haven't been involved in academic hiring for some ten years, but have talked with colleagues about it. The problem with hiring PhD's for tenure track positions are several fold. First, the university may want to be more "flexable and efficient" by hiring call staff into non-tenure lines. Secondly, the search may not find anyone the department really wants to hire. Thirdly, if good people are found, the university may not be able to afford them in terms of salary, start-up costs, etc.

We had only MS programs in biology and environmental acience. Our MS students were very successful, and I was glad we did not have a PhD program.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 17 Sep 2008 #permalink

Much like farmers who complain that they can't find enough laborers to pick their crops (implicit in this is the phrase "at the pay they are willing to offer"), so is there a shortage of PH.Ds. When I read about the need for more Ph.D.s, I replace the Ph.D with "highly educated employees who we can overwork and underpay" because that is where the complaint really lies. Post-docs are treated as highly-educated indentured labourers. Their pay nowhere near approximates a fair wage for an individual with that level of education, training and/or technical sophistication. One of the Profs in my former department had a copy of the Demotivator "Achievement" on his office door. It has a picture of the pyramids of Giza and states: "ACHIEVEMENT You can do anything you set your mind to when you have vision, determination, and an endless supply of expendable labor."

The job market doesn't value the Ph.D to any great extent and this is reflected in the minimal pay differential offered Ph.Ds when compared to MSc.s or even BSc.s. The number of underemployed Ph.Ds out there is huge, these are the people no longer working in their field because they couldn't afford to live at the salaries provided for a post-doc long enough to build up the paper trail needed to get fair-paying work in their field. One of the great wastes in our society is the money spent to train people in these specialties only to have that training go to waste as these former students are forced to seek employment in fields where there expertise is not used.

Bill, my memory is not good enough for me to give you a really satisfactory answer. Some went on to PhD, or professional programs, law, MD, Vet. Most went into appropriate jobs. Our biology MS program would periodically come under attack from the Graduate School because we did not have a core curriculum. We kept up with our graduates and defended ourselves with a list of all our graduates, since the program started in 1968, and their current activities. To this day we do not have a core curriculum.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 17 Sep 2008 #permalink

I'm skeptical that grad students are so cost-effective for research productivity. Although grad students don't make much, someone has to fund the classes they take, and my impression is that grad students are much less productive than more experienced and expensive personnel such as post-docs, senior lab techs, and research programmers. Does anyone have quantitative data on this?

I think the biggest risk of discouraging young people from choosing science careers is not creationism or new age woo-woo but rather truly informing them of the reality of the job market when they have qualified. I do realise we are constantly told that you should try for a science career if you are interested in money but most young students take this to mean 'high salary' rather than 'any salary at all'.
Morgan, where I work grad students cost about a third the equivalent cost of a post-doc.
Most of us in research would be quite content with the prospect of the equivalent salary and career stability of jobs with much less training.
Bill Gates must look at the job market in scientific research with extreme envy. Its the ideal situation for an employer - huge numbers of highly skilled workers willing to accept low wages on very short contracts with no hope of long term job security and with no prospect of unionization since getting a reputation as a 'difficult' worker will kill your future prospects dead.

I think it would be hard to get people to attend graduate school if the pay when you get out is low and the jobs uncertain - people do it in lots of fields, but in far lower numbers, and probably not enough to sustain research at the current levels. Even drawing from elsewhere, without jobs here, the numbers of researchers will eventually fall here, and the people who would come from elsewhere will likely go to schools there instead. I am cynical enough to believe that the "we need scientists" hype is designed to artificially increase the labor pool (beyond what the actual number of jobs present would justify), keeping research coming and wages low. In the absence of the research pool, we would probably have a hard time sustaining any advantage in science, but it's hard to expect people to go into fields with not so many jobs at disproportionate wages and with large upfront costs (and to lose the knowledge and capacities of people on whose skills so much money was spent).

Saying that people can't find workers (with the implication of "at what they are willing to pay") seems apt to me. The market depends on flexibility in prices and wages - but if that flexibility in wages only occurs when it lowers wages (because if wages increase too much, workers will simply be drawn from elsewhere), then the economy becomes a very large game of three-card monte in which we have no choice but to play.