Are there too many PhDs?

Ever hear of Douglas Prasher? Probably not. He just missed out on this past year’s Nobel in chemistry. That’s not unusual, as many scientists never even come close to a Nobel. What is unusual, is that Dr. Prasher works at a car dealership, not in a lab. Despite doing the critical research on discovering GFP that became the work for last year’s Nobel Prize, he was unable to find grant money and a job to continue his work.

Prasher’s story is what concerns me with science, engineering, math, and technology. In the U.S., we are constantly hearing about how the country is falling behind in science. We need more scientists to fill all of those jobs we want to create. And the cure to that is to fund more PhD programs! Yet, when you ask graduate students and postdoctoral scholars what their individual experiences are, a science career is a very tough road with low pay and few career prospects. It’s such a tough path that an entire PhD comic strip was born to alleviate the situation with laughter. Why then, is there such a disconnect?

As a friend of mine, who has worked for two decades in both academia and industry, recently put it, “it’s a Ponzi scheme” (name withheld to protect his job). Large corporations and universities need a lot of workers to meet their objectives. While conspiracy theories abound over biopharma lobbying the government for more PhDs with the secret ambition to lower wages, it doesn’t seem too far-fetched. Universities need grad students and postdocs to churn out the papers that bring in grant money for the professors. While that is a well-established tradition going on for more than a century, what is different now is how we are attracting students into science careers. With tuition paid-in-full PhD programs and benefits as a graduate student, many who would normally not enter science are lured in. Reality usually hits after the second year, in which qualification exams to continue in the programs are taken. Only then, do students realize the road that lies ahead is dotted with pit stops leading, not to Nobel glory, but a journeyman career with salaries well below that of their friends who went into business, law, or medicine. With a PhD, a postdoc can expect to start, at most, US $42K a year in academia and $52K in industry.

More over, 45% of all recent doctorates are now taking postdoc positions prior to a faculty appointment. This contrasts with only 31% following the same path 25 years ago (see NSF). And postdoc positions are increasing in length of time as well, and are often followed by a second or even third “tour of duty.” While the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) most recent data shows an average of two years per postdoc across all disciplines, my own anecdotal experience in the life sciences shows that number is closer to four years.

In reality, more PhDs are a good thing, but should something be done to help out recent graduates and what could be done? President Obama has included just a 1.5% increase in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget for 2010, which doesn’t even make up for the lost years of keeping up with inflation under the Bush era. Obama has promised to double NIH’s budget within 10 years. Great, but how will that money be spent? The NIH budget doubled from $7.5 billion in 1990 to $15.5 billion in 1999 and has doubled again to $30 billion in 2009, yet the career path to a tenured faculty position has become a tougher pill to swallow. While more money in science is a great thing and should be increased, the data suggests that money alone is not the answer to improving the engineer/scientist quality of life. Specific policy to increase salaries would do this, but the reality of that occurring is thin at best. And as data from the NIH shows in the figure below, despite an ever growing number of PhDs and increased national budgets, there are disproportionally fewer young faculty receiving NIH grants.

NIH Grants by Age

This is a fairly dark picture that has just been described. Being somewhat of an optimist, there are some changes beginning to occur that give me hope. As usual, it is a grassroots movement that is taking the lead. In the United States, The National Postdoctoral Association was established in 2003. It has made some major accomplishments in getting the NIH, NSF, and more than 160 universities to adopt new policies. The biotech industry was born in the late 1970s, and despite visions of grand careers in science, it has largely failed to deliver. One could argue that this failure is more related to the biotech industry being a failure itself, since it was billed as the “next computer industry.” Ironically though, biotech is slowly morphing with the computer industry in the form of genomics and computational biology. And the computer industry is starting to meet science in the middle with specific programs from Google, Microsoft, IBM, and others. And of course, Mendeley is a melding of academia with computers and online tools.

Despite calls for promoting alternative careers in graduate school, in the end it is going to be a slow organic movement toward cross-disciplinary careers, perhaps with in silico technology, that improves the life of a PhD. An actionable example of this would be the Singularity University hosted at NASA Ames, which is having its inaugural class this year. The “University” part is a bit of a misnomer, as it is really just a nine-week networking event with an intense lecture schedule. And it is far too early to measure its beneficial impact. However, this may serve as inspiration for real universities to establish more practical PhD programs alongside the critical basic research type of degrees.

Curiously, science has always been more of an art than a science, and artists are often exploited. With computers, one can remove artistry, at least somewhat. If there’s one piece of advice for graduate students and postdocs, it would be to inject a bit of computational work into your career. Don’t wait for policy changes to create greater salaries, benefits and more tenured positions. While treading the same arduous path that our predoctoral or postdoctoral advisors tread has become regarded as a rite of passage, it doesn’t need to remain such. The story of one Douglas Prasher losing a Nobel is one too many.

Update – A few others have also started a discussion over on Friendfeed

To learn how Mendeley can help you publish and organize research, go here.

Jason Hoyt, PhD is on Twitter and Mendeley

19 thoughts on “Are there too many PhDs?

  1. Not necessarily one has to win the Nobel prize to be a happy person. Ultill this remains true, PhDs will continue to persist in their tough studies and enjoy life. At least they are free man. I see many PhD vacancies around the world, they can travel, they can be real citizens of the world.

  2. The answer is simple. We need more non-university research jobs either in industry or government research laboratories. Priorities need to shift. Either that, or else students should vote with their feet and go pursue other interests.

    Short of that, we will continue to see the problem worsen.

  3. Considering only academia as a place for PhD holders, the answer is certainly yes, but as Daniel pointed out above, this scope is too limited.

    Given the complexity of many a task in non-academic settings, it is not hard to imagine that experience with handling complex issues, if relevant, should be valued when hiring. Other qualifications are also important in these settings (e.g. social skills, cross-cultural competence, languages other than English and the mother tongue) but not necessarily more developed in people with than without a PhD.

  4. And selfishly I would suggest that University graduate programs consider accepting more of the older students – we know exactly what we’re getting into (as much as possible), are not going to flounder and get scared in the second year, and often times have a spouse to help with the family support so mediocre paying once graduated is usually just fine.

  5. I agree with the overall premise, but I think limiting the scope of the problem just to the sciences is problematic. People in all areas of study are probably familiar with the same issues; too many degrees, and in topics that are irrelevant in preparing researchers to contribute to their fields in any meaningful way.

    Maybe the issue is that scientific degrees have traditionally be touted as being more professionally useful than their counterparts in the humanities, so the lessening opportunities are more painful?

    Career expectations seem increasingly set by universities, who obviously have vested interests in attracting more students, more grants and more money. As the lines between businesses, governments and universities become more and more blurred, issues like this are thrown into greater focus.

    I’d recommend these editorials on the commodification of degrees too:

    http://chronicle.com/jobs/news/2009/01/2009013001c.htm
    http://www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2009/0902/0902pro1.cfm

  6. @Daniel and Daniel
    I think you two hit the point well that I was trying to get at in the last two paragraphs…namely, the promotion of alternative careers outside of academia. And the promotion needs to be more active than just saying, “Hey we support you not staying in academia” and then hosting a one-off themed panel discussion. Rather, entire new programs need to be created that solve practical problems in industry and government. Until policy catches up, we are stuck with grassroots movements.

    @anon
    Had there been more room in this post, I would have certainly had more of a discussion about the non-sciences, especially since there are many humanities types using Mendeley. Your second paragraph makes a lot of sense. Those going into humanities/non-science usually know what they are getting into, unlike the sciences.

  7. A few random thoughts:

    0. What happened to the glory of learning for learnings sake?🙂

    1. As long as grad students and postdocs are cheaper than technicians and staff scientists, trading away PhDs for 5-7-10 years is a great value proposition for PIs.

    2. Furthermore, consider that more and more nonacademic positions that used to require a PhD are being done by Masters or bachelor students. The skills I learned as a first year grad student are routinely done by high school students now.

    3. I did my postdoc at KGI, an institute promoting a Masters degree in applied life sciences [plug-plug]. The degree attempts to fuse interdisciplinary science (systems bio; comp bio; engineering) with business/entrepreneurial skills and regulatory experience. The value proposition may be debateable but these are highly flexible workers. Perhaps science PhD students should be doing the same thing. However, while the attitude remains “well if you (phd student) are a good scientist, you’ll get a tenure track position no problem” without acknowledging PhD training has nothing to do being a good PI let alone good industry worker (witness the plethora of badly run labs).

  8. I just started a PhD in Physics (yesterday) and probably wouldn’t have done it if the incentives to start weren’t so great and the economic world was booming. For me it was about stability for the next couple of years at least.

    I’m using this opportunity to do something that I love in an atmosphere which I find inspiring. The freedoms given to post grad students allow them to experiment in other areas less time consuming. For example I have just started writing a blog and am experimenting with it as a small side source of income. It’s unlikely I would have had the time or motivation to do this in some other rat race type job.

    I’m not sure yet if I see my future in pure academia, R&D or something totally different and unrelated. The fact is, taking this route gives me the options to follow plenty of career paths, plus I enjoy my subject immensely.

  9. I think to really assess the situation you need to break down the statistics by field. In some fields, post-docs function as I think they are meant to–as apprentices that will move on to a faculty or industry PI-type job. In my former field–biomedical sciences–the prospects are dim: a 4-5 year post-doc stint, often multiple post-doc tours, only to find out that the number of faculty positions out there hasn’t increased in years, maybe decades. Then you realize that you’ll be 40+ years old before your first R01 and maybe 45+ until you possibly get tenured. All the while you’re at the complete mercy of your mentor/supervisor with basically zero recourse if you find yourself in a bad situation.

    As for those that say the life of a post-doc is grand. Well, there are benefits, some of which are pointed out above. You generally have independence, and there’s plenty of intellectual stimulation there for the taking. And that’s great if you want to spend the rest of your life as a post-doc, making 45K a year, at the mercy of your adviser. If you wanted to get rich, then science was the wrong field to pick, but 45K? Seriously? If you doubled that, then you’d be talking about a pay commiserate with the amount of work involved. I did my post doc in San Francisco. 45K got you very little and certainly you could not raise a family or invest for retirement on that amount if you lived in any major city, such as SF, Boston, NYC, LA, Chicago, etc.

    But the threat of exploitation is currently way too great for biomedical postdocs. Yes, there are alternate careers, but maybe you didn’t become a scientist so you could end up in policy or business or whatever else. Currently, there is no incentive for universities to create terminal, non-tenure track bench scientist positions for the glut of post-docs out there. Until post-docs and to a lesser extend grad students decide to band together to demand more, the situation will remain bleak.

  10. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for someone with a Ph.D. is ~$80k. This number is actually slightly higher than the median salary someone with a professional degree. Further, if there’s really a glut for doctorates, then it should show up in the unemployment rate, but it’s sitting at 2.0% or half of full employment. See: http://www.calculatedriskblog.com/2009/06/unemployment-rate-and-level-of.html

    The relative low pay of post-docs indicates that there are too many doctorates applying for post-doctoral positions, and by implication, that too many people are acquiring Ph.Ds. Fundamentally, it’s a productivity problem. The number of people, in any given field, capable of making fundamental advances in human knowledge is vanishingly small. Everyone else merely tinkers with their ideas, and very little demand exists for tinkerers. Paradoxically then, you would achieve higher average post-doc salaries by reducing the inflated demand for tinkerers, i.e. funding, and forcing them to relocate to sectors of the economy with greater overall demand for their unique skills.

  11. Graduate students, post-docs, professors, and other researchers need to form a trade union, as in European countries. Trade unions are really the only way to increase salaries and prevent exploitation.

    Salaries for US graduate students should be tripled.

    Meanwhile, don’t start graduate school in the US unless you are funded by a grant that you wrote yourself.

  12. Another element of the problem here that hasn’t been mentioned yet is that grad students and postdocs are indoctrinated by their mentors to believe that any career other than a tenure track position is either a failure or ‘quitting’.

  13. It is difficult to make a case for this career path. One sets out getting a PhD through misguided intellectual lust, which evaporates if unfulfilled, leaving one with nothing but cynicism and bitterness. The issues mooted here are all quite pertinent: low pay, too much effort, several years of one’s life. However, it might all be worth it if one is making a difference, first and foremost, in intellectual terms.

    I find, as a finishing PhD student (who is too disgruntled to look for a postdoc, and is having difficulties finding a job in this ‘economy’) that most research is NOT research in my field. Again, as has been pointed out, it is one big ponzi scheme to get more and more funding at minimal cost. There are no ethics in this world, only publications, and intellectual dishonesty. Of course, things could have been different, but I think this is a fairly typical scenario. Incompetent faculty, and run of the mill paper pushing.

    Honestly, I think there is too much funding being doled out. We need to be more selective about funding programs. A PhD has to be an elitist undertaking, and should only be funded if the research is truly top notch. As a result of the contrary, the quality of the faculty is quite dilute now (as compared with, say, twenty years ago). This could also be the reason why so many ‘researchers’ can’t find jobs. Also, there is an abusive use of computing. It has been the motto of great computing scientists that one ought not to compute unless one has to. If research in engineering does not achieve anything tangible, it should be scrapped.

    In summary, this is the most natural state of affairs; a question of demand and supply, it is in the nature of things to see the PhD career path being decadent and moribund, and there will come upon us a day (like the great economic collapse of 2007) when the funding bubble bursts and we see more normal levels of production.

  14. Of course there are too many PhDs. Don’t kid yourself, this is by design. It’s almost an everyone wins scenario: professors and universities win with lots of cheap grad students earning them money and prestige, companies and the government win with the resulting surplus of PhD scientists (supply and demand, right?) and all the ordinary citizens win with all the technology that gets invented and developed on the cheap. The only people who lose are the misguided souls who enter grad school on the premise that after four years of suffering (Ha!) they will be in position to earn a decent living doing something they like and can feel proud of (how about a couple postdocs instead? you’ll get to do important science!). It wasn’t always like this. I think when I climbed into this obscene rabbit hole about a decade ago, graduating PhDs could still get a fair return for their work (at least in my field). What’s shocking is that anyone still wants to go to grad school who doesn’t need to just to get into America.

  15. It’s depressing isn’t it?

    I have a support position (technical expertise but no creative input) I acquired after 12 year of postdoc-ing that included 2 post-docs, a temporary lectureship and a research fellowship. And it’s got exactly nowhere despite raising grants (I’m a co-applicant don’t you know!!) and publishing over 40 papers. High impact as well – All the boxes ticked! I earn about the same as a deputy headteacher in a school, which in UK is well above your average salary but considerably less than law or medical peers.

    I must admit I’m slightly baffled as to why I bothered perserving for 15 years and just wish I’d gone teaching in a school straight after my undergraduate degree. I’d have been earning 3 years earlier, been in a permanent job, earned about the same and had 13 weeks a year off for my trouble.

    I sound bitter, but I’m not. I’m just embaressed that my naturally optimistic nature clouded my judgement to such a degree of stupidity. Experience. You can’t buy it.

  16. I’m glad I didn’t take my PhD offer. I’ve been in industry for 3 years now and I prefer the working pace. However, the fact that every new headcount at my company has a PhD does have me worried that I’ll soon be considered under-educated.

  17. There are a lot of good and thoughtful posts here. I am prompted to comment after Praveen’s comments rang some bells for me.

    This a topic near and dear to me, having persisted for twenty years in a career in the chemical industry. I would like to add my perspective to the mix, for what it is worth.

    I am glad I got my PhD. It is one of my most cherished possessions. Like many of you, I went into graduate school with very idealistic motivations about higher learning. I was not disappointed. When I talk about a cherished possession, I am not speaking of my diploma, but of how the process changed me. I have also studied martial arts for many years, and that experience provides an apt analogy to graduate school. In the martial art tradition, the master guides the student to a higher level of understanding. With all the discussion of inept faculty, my statement is that many of the professors I met had dedicated their lives to their work and were true masters of their dicipline. And, while they were sometimes very hard on me (at times to the point of humiliation), in the end, they were all willing to teach me if I remained a sincere student. I did a post-doc with a person whom I admire and considered a caring mentor. I am proud of them and I am proud of my own accomplishments, even if they were not as brilliant as others that worked around me. In the end, I was able to accomplish something that would not have been possible without the guidance of these teachers (as eccentric as they may have been at times).

    Praveen posts that a PhD should be an elite undertaking. I feel that my experience was just that. Furthermore, if 20 years of working in industry with people with a broad spectrum of backgrounds has taught me anything, it is that I am part of an elite group. It is not possible to make generalizations which hold for all cases. There are always exceptions to every rule or statement. But, I have rarely met someone without this higher level of training, who can perform as well as myself in such a broad range of endeavors. Those rare individuals have been present at every company I have worked at, but they are definitely the exception. Some things can only be gained by “climbing into the rabbit hole” as Sad Dr. says, above. A PhD program forces you to do this (at least mine did). Some people will do it on their own, but most won’t.

    I have enjoyed the edge that my training gives me, and I believe I enjoy my work more because of it too. I firmly believe that I have a greater capacity to experience a “lust for learning” that Praveen mentions, and I refuse to accept that it is misguided, irregardless of the financial consequences of paths chosen.

    That is my 2cents. Thanks for listening.

    Take care, all.

  18. I think to really assess the situation you need to break down the statistics by field. In some fields, post-docs function as I think they are meant to–as apprentices that will move on to a faculty or industry PI-type job. In my former field–biomedical sciences–the prospects are dim: a 4-5 year post-doc stint, often multiple post-doc tours, only to find out that the number of faculty positions out there hasn’t increased in years, maybe decades. Then you realize that you’ll be 40+ years old before your first R01 and maybe 45+ until you possibly get tenured. All the while you’re at the complete mercy of your mentor/supervisor with basically zero recourse if you find yourself in a bad situation.

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