Sunday, May 15, 2011

Growing PhDs "like mushrooms"

If you have been following this blog, it comes as no surprise that I frequently worry about the state of the university system. I believe there are structural problems in the system that are a disservice to students (both at the undergraduate and graduate levels) as well as staff (particularly adjuncts and non-tenure track faculty, but also to junior tenure-track professors as well).

Recently, Nature published a series of opinion articles on the over-production of PhDs in the sciences. We are producing too many people who are apprenticed in a career path that can accommodate only a fraction of them.

As a result, we are spending longer in graduate school and in our postdocs, but the number of people passing through the needle eye to professorship is shrinking as tenure-track jobs get replaced with temporary and adjunct positions. In 1973, 55% of US biology PhDs secured tenure-track positions within six years of completing their degrees, and only 2% were in a postdoc or other untenured academic position. By 2006, only 15% were in tenured positions six years after graduating, with 18% un-tenured. This largely fits with my perception: it has been seven years since I began graduate school, and considering my incoming class,  we are evenly spread across remaining in school, having a post-doc and getting a job in industry. Not one of us currently has a tenure-track faculty position. Something must be very broken in the system for prospects to be this bleak for graduates of a top-five department.

So why doesn't the market change such that supply meets demand? Essentially, it's that the system runs on cheap graduate and postdoctoral labor. "Yet many academics are reluctant to rock the boat as long as they are rewarded with grants (which pay for cheap PhD students) and publications (produced by their cheap PhD students). So are universities, which often receive government subsidies to fill their PhD spots." In fact, faculty members who are reluctant to perpetuate this cycle are punished in grant review, writing in costs for a research scientist at $80,000 per year when others have the same work done by a postdoc at $40,000 per year.

So, how did we get here? Part of the issue has to be that more people are going to college than ever before and the university system does not properly scale to the demand. In the US in 1970, only 11% of people over the age of 25 had a bachelor's degree, but this number had climbed to 28% by 2009. So more graduate students, postdocs and adjuncts are being used to teach the courses to accommodate all of these new students. While some claim that it is just too expensive to have tenure-track faculty teaching all of these courses, one must also consider the recent trend towards massive salaries for university professors.

Actually, if anyone could explain university economics to me, I'd be grateful.

And where do we go from here? Personally, I love the suggestions made by William Deresiewicz in this fantastic article. Particularly, "The answer is to hire more professors: real ones, not academic lettuce-pickers."


  1. wow... here i thought my 6.5 years was long in engineering, but it turns out i'm about average. I'm happy with that.

    As for university economics, it seems self-explanatory to me -- teach more undergrads, whose parents have to dump 40k$/year; Hire more high-profile research faculty, whose grants pay 60% overhead to departments and what-not... Rinse. Repeat.

  2. I guess I'm bad at capitalism, but the question for me isn't so much how it works as how they can justify it. Three cheers for the free market, I guess.

  3. In my opinion, as a PhD, it is the way to let your imagination and skills and intelligence to solve questions, problems. The problem is the view that, apparently, PhDs are "supposed" to be professors. Nope. PhDs main objective is to conduct research. The only problem is that the most frequent available jobs for research are "post-doc positions", which are temporary and underpaid.

    This is what could be done to improve the situation:

    1) PhDs must realize they are expected to do research, not being professors (with all the reputation). Finish that hopless expectation. Then many students could avoid it, since not all were born to be researchers.

    2) Governments should transform the "post-doc positions" into true "Research positions".

    3) The number of PhD students in universities MUST be controlled, in the same way Medical schools limit their numbers. This should be in cooperation with governement and other institutions that create "Research Positions".

    4) Finally, salary should be according to a scale, based on parameters like many institutes already apply.

    I am a PhD in biology; I have 20 years experience since my graduation; have done many postdocs, and mostly working as research assistant/associate. It is unfair: I wish I could be a "Researcher", without having to depend/respond to some younger MD (who has happened to have a good permanent job and much higher salary than myself) and above me. Why? oh Why?