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anyone who goes into science expecting employers to clamor for their services will be deeply disappointed
July 8, 2012 9:38 AM   Subscribe

In the sciences, Ph.D. ≠ job.
posted by gerryblog (92 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite

 
Read this yesterday, and wondered how long before it got fpp'd. The system (for both science and non-science PhDs) is so broken.
posted by rtha at 9:44 AM on July 8, 2012


Rationing by Queue: The Postdoc as Breadline.
posted by gerryblog at 9:44 AM on July 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


I can't believe it took them until the bottom of page two to say this:
Since 2004, federal research spending across all agencies has stagnated relative to inflation, according to an analysis by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

There is not nearly as much money in research as there was 10 years ago.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 9:47 AM on July 8, 2012 [9 favorites]


In the sciences, Ph.D. ≠ job.
posted by pdq at 9:49 AM on July 8, 2012 [13 favorites]


<Marx> Reserve army of labour </Marx>
posted by larry_darrell at 9:50 AM on July 8, 2012 [7 favorites]


I'm not so sure the problem is the brokenness of our educational system (though many aspects of it are broken). Instead, I'd say that our social attitudes toward what education means is "broken". Any time a large group of people are disappointed by something to which they feel entitled, it suggests to me the need for a major attitude adjustment.

Go to grad school because you love it (or feel personally compelled to), not because you see it as a "career move".
posted by mondo dentro at 9:55 AM on July 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


Can't tell if in a holding pattern, or circling the drain.
posted by fatllama at 9:56 AM on July 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


Nononostopstopstop, *fingers in ears* I can't hear you!

I have a job as a TA for the next five years. Benefits, stipend. Food in my belly and enough to make rent. I don't know what happens after that. I know that I love science, I love evolution, I want to play in a lab all day, I want to write and think and poke things, and I spent way, way too long thinking that the right path was to go into teaching middle school and high school, until I realized that wanting to help little girls and boys go into careers in science if they wanted to meant shit all if I wasn't able to go into a career in science when I wanted to.

I know it's all but impossible to get the TT job, and I'll try anyway, but it's not the only path after the dissertation, and I am keeping my options open as much as possible. Yes, it's a terrible economy, and there are no jobs, and it doesn't seem good or right or even fair to spend five years getting a credential and then not having a job at the end. But... but... I get to spend five years working on a project of my own devising, exploring an idea that I think is interesting and worthwhile, and getting better at What's That Bug on AskMefi. It isn't like there's a ton of opportunity cost here -- what _else_ can I be doing with a Masters in history of science? Adjuncting? Entry-level data analysis? I should go to med school and rack up the loanses, only to lose out on Match Day?

It's a tough world out there. I get to be a scientist for at least five years, and I know exactly what my nine-year-old self would say to that. Because it's pretty much the same thing my thirty-year-old self is saying to that.
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 9:59 AM on July 8, 2012 [25 favorites]


mondo dentro, that's a terrible prescription for the future of the sciences. You're basically selecting for trustafarians and dilettantes rather than talent.
posted by gerryblog at 10:00 AM on July 8, 2012 [19 favorites]


Anecdata: I have a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience from the University of Pennsylvania, and am currently employed 1/3rd-time, mostly as a Python programmer.
posted by dmd at 10:03 AM on July 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


anyone who goes into science expecting employers to clamor for their services will be deeply disappointed

That does not quite hold true...

Anyone who goes into science* expecting to make a living either in academia or by doing "pure" research, will end up deeply disappointed.

Anyone who goes into STEM expecting to make a living by developing ideas into commercially-viable products, will have employers clamoring for their services.

Right or wrong, making a living requires someone to pay the bills. In a better economy, in a less anti-intellectual climate, in a competitive stalemate where any advance means an edge, you might find someone willing to pay for the "R" part of "R&D". But eventually, that "R" must lead to "D", which must satisfy either an absolute need or an eager market.


* Or any field, for that matter - And don't even get me started on how little our society values a "humanities" education!
posted by pla at 10:04 AM on July 8, 2012 [5 favorites]


Go to grad school because you love it (or feel personally compelled to), not because you see it as a "career move".

No. Go to grad school because you love it and because you can afford it (and you can afford it by avoiding loans for what it is most cases a $50k-plus venture).

Going to grad school only because you (think you will) love it or because you feel "compelled" by it can be a major life mistake.
posted by blucevalo at 10:11 AM on July 8, 2012 [5 favorites]


Right on, pla. I think I'm especially irked about complaints about the science academic job market because my SO is looking at the humanities academic job market. His chances are better than getting struck by lightning... but just. The last time we looked at current openings, there were 70 that I would end up being eligible for, compared to 7 for him. And at least I can always say, "I think I'm going to go into industry." [YT, Shit*Say]

And there are always agency jobs, too. If you know somebody. It's not that I'm not cynical. I'm just not giving up.
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 10:11 AM on July 8, 2012 [1 favorite]



Haas lost her six-figure job at Sanofi-Aventis in New Jersey last year. She now works one or two days a week on contract at a Philadelphia university. She dips into savings to make ends meet.

“Scads and scads and scads of people” have been cut, Haas said. “Very good chemists with PhDs from Stanford can’t find jobs.”

Largely because of drug industry cuts, the unemployment rate among chemists now stands at its highest mark in 40 years, at 4.6 percent...
4.6 percent unemployment doesn't seem that bad for the Great Recession. Is the tragedy here that these are rich, educated people who have lost their jobs? I fail to see how Haas is being anything less than melodramatic in calling 4.6 unemployment "scads and scads and scads." Sounds like she just caught a bad break.
posted by deathpanels at 10:13 AM on July 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


Any time a large group of people are disappointed by something to which they feel entitled, it suggests to me the need for a major attitude adjustment.

This is such a corrosive attitude. People who are admitted to job-training programs are not "entitled" when they are pissed off that the other side failed to hold up its end of the bargain by lying about what job opportunities would be available once the applicants finished the training.
posted by rtha at 10:16 AM on July 8, 2012 [27 favorites]


Anyone who goes into STEM expecting to make a living by developing ideas into commercially-viable products, will have employers clamoring for their services.

Really? The article seemed to suggest that the Pharmaceutical business was closing plants and moving development overseas....

The article reminded me rather depressingly of the GOP attack on the United States Geological Survey in the 90s. One Congressman notable declared that, since the purpose of the USGS was to "map the country" and the country had been mapped, we could save money by buying our maps from Rand-McNally. Naturally, he hadn't spent two minutes finding out where Rand-McNally gets their data from....

For a long time, at least in the US, companies have relied on (directly or indirectly) government supported programs to do basic research and explore avenues that are potentially amazing but not profitable in the short-run. The usual "public risk/private profit" approach. Another group of people want to cut all federal funding that doesn't feed business in the short-term. This, rather obviously, doesn't suggest a rosy future for US technological and scientific development....
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:17 AM on July 8, 2012 [8 favorites]


Did the article have a comparison with respect to employment prospects and earnings prospects between PhDs and non-PhDs, preferably by level of education that I just missed? It seems to me that advice like that from mondo dentro depends crucially on such comparisons, among other things (i.e. it might be a perfectly good career move to get more education depending on the numbers).
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 10:19 AM on July 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


I am defending my thesis next week (astronomy), and while I have a 2+1 year postdoc across the country lined up, articles like this appear every few months, and I always read them, and I always feel crappy that I decided to do this, and I always feel like maybe it's my own fault, and maybe I shouldn't whine because the rest of the country has it far worse right now, but then I get frustrated because I thought we lived in America, and if you work hard enough at something, you can make it work. And this repeats, over and over.

Yes, I feel stupid for going to graduate school, knowing full well that the probability of getting a job on the back end was slim to none. Yes, I feel tricked by the university, which consists of professors who have no idea what it's like to try to find a job in the current jobs environment, since they either had to get jobs 30 years ago, or are the bright young ones who were fought over. What kind of advice can they give? They didn't have to try to go into an alternate career path, so they're flummoxed when one of their grad students says that maybe academia isn't for them.

So, what do we do, America? Well, we bow to the recession, and we say that this is just the job market, and the rest of the country has it way worse, and we stop giving money to the sciences because we have other more important places to spend it, and then we look back and say: "wait, why are we so behind in science and tech? What happened?"

Well, this has happened.
posted by RubixsQube at 10:24 AM on July 8, 2012 [7 favorites]


Law school, the sciences... at some point, it will be easier to just name the graduate degrees for which this kind of thing isn't the reality these days.
posted by box at 10:26 AM on July 8, 2012 [5 favorites]


GenjiandProust : Really? The article seemed to suggest that the Pharmaceutical business was closing plants and moving development overseas...

At the risk of sounding like a "no true Scotsman" argument...

The Pharmaceutical industry counts as something of a special case. They have a very low success rate, with a very high price of success, and have both a heavily subsidized and heavily regulated market in which they work. For that reason, they have historically had the luxury (and even necessity) of getting to hire the best and brightest to work on as close to "pure" research as you see outside academia.

As the article points out, however, once the "fat dumb and happy" part of that business model starts to slim down and wise up, *poof* go the dream-jobs.
posted by pla at 10:27 AM on July 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


4.6 percent unemployment doesn't seem that bad for the Great Recession. Is the tragedy here that these are rich, educated people who have lost their jobs?

These are people with probably the most broadly marketable skillsets. If they are scrambling for jobs, then what of everyone else? Employment is also a bad statistic, how many have jobs making good use of the investment in the skills they have, or are they pushing out other people down the line for jobs?

Ph.D 2009 (Geometry)... unemployed.


For a long time, at least in the US, companies have relied on (directly or indirectly) government supported programs to do basic research and explore avenues that are potentially amazing but not profitable in the short-run. The usual "public risk/private profit" approach. Another group of people want to cut all federal funding that doesn't feed business in the short-term. This, rather obviously, doesn't suggest a rosy future for US technological and scientific development....


this.
posted by ennui.bz at 10:28 AM on July 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Who the fuck pays for a PhD in the hard sciences?

For the benefit of any undergrads who might be reading this thread,

DON'T PAY FOR A PH.D. IN THE SCIENCES. DON'T DO IT, THERE IS NEVER A GOOD REASON TO, NEVER, AND PLEASE TELL ANYONE WHO SAYS OTHERWISE TO KISS YOUR YOUNG AND STILL FINANCIALLY VIABLE ASS

If you ever get an letter from an institution offering you a PhD, but not enough funding for BOTH tuition and a plausibly livable stipend, that is not an acceptance letter it is an advertisement, and the product is shitty. In addition to driving yourself into unsustainable debt you will be an exploited stooge, and while people might feel sorry for you, no one respects an exploited stooge. An adviser who is desperate enough to take their failure to thrive out of the asses of their graduate students is an adviser who does not give a shit about you and a department that is craven enough to do the same also does not give a shit about you. A science PhD without funding is a lot more pain, but it will also inevitably result in a lot less reward. Not all PhDs are created equal and an adviser who cannot get their shit together enough to pay you will be an adviser who is not taken seriously by their colleagues, cannot be reasonably expected to help you publish in a significant way, or train you in a viable skill set, much less help you prepare a career more successful than their own.

A PhD you have to pay for is a trap, don't fall for it.
posted by Blasdelb at 10:29 AM on July 8, 2012 [56 favorites]


I should go to med school and rack up the loanses, only to lose out on Match Day?

Given what I've seen, a 95% match rate is too high. They don't mention this, but there are also spots which go un-matched and a post-match 'scramble' to connect the two.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 10:30 AM on July 8, 2012


This is exactly why I haven't gone to grad school (in molecular biology). I have a far more secure job market without an advanced degree. Staying *out* of graduate school is my career move.

And to answer JL's question, I've chosen job security over salary or advancement potential - because as a mere BS, I will never be able to move any higher than lab or facility manager. I'll never be able to truly conduct my own experiments. And the postdocs doing pretty much the same work as I am (at my tiny startup) are paid far, far more money than I am. At least $20K more. But there will always be a PI who doesn't want to do his own experiments, who's too high and mighty to do a miniprep, so there will be jobs (errr...as long as there are still grants, heh heh....).

In my opinion, academic institutions need to suck it up and start hiring BS and MS level people at competitive salaries (and it doesn't need to be *that* competitive since a lot of people would prefer to stay in academia) to do their lab work instead of relying on graduate students. They need to cut the number of PhDs they produce and increase the difficulty of obtaining them. But that costs money, so it will never happen.
posted by maryr at 10:32 AM on July 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm going to remember this post the next time we all start beating up on the Humanities.
posted by bleep at 10:33 AM on July 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


Who the fuck pays for a PhD in the hard sciences?

I paid for my Ph.D. with exactly one species of money: time. The sciences treat graduate school as essentially an internship (with stipend even!) instead of as an entry level job. Then X number of years and they get to replace you with someone young and fresh and here's a piece of paper with Ph.D. on it and good luck, Dr.

It's part and parcel with all the other temp jobs and internships out there.
posted by ennui.bz at 10:34 AM on July 8, 2012 [8 favorites]


box : Law school, the sciences... at some point, it will be easier to just name the graduate degrees for which this kind of thing isn't the reality these days.

In fairness, I think a lot of the problem comes from the expectation RubixQube expressed, "I get frustrated because I thought we lived in America, and if you work hard enough at something, you can make it work".

Put bluntly, we have too many people going to college just so they can qualify for what amounts to a low-skilled office job. Any time you see a job posting that says "degree required" without specifying what degree, you see a shining example of nothing more or less than "qualifications inflation".

50 years ago, a PhD did guarantee you a job, because it meant something. It marked you as one of the best and brightest our world had to offer, not quite one-in-a-million but certainly not a dime-a-dozen. It meant if a university or elite government org didn't recruit you, the likes of IBM or Bell Labs would give you just about anything you asked for to come work for them. And today? I work with two PhDs in a totally old-school office environment, doing work only vaguely related to their education for the simple reason that they decided food and shelter didn't count as a luxury beneath their once-noble ideals; meanwhile, plain ol' four-year degrees have become a dime-a-dozen. It means nothing but satisfying a check-box in the first round of interviews with HR.
posted by pla at 10:36 AM on July 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


Also, to some extent, I think the sciences may need to accept that we need some people to retain "code monkey" level jobs. Yes, I run a lot of minipreps. Yes, I'm smart enough to do something else with my time. But it pays the bills and someone's got to do it. At least they pay me for it.
posted by maryr at 10:37 AM on July 8, 2012


The sentiment that "too many people" are getting whatever degree is up for discussion (BA/MA/PhD/JD) makes me a tad uncomfortable. It carries a distinct stink of "fuck you, I've got mine!". Do we really yearn for the days when the rise to the top was limited to the privileged and lucky? Not that it still isn't, but it used to be much worse.

Education should be treated as a public good and service. It should be funded through taxes on the rich and especially a stiff estate tax because it is the single greatest way for those in the lower brackets to have a chance at the top. Those who have benefited from these systems should pay into it to ensure that their children have to fight as hard as they did.

Hard work only means something if wealth doesn't automatically concentrate at the top. And no matter what anyone says, fewer people getting secondary or tertiary education means that those who already have it can kick the ladder out when they're done.
posted by Hollywood Upstairs Medical College at 10:53 AM on July 8, 2012 [9 favorites]


I hope, in general, we're starting to steer away from the idea that going to university = job, let alone a Ph.D.

In the U.S., enrolment in universities between 2000-2009 was up 33% and post-graduate enrolment increased 32.6% during that time.

Job creation during that same period was only 4.1% and has dipped since then. In pure numbers, there were 5 million more university enrolments and 9 million jobs created...many of which do not require a university education, or require specialized (like health care, which was around 55% of total job creation in that period of time) skills that don't transfer from other degrees.

I understand that people want a career in something they really enjoy, but I think that the fantasy that people were ever able to do that on a grand scale was a fantasy. My great grandfather died at 48 because he was a coal mine rescuer and got the black lung. My grandfather worked in a lobster canning factory his whole life because that is how he put food on the table. My dad worked in a bank, then for government, and is trapped in a job forever because his education won't allow him to move any further up. They all had progressively more education than the last, and ended up making a living in a largely uninspiring job.

My generation seems to think that more education = better jobs, not realizing that the majority of jobs are in service industries that are largely menial, repetitive or process-oriented. Creative, research type jobs have always been rare, and the number of people training for them is expanding at a silly rate.

Right now, unless someone is willing to pay for your graduate studies (for the reason of your long-term growth with the organization), you shouldn't be going to graduate school. I know that's a bitter pill to swallow, but in the end, it's going to save a lot of people a lot of pain and suffering, both during and after school. Those students who are so exceptional that someone will pay for them to be trained more would be better suited for the market, I think.

If you look at trends in job creation, and the explosive advancement of BRIC economies and their capabilities, you should realize that there really is no scenario in the future where research jobs will be plentiful at a wage that makes paying for graduate school a good financial decision. There are more and more domestic and international applicants ready and able to do the work and many of them will do it for less than you can to survive. That should be a giant red flag for anyone thinking about paying for school right now, as even ten years of steady job growth will be hard pressed to absorb the cost.

My advice to anyone coming out of high school right now is to consider a trade or a job in health with a significant less burden on your financial situation.

It should be funded through taxes on the rich and especially a stiff estate tax because it is the single greatest way for those in the lower brackets to have a chance at the top. Those who have benefited from these systems should pay into it to ensure that their children have to fight as hard as they did.

That'll take the burden of paying for school away, but will actually make the job market worse. We have too many trained graduates for jobs right now which is why so many are unemployed. Why should it be easier to get into these fields if the problem is getting a job? What will happen is wages will drop because there will be way more applicants for every position and companies can find someone more desperate than you to work at a lower wage.
posted by Rodrigo Lamaitre at 10:58 AM on July 8, 2012 [5 favorites]


Salaries for university post-doc jobs start at about $39,000, according to the National Postdoctoral Association. They require a science PhD — which can leave the recipient buried in debt.

As has been said above, if you go into debt getting a phd (in any field, but especially in the sciences), you are doing it wrong. The PhD should come with full funding, adequate to live on at a modest grad-student level, or you shouldn't go. It's seriously that simple.

That said, the article is really about what happens after grad school. Great, you followed my advice, you got the degree with no debt... what now?

And honestly, this is just one more manifestation of the reality that we can have low taxes, or we can have nice things (like productive research programs that employ smart people and produce things that improve all of our lives). You can't have both. We have gone a long way down the low tax path, and I'd say that all available evidence points to the fact that it isn't working out all that well.
posted by Forktine at 11:04 AM on July 8, 2012 [10 favorites]


I don't understand why we're ok with the fact that the "majority of jobs are in service industries that are largely menial, repetitive or process-oriented" and that "Creative, research type jobs have always been rare". This seems like the natural and sad result of late stage capitalism.
posted by RubixsQube at 11:04 AM on July 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


Well, shucks, we should've seen our future in the modern day peasantry. Shame on us for trying!
posted by Hollywood Upstairs Medical College at 11:07 AM on July 8, 2012 [12 favorites]


Just because most of the jobs out there are menial low-paying service jobs where you eat a lot of shit, don't ever make enough money to get ahead, and are tossed to the curb like garbage if you get sick or if the boss doesn't like your face, doesn't mean that we should just fucking accept that and resign ourselves to it.

The education system may be broken in this country (at all levels) but we need educated citizens if we are ever going to make positive changes happen. It's a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for creating a better, more humane, more just society. We shouldn't be cutting back on higher education, we should be trying to find more meaningful things for highly-educated people to do.

This seems obvious to me. The solution is less clear, but what's becoming clear is that we can no longer count on the government to subsidize programs that create meaningful work for an educated citizenry and we can't count on industry to see educated professionals as anything more than more expensive versions of their lower-paid counterparts pushing brooms and manning registers down the line. We need to create a system that we control, one that works for its members, is self-sustaining, and has humane principles and farsighted goals baked into its fundamental framework. What that might be I do not know, but it's something that I feel is worth thinking about.
posted by Scientist at 11:20 AM on July 8, 2012 [9 favorites]


I don't understand why we're ok with the fact that the "majority of jobs are in service industries that are largely menial, repetitive or process-oriented" and that "Creative, research type jobs have always been rare". This seems like the natural and sad result of late stage capitalism.

I think it's the reality that our competitive advantage over the rest of the world is ending. I am one of the economists who don't see a rosy scenario where the U.S.' comparatively rich lifestyle continues to grow for many...because historically, it's come at the expense of a world who's getting a lot smarter, better educated, and who is killing the U.S. on cost of production, research, everything.

I think this is the beginning of a slow move towards a centered standard of living that's a lot closer to China or India than it is to the U.S. Those countries have an elite who are filthy rich and a large number of people who are poor or quite close to it.

My advice is to take fewer huge financial risks, enter job markets that are safer. You can train for more later if things get rosier, but right now, research markets are saturated and getting into them is financially treacherous.
posted by Rodrigo Lamaitre at 11:20 AM on July 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Hollywood Upstairs Medical College : Do we really yearn for the days when the rise to the top was limited to the privileged and lucky?

You took that the wrong way, and I apologize if my phrasing came off like that.

I don't think we should discourage anyone from trying for a degree, nor should we price it outside the range of most people. I think getting a degree should simply separate the wheat from the chaff through sheer difficulty. Put bluntly, you can pass most undergrad classes without even opening the book. The "hard" ones merely require reading the synopses at the end of every chapter. That does not count as education, whatever paperwork it may come with at the end of putting in your X years.


RubixsQube : I don't understand why we're ok with the fact that the "majority of jobs are in service industries that are largely menial, repetitive or process-oriented" and that "Creative, research type jobs have always been rare".

We don't need to feel "ok" with it - The real world just works that way. Everyone wants to grow up to work as a sports hero or astronaut or rockstar or brain surgeon; The world only needs a small number of those "dream jobs", though, and in many cases, only extreme talent and a good dose of luck will land you one.

Everyone else still needs to put food on their tables, however, and the world needs ditch-diggers. We don't need to like it any more than we like getting old and dying; They just happen, and we have no control over it.
posted by pla at 11:21 AM on July 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


An easy, quick fix (but far from permanent or thorough) is to reinstate the mandatory retirement age (65, 67?) for tenured professors. I've visited several schools and this is probably the thing most post docs and PhD students are shouting louder than anything else.
posted by Slackermagee at 11:26 AM on July 8, 2012


Won't it be fun when they're 67?
posted by maryr at 11:29 AM on July 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


Sorry, that was sarcastic of me. Yes, that would help some, but then we're just supporting those guys on pension forever. Getting rid of professors emeritus who do nothing but not-even-occupy a chair is part of a solution, but if anything America's going to need raise its retirement age overall.
posted by maryr at 11:31 AM on July 8, 2012


An easy, quick fix (but far from permanent or thorough) is to reinstate the mandatory retirement age (65, 67?) for tenured professors. I've visited several schools and this is probably the thing most post docs and PhD students are shouting louder than anything else.

This isn't actually the problem, though -- it's that universities aren't replacing retiring faculty, much less expanding to match increased enrollments. Two or three tenure lines become one, with the rest of the classes made up by adjuncts, postdocs, and grad students.
posted by gerryblog at 11:32 AM on July 8, 2012 [10 favorites]


Blasdelb is right. Those fields in demand, with current funding, and a reasonable short- to medium-term prospect for funding have money for graduate students. Not a sure thing, though, but a better bet than others where you might have to come up with the funds yourself.

A PhD can still be an entree. When research dollars were cut by the Nixon administration in the early 70s, I lateraled from my Biochemistry PhD to medical school. There is work out there and I've done it - post-doc, clinical fellow, junior faculty, non-tenured instructor, and lab assistant (er, "research associate") in the biotech industry. You won't get rich but it's a living and still interesting.

My son is a graduate engineer and there's lots of jobs for persons with advanced engineering training in industry and academia - at better pay than life/biomedical sciences.
posted by sudogeek at 11:34 AM on July 8, 2012


All of these educational decisions are first made by young people with very incomplete information.

By the time you get out of your Ph.D., you're suffering the impact of decisions you made when you were too young to know any better, you've dug yourself into some level of debt to work off, and you're feeling too old to unmake any of those decisions.

'Buyer beware' is the last thing people in that situation need to hear, because they are well aware now.

How could they have known years ago how things would be?

These people have three options:

A. skilled work in their (a) field of competence
B. unskilled labor
C. re-training into another field in higher demand.

A isn't there, B won't pay your bills, and C could conceivably start this cycle all over again.

Something's got to give.
posted by edguardo at 11:35 AM on July 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


As for everyone crying "realism!": education is not a free market, it's a social good, with budgets set by direct and indirect public investment. We really could just decide to spend more money on knowledge production instead of bombs and prisons. We could do this any time we want.
posted by gerryblog at 11:37 AM on July 8, 2012 [13 favorites]


This is a great discussion covering a lot of perspectives on a deep social issue. On some of the numbers, if you took just the wealth of the Walton Family you could buy seven CERNs with a bit to spare. If I were an unemployeed scientist, I would consider applying my skills with others to make it a mission to turn that one family on to science.

Regarding an estate tax, if you took the Walton wad and distributed it evenly to the US population, everyone would get around $300 bucks. Even if you throw in the whole 1% (and you are not going to be able to tax them 100% without them moving to the Carribean), there does seem to be a supply (the more the better) and demand (only a small portion of any given population gets to play - i.e. US Universities and sciences do lead lives similar to India's Brahmin class if you word replace 'spirit' with 'science'). Sure, science comes up with great stuff. Sure, an educated population is great. But accepting that you may not make your income playing at a CERN seems a reasonable and not wholly horrible fate to be o.k. with. Everyone can be 'scientific' without being a high priest. And life as a Kshatiyas (governing/warriors), Vaishyas (commerce people) or Shudra (baseline services). I suspect that, like the human body, there is a certain natural ratio between such 'cell types' (not everyone gets to be a neuron I guess). Hmm... only if I had pursued my Ph.D.!
posted by astrobiophysican at 11:39 AM on July 8, 2012


woops - second to last sentence on life as non-high priests in my above post should have ended with "isn't so bad."
posted by astrobiophysican at 11:42 AM on July 8, 2012


I've said it before and I'll say it again; I'm so very glad I took my phd in physics and walked right away from the land of research and academia.
posted by Shutter at 11:56 AM on July 8, 2012


Slackermagee: "An easy, quick fix (but far from permanent or thorough) is to reinstate the mandatory retirement age (65, 67?) for tenured professors. I've visited several schools and this is probably the thing most post docs and PhD students are shouting louder than anything else."

I suspect this would end up as well as just about every simple solution to a complex problem does. The median age of full professors in the United States is currently just north of 55, doing this would lead to a massive shock to the system.
posted by Blasdelb at 11:57 AM on July 8, 2012


gerryblog: You're basically selecting for trustafarians and dilettantes rather than talent.

People who are attracted to something because it is their passion are dilletantes? Not in my experience. Couldn't disagree more.

rtha: People who are admitted to job-training programs are not "entitled"...

Wow. So graduate school in, say, physics is a job training program?

I don't deny that universities are complicit in sustaining the delusion that universities are job training programs. One can argue that they should be job training programs, but that is a radical transformation of what universities actually are. Job training is technical school. Don't forget what the letters Ph.D. actually stand for.
posted by mondo dentro at 11:58 AM on July 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


All of these educational decisions are first made by young people with very incomplete information.


Young person with very incomplete information who is about to go to university here. Coming from a life very short life split between two very rural small towns, I find it absurd that I'm expected to have any inkling what I want or need to do with my life. My high school offered like, four science classes, ok? I hardly even know what my options are, let alone anything about them.
posted by Gymnopedist at 12:00 PM on July 8, 2012 [11 favorites]


Wow. So graduate school in, say, physics is a job training program?

Yes? At least in part, it is training for being a physicist, and also possibly a teacher of physics. That's certainly not its only function, unlike med school or law school, but yes, it's still training for a job.
posted by rtha at 12:04 PM on July 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


People who are attracted to something because it is their passion are dilletantes?

No, but a person who pursues a PhD (a 5-10 year, full-time commitment with huge opportunity costs in earnings during those years) for reasons other than employment probably is one.
posted by gerryblog at 12:05 PM on July 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


This seems like the natural and sad result of late stage capitalism.

Where does cutting-edge automation (both mechanical and software) fit into Marxist analysis?

I think this is the beginning of a slow move towards a centered standard of living that's a lot closer to China or India than it is to the U.S. Those countries have an elite who are filthy rich and a large number of people who are poor or quite close to it.

Every time I see these topics I wonder if the future is that there will be more and more emigration from the West into the BRIC nations. Already we have the case of lots of Portuguese resettling in Brazil, Angola, and Mozambique where the job market is better.
posted by Apocryphon at 12:07 PM on July 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


pla, no need for apologies!

Essentially what the frustration boils down to is that saying we have too many degree-holders is treating our labor market like it has a supply problem instead of a demand problem. We aren't really asking "why aren't we creating these jobs?", what we are asking people to do is reconsider getting their degrees so they can work in "lower-tier" jobs.

There isn't anything wrong with low-paying service jobs that don't require a degree, except that wages are stagnant and benefits shrinking faster than any other group. Wage growth for high school graduates and dropouts is far below even the menial gains of college graduates. Telling more people to leave college behind isn't going to make the wage situation better. It is not a good option. The government could make it a good option by making it easier to unionize, bolstering the minimum wage, but it doesn't right now.

So we're left with this: do nothing, and your wages will likely be low and permanent. Or do you take the gamble for the chance that they won't? This is the choice our generation has been faced with, and those of us that could chose the gamble. So yes, it's a hard path. And not everyone will make it...but when debt-holding graduates are blamed for their own stupidity, what is it besides telling these folks to stay down where they came from?

So if the money hasn't gone to the rest of us, and it can't go to the rest of us because there are "too many of us", where has it gone? Not to derail, but most issues of economics and class in America these days can be linked to the runaway growth of inequality. Those scruffy Occupiers might not have had demands, and might not have had political power, but they had the frustration.

This isn't to say that I'm totally right. It may just be that not everyone can play with the sciences at the priest level, as astrobiophysician says. But shouldn't we get the sporting chance to try?

I didn't get my degree in economics or the hard sciences, so I can't tell you what's wrong specifically with the PhD market, but I do work as a cog in our political campaign system, studying our voters, so I attack this problem through the prism that I have. And problems like this are intractable, and voters as a whole have contradictory and sometimes plain uninformed opinions on what to do. That's why we have a representative democracy, because people are too busy leading their own lives to know the intricate details of every issue. They send people who, supposedly, know better.

This is the world that they see: stagnant, falling wages, and it's not up to them to fix the systemic sickness of our nation's economy. What they want is their kids to have a shot, and that means getting as much education as possible. Of course parents will tell their kids to take the gamble! What else do they know? They don't want to give up that easily.

Time was that most in power were in agreement that science is a good thing. Is it any wonder this has happened together with the ascent of a party that views science with deep suspicion? This is failure, failure of the people we've entrusted.

But it goes beyond science. There's systemic sickness standing in the way of our dreams.

Do you want to change the nation's attitudes so that fewer people fight for their degrees, and shift their values away from high-paying, high-benefit dream jobs that they view education as a gateway for to simply surviving? Or do you want to change the nation's economy so that these jobs are being created because we've churned out more and more people capable of them?

It's an intractable choice, but I don't think an attitudinal shift is going to happen. The percentage of people that want a better future for their kids isn't going to fall, and a better future requires a degree whether they like it or not. I'd rather change our economy.
posted by Hollywood Upstairs Medical College at 12:11 PM on July 8, 2012 [10 favorites]


And one last note...astrobiophysician, it is correct to note that the estate tax alone won't fund higher education. However, as the proportion of public money going to universities shrinks, certain rich people have been tapped to make up for the difference. I don't think that's a better system, a system funded by taxes would still be vastly superior to begging donors for what are supposed to be public institutions. Otherwise, you get rich folks who think they know better wreaking total havoc at UVA....
posted by Hollywood Upstairs Medical College at 12:17 PM on July 8, 2012


rtha: At least in part, it is training for being a physicist, and also possibly a teacher of physics...

There seems seems to be a strong semantic difference between us. Sure, in the most general sense Socrates had a "job" of being a philosopher. But that's not something that I think of as a job, normally. I think of a job as something that you can tolerate doing that pays your rent. I think of training for a job as starting primarily with identifying a job market, and then getting the education needed to be a salaried employee in said market. But anyone who tries to do that with academia (or professional sports, or professional orchestras, or similar) should know that they have a high risk of failure.

gerryblog: ...a person who pursues a PhD... for reasons other than employment probably is [a dilletante].

Again, we seem to have a strong semantic disagreement. The relationship between "piling it higher and deeper" and "being a dilletante" is at best oxymoronic, the way I think of it, no matter how you get there. It is far more common to hear people criticize grad school by saying the opposite, that one becomes insufficiently general (i.e., not enough of a "dilletante").
posted by mondo dentro at 12:36 PM on July 8, 2012


This isn't actually the problem, though -- it's that universities aren't replacing retiring faculty, much less expanding to match increased enrollments. Two or three tenure lines become one, with the rest of the classes made up by adjuncts, postdocs, and grad students.

This needs to be repeated again and again. When someone retires the position is frequently lost because: low pay = profit! Plus there's another push back against long-term planning in favour of quick, flashy fixes that promise huge economic rewards for little money. And having less secure long term staff means that the administrators and boards have more and more power. There's also a sense that if you can have 2 star faculty that will push up your ratings more than a solid number of good faculty doing diverse things, not all of which are trendy or marketable research.

Plus the sentiments that inspire dragging all workers down to lowest common denominator apply here too: there's a huge push against ensuring any security of tenure or benefits for anyone. Mix this up with an increasing distrust of any sort of expertise, and especially scientific expertise, both on the left and the right (I just read an article railing against credentialing using doctors as their prime example of its evils) and you get a toxic mix that means that cutting funding and programmes even with an obvious social good attached is hailed as a triumph for the common man. And not just by tea partiers.

(I'm not saying that higher education should not be reformed, but it should not be reformed primarily on the principle of low cost solutions being automatically the right solutions.)
posted by lesbiassparrow at 12:37 PM on July 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


The percentage of people that want a better future for their kids isn't going to fall, and a better future requires a degree whether they like it or not.

But it doesn't, necessarily, especially when looking at the choices of the individual.

What you're talking about wide-spread, economic change, something that will take many years to get right. We didn't get here because one government or another did things wrong; we got here because systematically, there has not been the investment in research & development, innovation or creativity that might've provided the kind of jobs that graduates are looking for. Those kind of problems aren't going to be solved in a year, or even five years, meaning current graduates will hit a stagnated job market with tons of underemployed people in it.

In the meantime, do you really think it's a good idea for people to crowd into job markets, taking on huge debt on the way, when there isn't any sign of hope on the horizon? I think a number of those thinking about a Ph.D right now should think about something else until there is a sign that major dollars in research are being committed, because there is ten years worth of data suggesting that it's not a priority right now for governments or business.

An anecdote: a guy from my group of friends in high school went to college, became a pipe-fitter, and went to Western Canada at the age of 21. After an apprenticeship, he was making six-figures a year, owns his own home, and despite the recession has a lot of money socked away for the day the oil boom runs out.

A second friend did two years of university and got into a pharmacy bachelor's degree program, graduated at 25, and started making $80k+ as a pharmacist. She had her school paid for by pharmacies who were crying for people. She's incredibly well-off now and can pick where and when she wants to work, and to some degree, what she makes. She picked it because she was smart enough to do whatever she wanted and she saw a crazy job market where students had all the power.

Another girl from my group of friends is in her last year of her partially-funded Ph.D in gender studies (she thinks), is well over six-figures in debt and has a really bleak outlook on what she's going to do post-graduate. She's been getting experience as an early-education teacher, as many of her previous graduates ended up there. They work with people who have one year's worth of education. She's wicked smart but has little to nowhere to apply her skills.

Parents should see these things and caution their kids that there's no equation where more education = better future. I agree entirely that we need to adjust the way we steer our economy, but in the meantime, people need to make better decisions based on the information we have today.
posted by Rodrigo Lamaitre at 12:41 PM on July 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


The second definition of "dilettante" is "a person with an amateur interest in the arts." That's the sense I mean to invoke in reply to"Go to grad school because you love it (or feel personally compelled to), not because you see it as a "career move."
posted by gerryblog at 12:42 PM on July 8, 2012


I don't deny that universities are complicit in sustaining the delusion that universities are job training programs. One can argue that they should be job training programs, but that is a radical transformation of what universities actually are.

To be clear, I think the trend toward treating undergrad as purely job-training is stupid and wrong and bad, and reinforces our (by which I mean American, specifically) anti-intellectualism. We've had threads here where lots of people are all "You jerks who majored in English or History in college deserve to have no job because you're not trained in anything unlike SMART ME who got a degree in something USEFUL and so neener neener".

Generally speaking, though, graduate programs - especially PhD programs, especially in the hard sciences - must have a decent component of "here's how to do this kind of science" to them. It's not like CERN can just hire someone with a degree in Classics to run its machines or interpret the data they gather. The NIH should not hire history-major me to design experiments or set up labs. I don't see what's so surprising (or wrong) with acknowledging that getting a PhD in physics is where you learn to do stuff that physicists do.

On preview: But that's not something that I think of as a job, normally. I think of a job as something that you can tolerate doing that pays your rent.

So what exactly would you call the work done by this guy I met at a party a couple years ago who was a rocket scientist? Was that not a "job"? I mean, he called it a job. The word can certainly have negative connotations, but it's not required to. There's no shame in having a job.
posted by rtha at 12:42 PM on July 8, 2012


This is not necessarily a new situation. In the mid-90's, part of why I abandoned my PhD was because I saw my friends with new PhDs were unable to get hired. While most of them have jobs now (nearly twenty years later) they all spent decades as temporary hires, sabbatical replacements and in jobs that were in states and schools that they never would have chosen to live in (for example, my feminist friend who spent a year at school somewhere to the right of Bob Jones University).

The thing with all upper degrees is that they're not a magic ticket to a research or academic job. Frankly, nothing is. You have to have a mixture of intelligence, good luck, connections, timing, and a hundred other things. Even when you've checked off every box you can think of, there's going to be somebody who has checked off one more box (or, painfully, one less box) and it a better fit for any given job than you.

I'm not saying don't get a PhD - I am saying get it because you want to get it, not because you think its going to open up the gates of heaven to you.
posted by Joey Michaels at 12:46 PM on July 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


“It was quite scary,” said Darey, who this year finally landed another chemist position, at DuPont in Belle, W. Va. “I was watching my bank balance dwindle away, wondering when I’d have to sell the house.”

This is happening to millions of people in the US and other parts of the world right now. This is a huge and systemic problem.

And some people would have us believe that this is just the way the market is! It's certainly not anyone's fault. Just the natural state of things. Nothing can be done about it. The problem with this line of thinking is that our governments could be doing things to improve peoples' lives, but they simply don't. The US government could invest more in research and employ thousands more academics in comfortable, productive, middle-class positions, but they just aren't doing it. There's no countervailing market force that is preventing the government from funding this sort of thing, it is just not a priority. People are not a priority.

I mean, we're in the middle of election season right now, and the Republican candidate is the guy who said (in public!) that corporations are people! This is patently insane! Are we too far gone ideologically to notice that this sentiment, and all the immense economic pain and social disintegration that reflects its worldview, is utter propaganda? And our "Democratic" president is scarcely better!

We have real economic problems. But our political problems, namely the infiltration of government by big international business, is the biggest thing standing between Americans and the life that we deserve. That's right, we deserve it.

See, the oligo-plutocrats have played a great rhetorical game. They've taken the reasonable complaint of entitlement as a bourgeois mindset and applied it to modern life as a whole: now expecting that you deserve anything is described self-righteously as "entitled". Well, you know what? I am entitled to a middle class life. Because if I don't think I deserve one, Romney and his disgusting ilk are more than happy to take everything, financially. If we don't stand up for what we deserve, it will be taken from us mercilessly at the modern equivalent of the point of a sword.

Guess who ends up with nothing? The people who are afraid and ashamed to take what is owed to them. Guess who ends up with everything? The people who take, and take, and take, until someone else stops them. The universities, state and local governments, public institutions in general are under attack. That remark that Grover Norquist famously made about drowning government in a bathtub? This is what it looks like. They said exactly what they wanted to do and they (and by they I also mean the Democratic party, which more and more is merely a slowed-down version of the Republican agenda) are in the process of doing it right now.

None of this is inevitable. The greatest success of corporatist propaganda is that people are beginning to believe that the choices of the powerful constitute the natural order of the world. There is no better way they can succeed in taking everything from everyone else than by convincing us that there is no system, that everything happening is natural and merely the embodiment of the impersonal and undirected forces of the market. Nothing could be further from the truth.
posted by clockzero at 12:48 PM on July 8, 2012 [15 favorites]


I think of a job as something that you can tolerate doing that pays your rent. I think of training for a job as starting primarily with identifying a job market, and then getting the education needed to be a salaried employee in said market.

At least in the pharmaceutical industry - which may be stagnating as per the article, but is nevertheless a large and legitimate job market - a Ph.D. (and, increasingly, a postdoc) is necessary to advance, and even to get hired. A quick look at the job postings for Merck in the USA shows that close to half of the posted positions require a Ph.D (and a Ph.D. is preferred for many that only require a masters or bachelors). So at least in the industry I'm most familiar with, a Ph.D. is absolutely a job training credential.
posted by en forme de poire at 1:08 PM on July 8, 2012


rtha: Generally speaking, though, graduate programs - especially PhD programs, especially in the hard sciences - must have a decent component of "here's how to do this kind of science" to them.

Of course. And MFA programs have a strong component of "here is how you do this kind of art". And the minor leagues have a strong component of "this is how you play this sport". That doesn't make them job training programs, since there are simply not that many openings at the high levels needed to actually support oneself. And, as

An actual job training program should include the expectation that there is a high probability of actually getting a job in the trained-for field. Graduate school has never really held that promise. The problem is the wide-spread belief that these activities at the tippy-top of Maslow's hierarchy "should" correspond to a sufficiently large job market to absorb all of the people being run through the programs.
posted by mondo dentro at 1:08 PM on July 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Sorry for the dangling "And, as" there...
posted by mondo dentro at 1:09 PM on July 8, 2012


The University is pumping out science PhD's for money - not for the love of science.
posted by Flood at 1:14 PM on July 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


en forme de poire: So at least in the industry I'm most familiar with, a Ph.D. is absolutely a job training credential.

OK, but again I'm arguing that "job training" assumes "job placement". Sure, a Ph.D. in pharmacology (say) is required for the pharmaceutical industry. And advanced musical training is required to be a first violinist.

For every opening in the pharmaceutical industry, how many applicants are there? If the ratio of applicants to openings is not too high (say on the order of magnitude of 1 or 10), then I'd agree that in that industry it's job training. In academia in general it's on the order of 100s to 1. And many random factors influence the result--it's not just "merit".
posted by mondo dentro at 1:15 PM on July 8, 2012


In the sciences, Ph.D. does not equal academic job. This has been discussed many times.
posted by Existential Dread at 1:38 PM on July 8, 2012


In academia in general it's on the order of 100s to 1.

To grossly overgeneralize, there's no crisis in the academic job market at the top end. Meaning, if you are a great student coming out of a top program and with a supportive adviser, you will get a job. It might not be your dream job teaching at Harvard, but it will be a job and you will not starve. (And, because you went to a top program where you received full funding, the only student loans you have are from undergrad and can be repaid on an academic salary.) Yes, an open position might bring in 300 applicants, but those aren't 300 good applicants; bringing it down to a short list of 20 to look at closely is not a massive endeavor.

However, there is a huge crisis in the academic job market below the top end. A lot of programs in a lot of fields have been admitting huge numbers of students at the same time that the job market has contracted. There aren't tenure-track jobs for all or even most of those students, but often they don't figure this out (or work on a Plan B) until it is too late.

There's a bottom tier of doctoral students (and a bottom tier of graduate programs) that just shouldn't be there, and there's a top tier who are doing fine. What's shitty is that there is a huge, solid, and perfectly adequate middle tier of doctoral students who are getting shafted because our tax dollars go to Halliburton instead of funding basic research in the arts and sciences, and because universities have converted gazillions of tenure track lines into adjunct positions. Some of this academics have done to themselves, but a lot of it represents the big structural decisions we have made about cutting taxes, cutting employment protections, and cutting services at a national level. There's nothing a single field, or even universities as a whole, can do to reverse those choices -- that means demanding (and electing politicians who will provide) higher taxes, better services, and less capture by the ultra-rich.
posted by Forktine at 1:43 PM on July 8, 2012 [15 favorites]


Of course. And MFA programs have a strong component of "here is how you do this kind of art". And the minor leagues have a strong component of "this is how you play this sport". That doesn't make them job training programs, since there are simply not that many openings at the high levels needed to actually support oneself.

Job training is for low-level positions, I'd venture. You need to train someone via a short-term program to operate machinery or perform skilled physical tasks. Gaining an advanced education in chemistry or anthropology is so far above job training in terms of the concentration of expertise and knowledge that they're essentially incommensurable. Which I think we probably could agree on.

An actual job training program should include the expectation that there is a high probability of actually getting a job in the trained-for field. Graduate school has never really held that promise.

That's because when someone attends graduate school, they're being prepared to do work that comprises experimentation, research, and other advanced forms of human endeavor. They're being prepared to advance human knowledge and understanding. We've defunded education at every level in the US over the past few decades, so there aren't as many good positions for people with advanced degrees as there should be, but that's a political problem, it's the result of taking resources away.

Graduate school, as part of a social schema in which the extremely significant place of research and specialized expertise is honored, can be expected to hold that promise, because what we really understand about the world is still vanishingly small in comparison to the questions we're still asking. For people who work hard and are serious about pursuing greater knowledge in their field, graduate school absolutely has held that promise, but the promise has been undermined by forces that desire for everyone to be at the mercy of business and profit above all else.

The problem is the wide-spread belief that these activities at the tippy-top of Maslow's hierarchy "should" correspond to a sufficiently large job market to absorb all of the people being run through the programs.

No, the problem is that the sane, laudable, and necessary assumptions underlying that belief have been attacked ferociously and without remission by people who stand to benefit financially from it. If you're going to state that the market "can't handle" all these people with advanced educations, that there simply isn't any place for them, please explain why the market awards outlandish salaries to administrators. You can't pretend that the market is divorced from formal policy and the concerted efforts of the economically powerful classes to take as much as they can get at the expense of everyone else; that's a canard of ideology which spuriously naturalizes the choices and processes that harm those who work while finding guiltless and uninvolved those who can give themselves ever-bigger paychecks while eliminating positions and denying others the opportunity to advance or even survive.
posted by clockzero at 2:14 PM on July 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


There's also something weird about saying that unemployment of chemists and biologists in pharma is due to an oversupply of PhDs. An oversupply relative to what? As recently as a decade ago, this dramatic oversupply didn't exist (see link below), so what changed?

Part of the problem, I think, is that it is getting harder and harder to develop new drugs - for reasons that are not just economic but also scientific:
“We probably have already cleared out a lot of the so-called low-hanging fruit,” says Derek Lowe, author of the pharma industry blog In the Pipeline. [...]

“Everyone’s frantically trying to come up with something because of course the rewards of finding a good drug that meets an unmet medical need … are tremendous still,” Lowe says. But, right now, “no one really knows how to increase the number of clinical successes.” All we really know how to do is to "cut costs on the other end,” he says.
I think the fact that bio/chem PhDs can't get jobs is actually a symptom of something much more troubling, which is that the fundamental approaches we have for drug development are themselves stagnating. And I strongly suspect this has something to do with the fact that we (at least in the USA) just aren't funding biomedical research like we used to - not just translational research but also basic research.

So blaming trainees for this crisis (or blaming the NIH for funding them) doesn't make sense to me: the glut of unemployed bio/chem PhDs was not caused by people idealistically getting useless degrees or making individual bad economic decisions. I certainly don't see how a current PhD student could have been expected to foresee the current contraction in pharma. Instead, I see the cause being more that the industries that used to absorb these PhDs are increasingly struggling for fundamental, scientific reasons, and the problem is being compounded by false economies like allocating less money to basic research. The grads are just the canaries in these particular coal mines.
posted by en forme de poire at 2:21 PM on July 8, 2012 [8 favorites]


I'd like to propose an alternate way of looking at this problem. Just recently we discussed The Ph.D. Grind in which the author describes years of post-master's degree work at Stanford laboring towards a Ph.D. I think it's pretty clear that several of those years were effectively wasted in that they did not serve the (theoretical) purpose of getting a doctorate, which is to learn how to do research in your field. I'm in a similar boat having had about five years worth of doctorate work rendered useless by departmental politics, and I bet that we're far from alone.

Much of the agony here is due to the fact that so many department effectively require the labors of Hercules to get the fucking degree. If it takes you the better part of a decade to get a doctorate then it's perfectly reasonable to expect the reward to be worth it and to be seriously pissed off when it isn't, or if the entire thing is net-negative.

Not everybody who gets a science or engineering doctorate is going to get a research job, and certainly not a tenure track academic job, and I suspect that situation isn't going to change for the foreseeable future. The degree still has value, however, just like a BS or MS. So how do we make the effort to get the degree in line with its value?

I would propose that academic departments look inward and consider what they've done to themselves and their students and try to improve the situation. As with lower-level degrees, have a well-defined process to teach research skills. Evaluate student's progress by reasonable, objective criteria. Eliminate secretive and subjective evaluations. Have programs in which most people can finish with two years of full-time work.

Given that a person is coming into a program with a master's degree, two years does not seem to be an unreasonable length of time to teach research skills. If you're paying some or all of your tuition and living expenses, it helps keep the cost reasonable. It keeps the opportunity cost of being out of the workforce more reasonable as well. It increases the number of well education people, which can't be a bad thing for society. It helps everybody, with the exception of departments who thrive on exploiting grad students and are unwilling to reform themselves.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 3:04 PM on July 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


When I talk to my children (both of who are contemplating advanced degrees), as when I talk to students doing the same, I emphasize the potentially poor correspondence between having said degree and any eventual job. Of course, it depends on the field, but in general it is very important that people understand what they're getting into. This apparently comes across as callous to some here, but for me it is an ethical obligation to point this out, and then talk it over with the potential student, to help them clarify their motivations. My view is that it is a very rare situation in which it is worth it to get a grad degree if one is thinking in a purely bottom line fashion. Hence my argument that grad school is not a job training program--or, if it is a job training program, it is a very bad one.

A substantial portion of the problem can be attributed to the steady commercialization of research, which creates a direct and unambiguous pressure on faculty, particularly in science and engineering. It's no longer really "publish or perish". It's "fund raise or perish". The publishing is merely part of the process by which one can guarantee a steady stream of funding. In this situation, the number of grad students must keep pace with the research dollars (at roughly $50K per supported student--about half of which is taken as overhead by the university), not with the job market. This contributes to the large mismatch between new PhDs and job openings. And the commercialization has other, more insidious effects, such as the undermining of curricula across the board, since available courses now tend to be treated like consumer items in which the "good" courses get more "customers", and those without sufficient customers are dropped--and don't think this just happens for "boutique" courses; it can be difficult to run foundational courses in hard science and math fields because they aren't fashionable.
posted by mondo dentro at 3:15 PM on July 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Ok, seriously, is anyone making money? Outside the financial sector, I mean.
posted by elwoodwiles at 3:21 PM on July 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


Ok, seriously, is anyone making money? Outside the financial sector, I mean.

Here in Canada we also have tar sands and gold mining. Strangling puppies and killing kittens with hammers are also growth sectors. But those entitled whiners in Quebec want the government to pay for their degrees in feminist basket-weaving when trade schools cost only $6K/year and apprentice head-crushers make up to $80K in the kitten patch out west.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 4:26 PM on July 8, 2012 [6 favorites]


It seems to me that we have a very incomplete picture of the numbers. In this report (pdf) from the Census Bureau, you can see that only 1.2% of the 200 million people over the age of 25 in the U.S. have a doctorate (I assume that includes EdDs, DMAs, and ThDs, but does it include MDs, DDSs, DMDs, etc.?). That percentage is not very different across age groups -- except for the youngest group, which has fewer.

I can't find numbers for how many professors there are in the U.S. or for what percentage of them have doctorates, let alone PhDs. Very sketchy back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest to me that the number of tenured or tenure track professors in the U.S. is somewhere between a third and a half of the number of PhDs. (I assumed ~4 million people employed by universities, based on a report here and assumed ~15-20% of those are tenured or tenure-track, based on the employment breakdown at my own university, which you can see here -- about 4/5ths of the way down the page.) But I would love to see some careful numbers on that.

That only gives us some of the academic employment numbers, since it does not include visiting faculty or adjuncts. And that doesn't count the private sector at all. I looked a very little bit for private sector numbers but came up empty.

While thinking about this stuff, you might also consider some numbers about the economic payoff of education and field of training (pdf). From that document, you see that the percentage of the population with a doctorate has grown from 0.5% in 1984 to 1.1% in 2009. (And again, it's not clear what "doctorate" means here, but it is probably including more than just PhDs.) You also see that professional degrees have the best expected payouts. But doctorates still tend to make more money than everybody who doesn't have a professional degree.

I still need to chew on the numbers for a while, but one thing is clear: There is no easy answer here.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 4:29 PM on July 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Go to grad school because you love it (or feel personally compelled to), not because you see it as a 'career move'."

I understand what is being said here, but ... this is actually just as toxic an attitude as getting a degree for "the money", in the long run.

Both the sciences and the arts tend to be rife with the notion that it's OK if you make endless sacrifices because you loooooooove what you're doing sooooooo much. You're not there for the money, right? You're there for the looooooove. So maybe your job eats up 80 hours a week or requires you to move 4 times in a few years or in general asks you to sacrifice your health or your relationships or your other pursuits or even your personality on the altar of staying in the field but that's OK because you looooooooove it so, right?

Well ... screw that attitude, honestly. These are still jobs, and if you are being asked to work 80 hours a week to stay in the field, you are being exploited. Period. You should know that you're being exploited, and fight against being exploited where you can, because at the end of the day this is still work and your life is more than just your work.

Now, it's true that lots of people accept conditions that should frankly be unacceptable as the price of something they want enough. OK. What bugs me about the "only do it for the love" attitude is that it encourages a mentality where too many people DO NOT EVEN KNOW that they are being asked something unacceptable. Work 80 hours a week? Good golly, well, I should *want* to work 80 hours a week, right? Because I looooooove this field so. We all do, right?

And then on those inevitable weeks when you don't, you think ...

What's wrong with me?

Am I not cut out for this?

Do I not love it enough?

Why is everyone else able to do this cheerfully and I'm not?

Is this not what I'm meant for? Have I been wasting my life?

Because what no one tells you is that loving your job is great. But unreasonable working hours still suck. For everyone.

So yeah, absolutely, if you're going into a hard field with limited employment opportunities, there should probably be some love there. But you should also at the same time recognize that it is a career like any other, and if you do not realize that, you will be both exploited and made to feel like it is your own fault by those who do.
posted by kyrademon at 4:34 PM on July 8, 2012 [19 favorites]


My view is that it is a very rare situation in which it is worth it to get a grad degree if one is thinking in a purely bottom line fashion. Hence my argument that grad school is not a job training program--or, if it is a job training program, it is a very bad one.

What field are you in? I ask because I think the situation was/is very different for biologists and chemists, the main subjects of this article - for these groups, a PhD at least used to be a good job training program for pharma and biotech, hardly niche industries. Often the type of work performed during the PhD directly prepared you for both academic and industrial careers, and industrial jobs (if not academic jobs) were not insanely difficult to get. One main point of the article is that this landscape has really been reconfigured over the last decade or so.

I know less about the situation for, e.g., physics and math, but my read is that for those academic fields, there are far fewer industries that allow you to do work similar to your PhD training, and many fewer jobs for which a PhD is required. (Ironically, though, unemployment for physics PhDs is much smaller than for, e.g., chemists - possibly in part because physics PhDs tend to still be popular in the financial sector.)
posted by en forme de poire at 4:47 PM on July 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Ok, seriously, is anyone making money? Outside the financial sector, I mean.

Go to the Bureau of Labour Statistics and pull a cross-section of the employment growth and wage data. Computer and mathematical, health professions and management were the predominantly high-wage jobs that have grown in the past 4 years. Business and financial are actually down in terms of pure employment.
posted by Rodrigo Lamaitre at 5:12 PM on July 8, 2012


1. In this economy, nothing guarantees a job.
2. Fix funding at the NSF. Not all research can be applied to industry, nor should it all be.
3. It is amoral for departments to accept students who they cannot fully fund to graduate programs. Nobody should be expected to be a department's cash cow (terminal MA programs, I'm looking at you).
posted by ChuraChura at 5:28 PM on July 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


Work 80 hours a week? Good golly, well, I should *want* to work 80 hours a week, right? Because I looooooove this field so. We all do, right?....And then on those inevitable weeks when you don't, you think ...

What's wrong with me?

Am I not cut out for this?

Do I not love it enough?

Why is everyone else able to do this cheerfully and I'm not?

Is this not what I'm meant for? Have I been wasting my life?

Because what no one tells you is that loving your job is great. But unreasonable working hours still suck. For everyone.



Great post. You speak from experience. Of topic, but this is what I hated about working as a cook in the restaurant industry. They expect you to be incredibly appreciative for working like a dog and being expected to work off-the-clock, because you should love what you're doing. Complaining is a sign of ungratefulness, and you should just get out of the field because you don't know you have the best job in the world. The notion of "doing it for the love" is often an manipulative excuse for chefs to be abusive.
posted by savvysearch at 5:37 PM on July 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also, speaking as someone from the science industry, if grad school is worthless, then what's a BS degree?
posted by savvysearch at 5:46 PM on July 8, 2012


An identical article showed up for me in about '93. 20 year low in chemistry employment... why, exactly, are we trying to get more people?

In the end, without the stream of cheap grad labor, the whole pyramid falls down. No more cheap adjuncts. Professors that can make demands for tenure and raises actually stick.

And so the lies: Full employment! High wages! The sky's the limit! (I'm looking at you, American Chemical Society.) And the parade of those who are, rightly, pissed off.

My only question at this point is, what makes the pyramid come down?
posted by underflow at 6:22 PM on July 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Nobody should be expected to be a department's cash cow (terminal MA programs, I'm looking at you).

I don't see anything wrong with a department offering a professional masters degree -- something that is a credential for employment, offers real-world skills, and raises the salaries and employment prospects of the graduates. The department needs to be honest about post-degree salaries and employment, and prospective students need to be realistic about their math. ("Hmm. I would be taking on $80,000 in debt and my salary will go up about $25 every month. Does this make sense?")

But I've known a couple of people who have done (and read a bunch of questions on AskMe about) self-funded masters degrees with the hope of improving their chances of getting into a phd program. Taking on that kind of expense just to have a better chance of doing a doctorate that already has a poor chance of paying off seriously makes no sense. (Even more so because, to be brutally honest, a student who needs to do a self-funded masters to look better as a phd applicant is probably not going to be in the top tier of academic job applicants once they are on the market.)

Those programs and the promises (or, for full deniability, the hints of promises) that they make strike me as totally unethical. I mean, I guess the people involved are all adults, and they can legally take on six figures of debt for a worthless degree just like they can legally drink themselves sick and legally have unprotected sex with a stranger... but legal doesn't equate to a good idea.
posted by Forktine at 6:42 PM on July 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


This post really resonated with me. As a Ph.D. chemist and long-term veteran of the pharmaceutical industry, it feels like a punch in the gut to read the end of the article:

Haas said of her daughter. “She loves chemistry, loves math. I tell her, ‘Don’t go into science.’ I’ve made that very clear to her.”

I've said the same myself about my son many times lately, and it hurts me deeply to think that something I enjoyed doing so much has become such a challenging way to make a living.

I and most of my colleagues, including this guy, did not get into research for the money. The compensation is good, but there are other ways to become prosperous. I did it for reasons that are not easy to articulate, but I suppose you could call it love. I love asking questions, I love looking for patterns in data, and I love science.

But - just because it's something you love, doesn't make it easy to do over the long term. Or a wise career move.

Unfortunately, the trend that is highlighted in the article has hit way too many people in pharma, who are very intelligent and talented, now wondering how they will make ends meet. Sounds like she just caught a bad break? That might have been the case with the first wave of layoffs. But with 300,000 people laid off in pharma since the trouble started, there's plenty of bad luck to go around. I've seen many excellent scientists shown the door in the last ten years, and it's hard to believe that them's the breaks.

Research in an industrial setting is incredibly challenging, and can wear one down over the years. What we do is hard, even without the soul crushing context of massive layoffs, and the moments that make it worthwhile are elusive and fleeting. In the best of circumstances, a medicinal chemist has about a 10% chance of contributing to the discovery of a marketed drug in their entire career. But at this point? It's been enough to make many reconsider their choice before they are forced to, and get out.

Sadly, there isn't a need for more scientists and certainly not any more medicinal chemists, which is tough on so many levels. For those who are currently studying for advanced degrees and passionate about science, it's hard to believe all that work may not lead to a career doing something they love. And for those who are currently working in the field, it's hard to believe that their hard won skills may not be so desirable after all.

Also worth a read: A response to the charge that there aren't enough scientists.
posted by Otherwise at 6:57 PM on July 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


Speaking from the tenured side of the fence: Anyone who thinks the degree itself is the goal is being stupid. This applies to every degree, but in particular to PhDs.

A PhD is necessary to get a tenure-track faculty job, but it is absolutely not sufficient, and it has not been for several decades. Other things that are necessary (but still not sufficient) are publications, strong recommendations, and luck. To be more specific: highly visible and well-cited publications, strong recommendations from well-known intellectual leaders, and a metric ass-load of luck. All of those things are much shorter supply than PhDs. (See Forktine's comment about 300 applicants per position, only 20 of whom are actually good.)

This is an extension of the standard advice "Do not go to graduate school on your own dime." — Do not join any PhD program who does not brag about the success of their PhDs. How many hold tenure-track positions five years out? How many have tenure? How many have founded successful companies? In short, how many of them are successful intellectual leaders? If they won't tell you—or worse, can't tell you—run.
posted by erniepan at 7:33 PM on July 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


Work 80 hours a week? Good golly, well, I should *want* to work 80 hours a week, right? Because I looooooove this field so. We all do, right?....And then on those inevitable weeks when you don't, you think ...

There's a difference between pursuing what you love and being a rube.

You should go after a PhD, in my opinion, because you want a PhD and not because you think its going to get you your dream job. It might get you the job, but it might not.

You should not take a job that is abusive, even if its in a field you love.

There's an important difference between doing what you love and being taking advantage of, even if the people taking advantage of you are that special breed of well meaning sociopath who genuinely think they're doing you a favor by employing you in your chosen field.
posted by Joey Michaels at 10:44 PM on July 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


One big factor: Since 2004, federal research spending across all agencies has stagnated relative to inflation, according to an analysis by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

That analysis suggests that federal R&D investment has for the most part flat-lined in recent years, with the exception of a greater allocation of available funds towards weapon systems development. Meanwhile other countries have been increasing their nondefense R&D investment.

The money is flowing towards smart bombs instead of smart people, which is stupid. Rock-paper-scissors! Smart bombs can kill smart people, but only smart people can make smart bombs.
posted by twoleftfeet at 4:44 AM on July 9, 2012


Education should be treated as a public good and service. It should be funded through taxes on the rich

Actually, you can't specify that certain kinds of government spending are funded by certain kinds of taxes. That tax revenue is all fungible. If you want the spending to happen, fine — but admit that it comes from taxes on the middle class and poor as well as the rich.

Also, look up "public good." It doesn't just mean something that's good and publicly funded.
posted by John Cohen at 4:45 AM on July 9, 2012


ChuraChura: "3. It is amoral for departments to accept students who they cannot fully fund to graduate programs. Nobody should be expected to be a department's cash cow (terminal MA programs, I'm looking at you)."

Masters with funding that covers BOTH tuition and a plausibly livable stipend from either teaching or research can be a great thing for all sorts of reasons. I certainly want there to be more science teachers, science administrators, science button pushers, science lawyers, and science public policy people with a proper masters in something sciencey. But a masters you have to pay for? That "acceptance' letter is an advertisement that in extremely limited circumstances could maybe be worth it, but whomever you are reading this, they probably arn't yours.
posted by Blasdelb at 6:36 AM on July 9, 2012


Right - sorry. I should have made this clearer as I agree with both Bladsdelb and Forktine. Terminal MAs are important where you're seeking them as a mandatory step for a job like teaching or policy. But in a lot of cases, MA programs are not worth the serious outlay of cash, departments know this, and accept lots and lots of students anyway.
posted by ChuraChura at 7:51 AM on July 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


If you can handle the work load involved in getting a PHD in the hard sciences from a decent program you should be able to get a job for life doing sciences. We as a society should foot the bill based on the probabalistic likelihood that you will advance human understanding in a way that is useful at the margin. One of the many problems with capitalism is that it rewards people not to the extent to which they generate value but to the extent to which value can be captured. A greater understanding of the way the world works is only valuable to the extent that it is secret. Science does not work well with this. Capitalism rewards walls and not gardens.
posted by I Foody at 10:10 AM on July 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


Blasdelb : Masters with funding that covers BOTH tuition and a plausibly livable stipend from either teaching or research can be a great thing for all sorts of reasons.

I suspect a lot of Masters programs also cater to people mid-career who have their employer paying for it. I currently have started such a course of studies myself.

And if I can get my employer to "accidentally" subsidize higher education - Hey, I can sleep at night knowing that. :)
posted by pla at 5:36 PM on July 9, 2012


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